Q&A with Jay Oatway in Hong Kong
July 1, 1997 – After widespread anticipation, the British flag was lowered over Government House in Hong Kong and handed over to departing governor Chris Patten, signaling the end of more than 150 years of colonial rule. Jay Oatway, a Canadian, had moved to Hong Kong to cover “the Handover” as a journalist, and ended up setting anchor after embracing the fast-paced, highly networked pulse of the newly sovereign city-state. He is now a leading social media and digital marketing authority in the Asia-Pacific region whose expertise is highly sought for consulting and public speaking. He is the author of Mastering Story, Community and Influence: How to Use Social Media to Become a Socialeader. He is also founder of HKSocial, Hong Kong’s first Society of Social Business Best Practices, now part of the Digital and Direct Marketing Association of Asia.
Dubbed “Hong Kong’s answer to Twitter royalty” by Marketing magazine, Oatway was listed among the Forbes Top 50 Social Media Power Influencers in 2012 and 2013. His online presence has garnered a following of more than 100,000 users on Twitter, more than 30,000 on Pinterest and thousands more on Google+, Facebook and LinkedIn. His knowledge is also available via iPhone and Android apps. It’s this type of presence that’s made Oatway not only a power influencer in social media, but an objective analyst of its evolution.
Q: Regarding the ’97 sovereignty transfer, what stood out most to you, and how do you think the handover would have played out in the social era?
A: I remember climbing into a tree with my camera and telephoto lens in order to get a clear picture of Governor Patten and his family boarding Royal Yacht Britannia to leave Hong Kong. At the time, it felt like the people of Hong Kong were happy to get rid of them, at least that’s what the mainstream media was saying. Fast forward to earlier this year, when Patten returned on a business trip to HK. He was swarmed by mobs with signs that read things like “Come back” and “Save Hong Kong.” I never would have dreamed that I’d see such a reversal of sentiment towards the old colonial guard. It’s not that things are that bad here these days, but everyone has their opinions about what their government should and shouldn’t be doing. However, the reason I know about the surprising signs, and the reason that the people with the signs knew where to be to swarm Chris Patten, was all because of the power of social media. Our ability to share opinions publicly, to join together with other like-minded people and to take action is so much greater today than was even imaginable in 1997. What might have happened on Handover night had we all had smartphones with social apps in our pockets? I’m not sure. I probably would have been staring at my phone instead of climbing into a tree. Despite my love of technology, I’m kind of glad we didn’t have social media and smartphones then.
Q: Having joined in 2007, you were obviously an early settler in the Twittersphere. What were your thoughts when you joined?
A: While I had been on MySpace and Facebook previously, Twitter was something different. It was short, fast, temporary. It was a place not to hang out with people you already know, but a place to discover amazing people you didn’t yet know. Those were the good ol’ days when Twitter users were so rare that we would host Tweetups just to hang out with the few people in real life who shared our love for Twitter — and our hatred of the Fail Whale. I once went to a Tweetup where someone had made a Fail Whale cake. It’s easy to be nostalgic about those days. Twitter doesn’t feel like that anymore.
Q: In one episode of your Social Currents video series, you and your fellow Hong Kong socialistas discussed the value of authentic identities in social media for both individuals and businesses. How do they thrive in China in the midst of the Great Firewall?
A: Authentic identities are something we are going to be struggling with globally. In China, people assume that they are always being spied upon. They’ve accepted that and adapted in such a way as to cloak themselves when necessary. In the post-Snowden revelations world, the rest of us are waking up to the same reality as the people of China. We are all being watched. And we don’t really like it. Hence the sudden rise of so many popular anonymous social networks, like Whisper and Secret. We find freedom in anonymity. It’s liberating to escape our carefully constructed authentic identities. But this is also where people behave their worst. No business will ever want to set up in an anonymous identity community — as they would just get the most horrible abuse. So we need the two worlds: public and secret. And we need to learn how to safely and securely swing between the two. As a side note to the great firewall: it’s easily bypassed using VPNs, a skillset which is wide-spread in China. Some estimate there may be as many active Facebook accounts operating from within China as from within the U.S., however exact figures for this are hard to come by. I’ve seen estimates between 600,000 to 200 million. Which makes China a significant market for Facebook, despite being officially banned.
Q: As most Westerners are probably still unfamiliar with Weibo, can you describe how the platform operates and its personal/professional relevance in China? Are there other platforms that are prevalent in Asia?
A: In Hong Kong, Sina Weibo began as a direct competitor to Twitter. So much so that none of the local movie stars or pop singers really adopted Twitter. Instead they all joined Weibo, which makes sense since they have more fans in Mainland China. Since then, Weibo has evolved into something much more complex than Twitter or even Facebook. It’s a big all-singing, all-dancing social/e-commerce/dating/news portal monstrosity. From a marketing perspective, the biggest problem with Weibo, or any China-based social media, is that it’s very hard to find realistic metrics that show how much true engagement is generated by real people. Everything seems to be faked and gamed. The proliferation of what they call “zombie accounts” (fake accounts run by software) is a serious problem. Outside of China, however, Facebook is hugely popular across the region and makes for an easy choice for businesses looking for ways to amplify their content marketing.
Q: HK is obviously teeming with socialistas, how did you and your co-founders rally them to form HKSocial?
A: Word of mouth is everything. We setup a Meetup account. We started hanging out. They came. They told their friends. HKSocial is no longer what it was in the first three years of its life. For the most part, the original founders have gone their separate ways. It’s now a quarterly gathering (instead of monthly) hosted as part of the Digital + Direct Marketing Association, which I joined as a board member. We have one last meeting in June as HKSocial, after which we’ll be calling it [d+d] Social. I, like the others I started it with, don’t have the time for it that I used to. There is still plenty of demand to hear me speak, but I don’t provide as much of it for free anymore. Also, I believe that social now belongs in a larger discussion about media and marketing, and not as a stand-alone topic.
Q: Any additional thoughts on the social media landscape in Hong Kong and Asia and that of the West?
A: It’s not about the media. It’s about the social. People are people. There are cultural differences, sure. But the world-over, that which unites us is great than that which makes us different, and pulls us apart. Everyone builds relationships through the same mechanisms. Everyone shares important news for the same reasons. Everyone wants the sense that they belong to a community of some sort — or at least to know that they are not alone. Social media gives us all this.
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