The Chinese Internet, however, is the polar opposite. Search engines are practically nonexistent, and people read primarily by scrolling through social media timelines rather than visiting web pages with URLs at the top.
One might blame the censorship apparatus for handicapping Chinese search engines, but I’d argue that the dearth of long half-life writing is mostly the consequence of China jumping directly to mobile and the mobile-first Internet companies (rationally) creating walled gardens around content.
But in a mobile-first environment, the gateway to information became the few “super-apps,” which naturally erected walls around their content because they didn’t need a search engine to direct traffic to their apps. The invention of timelines (especially the algorithmic ones) further reduced consumer demand for search, as passively scrolling took much less effort than actively typing or clicking.
Take WeChat as an example. It is home to the vast majority of China’s original writing, and yet:
- It doesn’t allow any external links;
- Its posts are not indexed by search engines such as Google or Baidu, and its own search engine is practically useless;
- You can’t check the author’s other posts if open the page outside of the WeChat app. In other words, each WeChat article is an orphan, not linked to anything else on the Internet, not even the author’s previous work.
The system’s disincentives for knowledge creation cannot be overstated: If your writing “disappears” after a day, why invest the time to write at all? Stated a different way: if you know your words are only read within the first few hours of publication, what kind of words are you incentivized to put down?
But it may also be that in an age where every conceivable user interface includes a search function, young people have never needed folders or directories for the tasks they do. The first internet search engines were used around 1990, but features like Windows Search and Spotlight on macOS are both products of the early 2000s. Most of 2017’s college freshmen were born in the very late ‘90s. They were in elementary school when the iPhone debuted; they’re around the same age as Google. While many of today’s professors grew up without search functions on their phones and computers, today’s students increasingly don’t remember a world without them.
A cynic could blame generational incompetence. An international 2018 study that measured eighth-graders’ “capacities to use information and computer technologies productively” proclaimed that just 2 percent of Gen Z had achieved the highest “digital native” tier of computer literacy. “Our students are in deep trouble,” one educator wrote.