Role of the internet



Turning on the screen, clicking some buttons and finishing one on-line task, people in the modern society are getting used to begin their day-to-day lives following the above easy steps. 'Like all modern communication technology (sic), the internet is closely interwoven with the wider development of mediated communication, a process which has gone hand in hand with the expansion of economic organizations and with the development of the modern nation-state.' (Selvin, 2000:11) The internet, on one hand, simplifies the social processes. Office meetings can be held through the internet in spite of the barrier of distance; e-commerce enables big financial organizations to survive under the stressful competition; public networks allow people to grab more information and get to know each other regardless of time and space. On the other hand, this kind of simplification does not only offer benefits towards individuals, but also to the local community. Recently there is a strong argument saying that people are now stepping into a virtual community where we largely depend upon the Internet, whereas the real communication between peers is undermined. We can not deny the great impact we get from the adoption of the Internet, however, all these influences will ultimately reflect on the real, face-to-face community. Here are some figures according to CNNIC (2009) that ' the end of 2008, the Internet penetration rate of 22.6% in China had surpassed the global average level of 21.9% for the first time. Meanwhile, the amount of Internet users in China had reached 298 million, with 279 million broadband users.' China is now really in the era of the information age although people in China had access to the internet for the first time back to decade ago. Only in March this year, Shanghai's GDP had reached 315 billion RMB, including 15.2 billion RMB from the Information transmission, IT and Software services industry. (Shanghai Municipal Statistics Bureau, 2009) The contribution of the development of internet leads to a sound benefit to the economic boost of local society. People around every corner of the city are in no doubt to believe and rely on some certain messages spread through the networks where they share the common interests. "Which nursery school is the best in Shanghai?" or like "Where shall we go for a Thai cuisine in the local neighborhood?" all become the spotlight of people's daily topic. From the above statistics, the Internet is in a predominant position with no doubt. Also in this year's World Media Summit held in Beijing, from 8 October to 10 October, the topics were all around the emergence of new media and challenges towards the traditional media in the digital and multi-media age. Looking at the chairpersons alone, people can easily find that it is the first time Google, online media giant, participating and acting as Co-chairman. (World Media Summit, 2009) In this essay, I will mainly focus on three kinds of roles the Internet plays, namely economic, cultural and political role, to promote and sustain the development of the specific region-Shanghai.

Shanghai in China

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Shanghai is a vibrant, fast-moving and worldwide renowned city. 'Shanghai is the key city in eastern China, and such serves local, regional, and national functions, as the focal point for inward investment, and as a center of economic management and control.' (Sassen, 2002:300) As a real, face-to-face local community, the city is brave enough to take all new ideology and challenges. People in the city accept new technology almost everyday, such as online distant learning and the new online booking system for hospitals, let alone Facebook or MSN. They use them quite often to communicate with their intimate friends or even carry out their own business through these high-techs. However, the definition of community, in the 21st century, '...has moved indoors to private homes from its former semi-public, accessible milieus such as cafes, parks, and pubs.' (Wellman, B. & Gulia, M., 2004:187) Local citizens in Shanghai are tend to make full use of the internet to not only entertain themselves but also connect them to the local community. At the same time, the development of the Internet also helps to promote the image of the society through several means.

Economic Role

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Economic power is still a vital aspect in judging the strength of the whole nation even under this year's financial crisis. However, 'the city's gross domestic product expanded 9.8 percent from a year earlier, significantly improved from the growth of 3.1 percent in the first quarter and 7.9 percent in the second.' (Shanghai Municipal Government, 2009) Electronic business system 'are designed for enterprises to conduct their business through electronic networks (such as the Internet), instead of conventional forms of communication.' (Sassen, 2002:295) is such a popular platform in China as Amazon or e-bay in the United States. It provides people a great opportunity to save their time shopping in the crowded department stores. People can select and purchase their favorite goods through the Internet at their homes or offices. Furthermore, the prices of those products are usually much lower than the same kinds in the retailers. Office workers and students, as key groups with strong purchase power, are more willing to spend their time and money on online shopping system. It is clear to all that service industry plays a comparatively important role in promoting the economic growth especially in some fast developing cities like Shanghai. According to Shanghai Municipal Economic and Informatization Commission (2009), the city's economic growth in service industry increased by 14.1% in the first quarter this year. As a result, online shopping, as an alternative and additional way of traditional shopping style, does help the local community to receive economic benefits.

