Interview with Zafka Zhang

Zafka Zhang (from 56minus1 on Flickr)

This interview is re-published on Danwei from 56minus1.

Zafka Zhang (张安定) is the co-founder of China Youthology, a boutique consultancy that works on consumer insights for marketing, communications, and product design targeting Chinese youth. He is also the head of research at HiPiHi (a leading Chinese virtual world platform), a lead adviser for the Association of Virtual Worlds (global industry association), a project member with Creative Commons in China, and a bona fide expert on Chinese subcultures, music, art, and digital marketing.

56minus1: Sean Leow, CEO of, once told me you are the most knowledgeable person on virtual worlds in China. Can you give us a brief overview of the virtual world space in China?
Zafka Zhang: In the past 2 years, I have heard a lot of discussion about virtual worlds (VWs) with many different definitions. My basic definition of a VW is an integrated, persistently existing world with avatars, virtual environments, and social-economic system. MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) is a classic type of VWs. Second life is a non-gaming virtual world.

Many current virtual rooms / scenes / spaces, which provide convenient, small-scale, visualized environment for chatting and social purposes are NOT VWs. For example, Google Lively and Vivaty. They are just the augmentation of the existing web services but not integrated and immersive "world."

Technically, there are 2D VWs and 3D VWs. 2D virtual worlds, especially those for kids, tweens and teens, have gained the success globally because of lower technical and user entry barriers and clear business model. In China 2D virtual worlds are still in 'infancy' stage. According to my knowledge, they are 51mole (摩尔庄园), Club Fish, Stardoll (明星派), Bobou City (抱抱城), Nami (娜娜米米), 1D, Great Dreams (宏梦星球), etc. I visit 51mole most often. I have noticed some impressive progress of 51mole both in platform performance and community development.

There are 3 types of 3D VWs. The first is VW platforms. The core competency of this type of VW is online creation and the capability to run different types of applications. Worldwide speaking, there are Second Life,OpenSim and some other open source platforms. HiPiHi (China) is the earliest of this type in China and is still in the process of technology development. The biggest challenge for this type of VW is technology and user entry barrier.

The second is virtual community, such as There is not much user creativity involved in this type of VW. Users come to this type of VW for entertainment and social networking. MTV has already built 7 virtual communities. In China, there are ChinaQ and Dream World who both use the OpenSim platform, anduWorld, Novoking, M World, Hapa World who have developed their own platforms. Currently, these VWs are still under development. I think the giants in traditional media (eg. Warner Bro) and consumer goods companies (eg. Barbie Girl), with their resource to create compelling content and provide high quality services / virtual products, will dominate this area in the future.

The third type is communitilized online gaming worlds. Traditional online gaming is reinventing itself with openness and adding Web 2.0 features. In 2008, Giant, 9You and several other gaming companies focused their attention and resources on the "communitilization" of online gaming worlds. With more than 30 millions users, well-established content, virtual social-economic rules, and clear business models, in the next 3-5 years, communitilized online gaming worlds will the biggest competitor to the non-gaming virtual worlds.

I'm keen to look at two main aspects of VWs in the future:

Firstly, (non-technically) no matter 2D or 3D, biggest challenges lie in 1) how to deal with user privacy, user data, and user assets, and 2) how to develop and maintain the community on the basis of a good understanding of the local context.

Secondly, (technically) I am watching the mobile-based VWs and the augmentation of VWs. Of course, the interoperability and openness of Opensource and Second Life are still my concerns.

56minus1: What has the Internet done to change / empower youth culture in China over the past 5 - 10 years or so, and how do u see it shaping youth culture going forward?
Zafka Zhang: This is a very important question to ask, however, its difficult to answer without writing a thesis. A lot of the work that we do at China Youthology is to understand the role of Internet in Chinese youth’s lives. In most of cases, others simply chalk up the Internet in China as just a "channel" that's increasingly influencing local youth. However, in our opinion, the Internet is much more than a just channel – it's part of their lifestyle and it is shifting the way youth perceive themselves, each other and the world. The use of the Internet in branding and marketing has been largely confined or restricted because of people inability to see the Internet as something more than just a channel. Its much bigger than that in China.

The research we do incorporates cyberspace ethnography. We not only research social networking sites, discussion forums (BBS), online games, etc. but we also use these online platforms in our daily life to connect with youth. We have started to share some of our findings in our blog. For example, brand experience on SNS. More will be shared on the blog in the future.

56minus1: Tell us more about your new company China Youthology.
Zafka Zhang: My wife Lisa Li has been working in the market research industry for 5+ years, but only until last year did I start to really understand her work and realize that she has been at the cutting edge of her industry, especially when she was invited to speak about her research at ESOMAR, the "Oscars" of the market research industry). As I have a similar educational background in sociology and politics, we have found our discourse on research methodologies and markey insight very enjoyable.

Moreover, my experience with Internet ventures and entrepreneurial firms (start-ups) has proven as valuable inspiration to her on various pieces of her research. Based on my past professional experiences, I think better research and consultancy can be conducted without handicaps of big organizations. Hence, we started our own company, China Youthology (青年志). Our research and insights are all about local Chinese youth, with the simple mission of helping companies / brands connect with local Chinese youth.

