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Using social media platforms to understand, and grow, Chinese demand for British culture

The opening up and continued fast growth of the largest nation on earth has not passed by Britain’s cultural industries. The statistics are well rehearsed. China is producing 20 million new English speakers every year. Almost one quarter of students on full-time taught postgraduate courses at English universities are Chinese. Such trends point to very significant future expansions in the English–speaking market for British culture. The Internet, with its promise of low cost distribution channels for cultural producers, has added to the excitement. It is estimated that at the end of 2014 the number of internet users in China had reached 249 million people.

In book publishing – the focus of two new research reports we are publishing today – 2012 saw China as the London Book Fair Market Focus, the culmination of a three–year programme of activity led in the UK by the British Council and the Publishers Association. In April 2014, China and the UK signed a film co–production treaty, with the BFI declaring that “films made as China/UK co–productions will be able to access the second highest box office audience in the world, worth US$2.7 billion and forecast to grow to US$5.5 billion by 2017.”2015 has seen a broadening of the China–UK cultural relationship, with the first ever China–UK Year of Cultural Exchange to 'showcase the very best of UK culture in China and of Chinese culture in the UK.'

Such developments reflect a broad perception that China’s rise creates market opportunities on a massive scale for UK cultural producers that are quick to take advantage – a line of thinking that can be traced back to the old industrialists’ dream that if one Chinese man wanted to lengthen his jacket by only an inch, cotton output from their mills would be boosted by millions.

In fact, as Sophie Rochester and Xin Lin from The Literary Platform show, there are stark differences between Chinese and Western book consumption habits which present considerable hurdles for UK publishers – the undeveloped nature of the e-book market, the popularity of online fiction (dominated by local talent), a seemingly low willingness to pay, attitudes to piracy and last, but not least, an immature understanding of Chinese readers’ preferences. This is not to mention the more general costs of doing business in countries like China where governance and market institutions are often weak or missing.

As a consequence of all these factors commercial uncertainties are considerable. Where should UK publishers and writers be focusing their efforts? In Found In Translation, we explore how they can negotiate such uncertainties by using data from online social networks which the Chinese public has been particularly enthusiastic to embrace.

Douban presents a unique opportunity in this regard. Being at the same time a social media platform, a publisher and a retailer, the platform permits rights holders to take a data–driven approach to engaging with readers, understand their wider cultural preferences and behaviours, and identify – and exploit – their influence in social networks. We examine these opportunities through the lens of an experiment with the novelist, David Mitchell that took the form of an online translation contest held in September 2013 and that we designed for the purposes of this study.

What did we learn?

First, that the online translation contest attracted over 200 entrants, of the same order of magnitude as previous Douban translation contests. Analysis of these entrants’ wider cultural preferences – as captured by their likes on Douban – suggests that their motivations lay in language and translation, rather than in their loyalties to David Mitchell. So, although translators were more likely to have engaged with his work than Douban users with a general interest in British literature, the difference turns out to be slight.

While there was clearer evidence that those who voted in the contest and those who purchased the winning translations were more familiar with Mitchell’s writing, by no stretch of the imagination could these groups be characterised as fans (though the presence of some fans amongst the purchaser group will have been obscured by the relatively large number who responded to Douban’s aggressive price discounting strategy). Moreover, there was little evidence that those who did engage with the contest – be it through submitting entries, voting or buying the winning translations – went on to engage more extensively with Mitchell’s work as a result.

Far more important in sparking interest in David Mitchell, it appears, was the Hollywood adaption of Cloud Atlas, including the English language six minute trailer. More work is required to understand such cross-media effects; but insofar as most writers will not enjoy such a boon, it is food for thought for those weighing up how much effort to invest in reader engagement.

Second, we learned that online translation contests can be effective and timely mechanisms for delivering high–quality Chinese translations of English fiction. An independent analysis of the entries suggested that as many as one in five of those submitted could, with relatively light editing and revision, have been made ready for publication. There is an open question as to how publishers can in these situations engage with those who produce high–quality translations but who did not win, to make sure their efforts are not wholly in vain.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we confirmed that social networks contain valuable insights into fan preferences and traits that publishers and writers can tap to better understand the Chinese market. In particular, while we found a number of British writers who had several popular works on Douban (David Mitchell included), it turns out that none – JK Rowling aside – had large numbers of the same fans liking their different titles (a very different situation from Chinese writers).

Our analysis uncovered a smaller number of ‘hard core’ fans for these authors, however, which may point to the need for different engagement (and possibly commercial) strategies from publishers – ones where they deepen (and monetise) their relationship with these superfans. These fans, our analysis revealed, are far more engaged with British culture (books, films and music) than other Douban users and occupy more prominent positions in their social networks as measured by their number of followers. The experience of other cultural industries like video games suggests it is not inconceivable that even low numbers of such committed fans – if they can be identified – may be sufficient to allow publishers to be commercially successful, questions that merit further research.

Our findings hint at ways in which tastes for specific authors and their works may cluster, illustrating how analysis of social data can generate actionable insights that elude more top–down analysis. Yet they also underscore the extent to which interest in British authors as a whole – at least on Douban – seems highly contingent. Interest rarely extends beyond top titles, though effects appear to be less stark for works such as sequels and adaptations whose discoverability and quality are ex ante less uncertain, building on accumulated consumption skills.

The superfans are the exception to this rule – being more dedicated as they are to multiple works by the same author. A potentially important implication is that UK publishers may need to focus their efforts on targeted, rather than mass engagement strategies which, our analysis at least, suggests will face deep challenges.

As a case study built around one experiment, involving David Mitchell and Douban, we are still scratching the surface of what the UK’s cultural industries like publishing, film and music can learn from China’s social networks. As the stakes of making calls about where and how much the UK’s cultural industries should invest become ever higher, so leaning on data to minimise guesswork grows ever more attractive – and with it the promise of a more rigorous and realistic view of China’s opportunities and challenges.


Hasan Bakhshi

Hasan Bakhshi

Hasan Bakhshi

Director, Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre

Hasan oversaw Nesta's creative economy policy, research and practical work.

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Philippe Schneider