There is another case showing how the Internet helps to promote the development of local community. In terms of the local citizens, the Internet offers them another chance to chase their dreams working for themselves. Due to the meltdown of the world economy, tens of thousands of college graduates can not easily find an appropriate job to begin their career lives. As an ideal citizen, contributing and devoting themselves into civic society seems the only way to realize the ultimate goal to become an active social participant. Mostly no one wants to be an isolated individual who doesn't make any contribution to our society. Consequently, the Internet, a new social medium, at this moment turns out to be a brilliant choice. Amateur university graduates don't need to attend any training schools aimed to become a professional and successful businessman. Extending the example of online shopping, it allows any citizens to join in at a low cost. People can easily start their shops online with a computer and a cable. Even if you don't have any experience in business area, you can still enjoy your time and be your own boss working at any possible places with no limits. To some extent, the Internet again helps the city to solve the problem of unemployment and let local citizens have the equal opportunity to survive under the stressful competition as well.

Recently, the Internet Conference of China 2009 announced that the use of the Internet has already penetrated into all walks of life and electronic business keeps moving forward so as to lead a new pattern of economic growth. (Internet Society of China, 2009) Meanwhile, the 21st International Business Leaders' Advisory Council held in Shanghai also mentioned that the local government will take great efforts to achieve economic transformation, which is from manufacturing-based growth model to technically innovated one. As a result, the Internet, as an economic role, takes preliminary position to promote and sustain the local community.

Cultural Role

In some big cities, like Shanghai, owning a sound cultural sphere is also an additional criterion to judge the wellness of a city. As modern technology is developing, the Internet, of course, becomes an essential medium for local citizens to convey and share intellectual messages in their local communities.

Here is a recent case happened in Shanghai to manifest how the Internet, in the culture level, to promote and justify local citizens' common attitude. Young people nowadays are keen on uploading some attractive images or videos to some certain website. However, it is a tragedy that not all those files are truly inspiring. Campus bullying may still be serious problem among teenagers, and it is even more ridiculous to spread this kind of video clips through the internet. A girl, surnamed Xiong, studying in a vocational school in Shanghai uploaded a violent video clip of her smashing another girl. In the video, Xiong slapped her in the face; kicked her abdomen, chest and head. This malicious video rapidly spread online and became a hot discussing topic. Fortunately, people with intellectual thought do not purely regard it as a practical joke. KDS, the nickname of a famous local network forum, which focuses on the hottest events happened everyday in the local city. Since people's common sense and local culture tell us that violence is in a bad way to solve the problem and it may lead city to a negative development, after the explosion of that bullying case, approximately two hundred members of this network voluntary gather together to ask for apology from Xiong the next day after the event. They placed website stickers on their cars, which made them look like a small union. Those active citizens stood in front of the school gate and appealed to legal treatment of that girl. They even shouted self-made slogan, "No bullying in harmonious society". Their action forced school to be closed for a while and local police also needed to interrupt them before the situation turned out to be in a chaos. Although it seems that the case is a little bit extreme, we can still infer that people online do have some justified knowledge to secure and improve the better development of local community. It is because of the internet that makes people realize the case. It is also because of the internet that evokes people's angry to take action to ask for apology to sustain the local community to develop in the right way. It is still because of the internet that violent girl has to admit her wrong behavior and finally get severe punishment three days later. There are too many affairs happened around the city everyday, people are not expected to know them all. The internet, however, provides people the chance to find out more events and think themselves to reflect on the certain case.

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Like elsewhere around the globe, Shanghai has its own characteristic and local culture. The Internet offers those people who don't have the opportunity to visit the city in person the chance to explore the local culture and citizens. In terms of blogosphere, 'the use of blogs helps users become subject-matter experts and increases their interest and ownership in learning, legitimate chances to participate, and provides opportunities for encountering diverse perspectives both within and outside of the classroom' (Macintosh, A & Mikroyanadis, A, 2009) There is an increasing number of foreign residents living and working in Shanghai. Apart from working and studying, they also want to learn more the local customs. Expat-blog provides them such a platform to communicate and share their nice experience in Shanghai. This network aims to 'discover real life in Shanghai through blogs by expats' (Expat-blog, 2009) In addition, questions can also be raised in the sector of Shanghai forum. It excludes the official introduction about the city, instead, people's genuine experience are much more believable and attractive. From accommodations to health care, from banks to transport, from communications to leisure time, Expat-blog is a real medium to show foreigners' a well-developed and vibrant Shanghai. Ironically, some foreign media groups always have prejudiced reports on certain issues in China recent years. However, the use of blogs written by those foreign residents themselves seems to break the rumors as well as promote and sustain a well-developed and vibrant city image.