Over the past 2 years, digital marketing has developed into a huge interest of mine. Since we started China Youthology, I have found it very exciting to finally have the chance to implement various ways of digital marketing. We have shared some of our thoughts on this on our blog, which, by the way, has been very helpful in terms of connecting us to people from all over the world who have similar interests as ours, introducing a new company to the industry, and establishing thought-leadership. We have been surprised time and time again by well-established and respectful youth research and marketing agencies taking time to leave comments or write us emails. We use Twitter (China Youthology, Zafka, and Lisa) Facebook, Linkedin (Zafka and Lisa) etc as well...
56minus1: In August, New Weekly (新周刊) published an interesting piece titled 穷忙族 (loose translation: The Young / Working Poor Class) about Chinese youth life / working styles, consumption habits, "meaning of life" quest, ambitions, etc. What's China Youthology's point of view on this piece?

Zafka Zhang: We found that the "young working poor" has a unique connotation in Chinese context. And as a prevalent phenomenon, it is reshaping the consumption attitudes and behaviors of Chinese youth and hence has implication to brands. We actually talked about this on our blog. Check it out here.

56minus1: Your thoughts on innovation and the creative industry in China?
Zafka Zhang: The growth of creative industry and innovation in China is a result of Chinese economic transformation. We have talked more about it here. On one hand, the number of local "creative youth" is increasing dramatically; on the other hand, the youth today are a generation of creativity-seekers. The success of creativity flee-markets (such as iMart; see our report on it here) and various forms of festivals (see our report about Modern Sky Festival) shows great potential for China’s creative and cultural market.

Since the opening of China in late 70's, trends have been trickling down to China from Western and Japanese trendsetters. However, in the last couple of years, with a growing sense of cultural identity, Chinese youth have established a good connection with local Chinese creativity. The mash up of foreign and local styles will continue to be the trend for Chinese youth. Recognizing the value of Chinese creative youth, we are working with on a project to help brands better understand emerging trends among local creative youth.

56minus1: Tell us about the types of projects / issues you are focusing on in China with your role at Creative Commons (CC).
Zafka Zhang: CC is a non-profit organization founded in 2001 in the US that provides free tools, both legal and technical, to help authors, scientists, artists, and educators easily mark their creative work with the freedoms they want it to carry. CC, with a statement of "Some Rights Reserved," advocates and encourages legal sharing, remixing, and re-usage of creative works. There are already 49 jurisdictions with local versions of the CC license. Now, the CC licenses have become pervasive standards with large-scale adoption for user-generated content licenses.

I got to know CC and the free culture movement when I did research on the history of Second Life in 2007. I was intrigued by the business innovation of SL based on the protection of the IP rights of user-generated content. In the same year, I got to know Professor Wang Chunyan, the head of CC in China. We got to know each other better when CC cooperated with the mini-midi2008 festival to release my CC-licensed album Noise is Free this May (2008). The album is downloadable here. At the festival, my side project band "The Wedding Beast" also performed.

I recently joined CC and am now the local Chinese music community liaison and am responsible for public relations. My job is to evangelize CC in among the local music community and let more people know the philosophy of CC through the social media. As we all know, copyright, when it was born, was developed to benefit both content creators and content consumers. With the revolution of the Internet, the mechanism of creation and distribution of content has dramatically changed; a lot of digital content is produced by so-called amateurs, and the culture of sharing, remixing, and reusing has become mainstream. CC is a Web 2.0 tool and a legal infrastructure to support the "sharing economy."

Although I am not an expert in law and copyright, I am a believer in free culture and the power of the Internet. CC is one of the initiatives exploring new ways of balancing innovation and protection in the digital era. I would like to talk with more people who are interested in the topic of Internet, free culture, and business innovation. ALl are welcome to contact me at anding.zhang AT gmail DOT com.

56minus1: You are a sound artist and an experimental musician, what is your favorite sound? Why? Any links to your work?
Zafka Zhang: My previous released sound-art works are focused on political listening of urban soundscapes. Please check my bio here. In 2008, I released two albums under Yao Dajun's label POST CONCRETE PRiCELESS SERiES. Yong◎He is based on field recordings around Yong He Lama Temple area (in Beijing). I.Mirror is based o online virtual world field recordings from Second Life. I have put my thoughts in the inner pages of the albums.

I have favorite style of music but I don't have favorite sound. I love and respect all kinds of sound. I spend my time in field recording while doing improvisations with instruments (including synthesizers and the iPhone) on stage. I go to WaterLand Kwanyin, a bi-weekly event at 2 Kolegas (in Beijing) quite often to either perform or meet friends. Hope to meet you guys there some day.

56minus1: Tell us more about your band Prague?
Zafka Zhang: We started in 1998 as "Surging Prague" when we were all Fudan students, and changed it to "Prague" in 2002 when my wife joined the band. At that time, our style was mostly post-punk and a lot of avant-garde stuff, then we gradually shifted to instrumental and sentimental music, which we found as the best way to express our emotions and views.

Having been separated all over the world since the release of Printemps in 2002, band members gathered together again on-and-off in the summer of 2005 and recorded a new album called Le Pont. Six of the tracks from Le Pont have been used by the Chinese artist Cao Fei in her Whose Utopia video and iMirror (part 1, 2, and 3) Second Life projects and exhibitions...we love her work, its so beautiful...check all of her videos here, they are amazing.

We've recently recorded 6 new tracks in Beijing this October; production will be done soon. I recently set up an artist page on where all of course are welcome to listen to our old songs and new demos.

56minus1: What are you reading these days? Listening to? Watching?
Zafka Zhang: I am reading Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. I am listening to Nils Petter Molvaer, Eivind Aarset, and Tortoise, and watching Justice Yeldham’s performances on Youtube.

There are currently 1 Comments for Interview with Zafka Zhang.

Comments on Interview with Zafka Zhang

Interesting.. thanks for that

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