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Selling slapstick by cellphone
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-05-16 14:08

There was a survey that showed a high percentage of young Americans got their daily dose of news from late-night talk shows such as "Late Night with David Letterman." This was quite a shock to media experts.

China does not have an equivalent television show that offers satirized versions of news stories. But a growing population is getting their daily screenful of jokes from their cellular phones. As a matter of fact, the screen of the cellphone, small as it is, is turning into a battleground where some of China's emerging creative talents duke it out to attract public attention, reap a nice profit, and, in the process, "make 'em laugh" as Donald O'Connor would sing.

Fifth medium

Pundits call short message services (SMS) "the fifth medium," presumably after print, radio, television and the Internet.

Cheng Mei, a professor of journalism at Renmin University of China, calls it an exaggeration, but there is no denying that this is fast becoming a unique yet vital tool for communication.

A survey in February revealed that an average SMS user sends 14.9 messages and receives 15.5 every week.

In aggregate, as many as 150-200 billion short messages were sent last year throughout the nation, making up about half of the world's total. This was up from 1 billion in 2000, 18.9 billion in 2001 and 90 billion in 2002.

The exponential growth was further accentuated by special occasions, such as the annual Spring Festival and last year's SARS (severe acute respiratory syndromes) outbreak, when a torrent of greetings jammed the airwaves, causing intermittent deadlocks.

For example, China Mobile alone sent 7.8 billion messages during the big holiday from Chinese New Year eve to the seventh day when the holiday ended.

With the average charge of 10 cents for each message sent, last year telecom and Internet firms racked up a neat 15-20 billion yuan (US$1.8-2.4 billion) in total revenue. Since much of the cost is sunk in fixed assets, this has added a great deal to their bottom lines.

There is no sign that the trend is slowing down. There are about 200 million cellphone users and 80 million Internet users in the country. About 20 per cent of the SMS business comes from the Internet. For portal sites like Sina, Sohu and Netease, about one-third of their revenue is generated from this business.

So, what are SMS users getting through their forever changing but always trendy cellphones - besides news snippets, weather reports, stock quotes and all the "How are you" salutations and remembrances?

To be precise, 51 per cent of respondents cited jokes as the most common SMS content in a recent survey. Not bad at all as a separate category. Compare it with greetings at 66 per cent, random chatting at 60 per cent and talking serious business at 59 per cent.

Young people are crazy about SMS communication. As many as 95 per cent of this demographic group prefer it to any other means. That makes thumb-tip pressing almost a fashion statement. An elderly gentleman sighs: "I've only recently learned to surf the Net and use email, and the young crowd have already moved to a new platform."

SMS scribes

The abundance of SMS output is leading to a lot of redundancy. So many people forward their favourite messages by group mail that one may receive the same messages several times. "I got some 200 New Year greetings, many of them identical," recalls a Fudan University student surnamed Zeng.

"I got a sore thumb from deleting all of them. In the end, Happy New Year sounded totally cliched and insincere."

Li, a 20-something who works at a multinational firm in Shanghai, offers his explanation: "People are busier nowadays.

The scope of communication is broadening, yet our time is getting more precious. That's why we need expressions that are fast, short yet with a personal touch."

That is where commercial production of SMS comes into play. Like Hallmark Cards, Inc, some telecom and Internet firms in China have hired professional writers to churn out more polished messages that fit a variety of moods and occasions.

It is estimated that Beijing has over 100 short message writers, the highest number of wordsmiths for this particular purpose, and Shanghai has about half of that.

Some of them are full-time employees, but most are "special contributors" who are paid by how much they can write and how popular their messages turn out to be.

For example, anyone can join Sohu's short message scribe club. After paying 2.5 yuan, or 30 US cents, to register, one gets a personal code and can post his or her contributions.

Whenever a message is "bought," the writer gets a quarter of the proceeds, presumably 2.5 RMB cents on average. Multiply 2.5 cents by thousands and you've got a pretty well-paid job going.

Some companies have designed very complicated pay scales, with the writer's take varying according to different brackets of user popularity for each message. Overall, media experts put the monthly income of a full-time short message writer at 4,000-5,000 yuan (US$483-604). Some star writers earn much more because their compositions tend to attract the highest number of customers.

Well-paid job

Su Renyu works for Guangzhou-based Tom.com as a short message scribbler. His biggest dream is to produce messages that are so catchy that they are turned into slogans for the masses.

The 28-year-old has worked on his craft for two years. Some of his earlier pieces have become sort of classics, such as this lottery winning notice: "Congratulations on winning our grand prize. Please pick it up at a bank near you. And please don't forget to bring your gun and your mask."

Su says the main strengths required in a short message writer are a strong sense of humour and an acute awareness of trends. In terms of writing style, brevity is not only the soul of wit, but an absolute must.

The maximum number of Chinese characters for one message is 70. "Actually 60 is the optimum length," said Su. Readers have little patience for thumbing down several screens before they get to the punchline.

This is like asking Dave Barry to write in haiku style.

While many professional short message writers complain about the lack of copyright protection, as their creations are often plagiarized by other firms, Su is quite philosophical about it.

"A good message is a product of collective wisdom. It goes through constant refining when it whizzes from one person to another. There can be infinite variations."

In a mad pursuit of originality, some people have resorted to adult-themed witticisms.

Since this kind of content is not allowed in any other medium, the cellphone screen, with its private viewing, has become an ideal platform to get provocative and even "down and dirty."

The real threat, however, is scams shrouded in award notices and other enticements. Harassment and commercial spamming are other kinds of things that people hate about SMS.

"SMS should bring benefit to the society, not harm it," comments Guan Xinping, professor of sociology at Nankai University. "It should respect an individual's privacy.

So, a short message writer must have a sense of responsibility when producing messages for public consumption." There are media reports of laws and regulations in the drafting stage that will set some standards for this profession.

But people also caution that the unique creativity in the area must not be stifled in the process.

Quick. We need an equivalent of "Don't throw out the baby with the bath water."

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