Political Role

Some people may argue that local citizens nowadays are lack of the passion to participate in the political movement. It is because, personally, the traditional way of communication can't stand for the real voice of local residents. Before the emergence of the Internet, political promotion seemed to be a one-way propaganda. People are informed of certain news continuously but never have the chance to get their feedback up to the head. Under that kind of circumstances, can the local community get appropriately promoted and sustained? The answer is obviously no. However, when we move to the 21st century and the Internet becomes the prevailing tool for communication, the situation is quite often changed. As Professor Stephen Coleman (cited in Quah, D., Silverstone, R., Mansell, R. and Avgerou, C, 2007:373) mentioned 'The Internet is so dynamic: it allows a two-way conversation between members. It can be instantly updated by people who are providing classes and courses for parents or children, for example, and the members themselves can come and add on new information. So, it enables you to work as a cooperative rather than just providing information to parents one-way.' President Barak Obama used Facebook as a tool for election campaign which to some extent promoted him stepping into the office. Since the nature of political system is different in China and the Western countries, we start to use online website to communicate between the government leaders and local citizens little by little.

Shanghai Municipal Government has its own official website for online consultation. The highlight of this network is the office of Mayor. Local residents can easily have access to that site to raise questions to the Mayor or even challenge him for some big issues happened around the city. At the same time, some local officials will log on to the site from time to time to participate in a series of interviews. People can grab that opportunity to have a talk with them in person. It largely shortens the gap between the leaders and residents. People may get comforts and security from their speeches. As long as the local citizens can have a secure and harmonious living atmosphere, the local community will intensively get promoted and sustained. The official website itself also provides people with the platform to deal with current affairs. The system covers almost every prospect, for example, medical care, education, marriage, business investment, public services and drivers' licenses as well. It promotes the efficiency of dealing with people's emergency.

From this big movement towards using the internet for bridging the government and residents, we can find the potential power of pushing people to participate in the civic democratization. Coleman (2007) once stated, 'The task of political representation is to simulate the presence of the absent demos, speaking for the people as if they were speaking for themselves.' During using the new technology, the Internet, people have the right to express their ideas and joint hands with the leaders to make good policies to promote the local community.

Limitations and Drawbacks

There are usually two sides to every argument. The Internet, as an advanced new media technology, has its own advantages to promote and sustain the local community. Meanwhile, it also has some limits and drawbacks. The first and main shortage is the limited ability of internet access. After all, China has a huge population and the difference between the poor and the rich is still intensive. Not everyone around the country can have the access to the internet. In this sense, the internet can only serve the part which is comparatively developed to promote the image of that local community. That's the reason why I choose Shanghai, as a case study here, to illustrate the important role the internet plays to help the development of local region. Another drawback lies in the education level. What we talk here how the internet plays the above three roles mainly focuses on the intellectual groups. If people can't even know how to use the new technology, it is meaningless at this point to say the internet can promote and sustain the local community. Last but not the least, I think it is in the legislative level. Nowadays in China, we are still lack of some relative laws to protect the correct development of the Internet. It still has some certain problems in the processes of developing this online system. The abuse of the Internet can't help to promote and sustain the local community. In contrast, it may lead the city into a wrong direction. As a result, people, no matter the government leaders or local residents, should take all these facts into consideration while they are thinking to use the Internet as a tool to push the local community ahead.


In this essay, three key roles that the Internet plays have already been discussed with several case studies. In the economic level, local entrepreneurs have found an unprecedented chance to enhance their business through this new medium. In the year of economic recession especially, we can't deny the fact that using the internet as a subordinate tool for economic communication in real market largely supports the local city to survive or even maintain the economic strength. Culturally speaking, people have the access to more shared information than ever before. No matter where people live in, they can still connect themselves to their home communities which sustain the local identity. Furthermore, as I mentioned earlier in the essay, it helps people somehow to reach an agreement or common sense in culture level to promote the development of local community. Talking about the political impetus, people are completely encouraged to engage in more political topics through this new technology. The two-way communication greatly bonds the local government and citizens together to put forward more inspiring and constructive ideology to better serve the local community. Although some shortcomings hidden behind the process of using the internet still exists, the benefits we get obviously overweight the drawbacks. To sum up, the internet does play a vital role in the economic, cultural and political area to promote and sustain the development of the local community.


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