Mobile reading in the The Museum of Qin Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses, Xi’an, China.
Dr Xiang Ren writes:
Mobile reading (sometimes known as ‘phone reading) is fast growing in China. With 527 million active mobile Internet users in 2014, mobile reading has become a billion dollar market (Enfodesk, 2013).
Mobile reading refers to the act of reading and consuming digital content on mobile devices, such as smart phones, tablets, and e-readers. The content of mobile reading is beyond the electronic versions of print books, magazines, and newspapers, and includes huge amounts of born digital online content.
Mobile reading evolves in an open Internet world where users are creative, participative, and connected. All these dynamics are transforming the ways content is created, distributed, consumed and monetized in the publishing industry, which is also fundamentally changing public reading in China.
Mobile reading has widened access to digital content and enlarged the scale and scope of Chinese public reading. A 2014 national survey on reading habits reported that 41.9 % of Chinese people have read published content on mobile phones.[i] A similar study on people who have read digital content suggests that the percentage using mobile phones for reading is as high as 87.4 % (iResearch 2014).
The portability of mobile devices as well as the touchscreen-based experiences makes digital reading much more convenient and enjoyable than desktop computers. Mobile reading enables Chinese readers to read anywhere and anytime: public transport, office, and even toilets are places where people prefer to read via mobile devices; night time, lunch break, and bed times are the peak periods of mobile reading (CNNIC 2014; Enfodesk 2013).
Mobile reading has also made an unparalleled contribution to connecting traditionally disadvantaged reading populations to digital content, bridging knowledge gaps and digital divides.
The increased affordability of mobile devices and ubiquitous Internet connections have widened access to the online world for people with low educational levels, low digital literacy and low incomes. Nowadays, hundreds of millions of rural migrants working in big cities and people in rural areas connect to the Internet via mobile devices.
74.3% of the new generation of migrant rural workers (nong min gong) in cities use mobile phone to access Internet (Zhou and Lü 2011); 75.3% of rural people use mobile Internet, even slightly higher than their urban counterparts.[ii]
New demand for knowledge
Mobile reading has become one of the primary sources of information, education, and entertainment for the emerging digital reading publics and is increasingly an essential part of their everyday digital life. The easy-to-use interfaces, engaging born digital content, and free content access (either through open initiatives or copyright infringement) make digital knowledge more accessible than ever.
This dramatically widens public knowledge access in China. Similar to the role of print technology in the Western Enlightenment (Darnton 2009), mobile reading is democratising knowledge and contributing to the digital enlightenment of China.
The rise of mobile publishing and reading aligns with China’s dynamic socio-economic transition, notably urbanization, the creative economy and the knowledge-based society. This transformation has generated new demands for knowledge, represented by the fast growing markets for new forms of public reading.
While reading publics are expanding the decreasing average levels of education, income, and literacy of readers (and authors as well since self-publishing is democratising authorship) is also reshaping the business and culture of digital publishing in China.
There are some worrisome trends in mobile reading, in particular the dominance of entertainment, consumerism, and infotainment driven by for-profit media enterprises; for example, online fan-generated literature becomes the most popular genre of mobile reading content. Further, there is concern that serious and in-depth reading is being replaced by “shallow reading”, making mobile reading a waste of time.
Like any new technology, mobile reading is not free of controversies and its impact is highly uncertain at this early stage. However, it is clear that, along with the rise of new generation of reading publics, mobile reading is playing an increasingly significant role in China’s digital public reading as well as broad economic and social transitions as a new digital intermediary of knowledge.
CNNIC. (2014), 2014 Chinese Mobile Interent Research Report. Beijing.
Enfodesk. (2013), 2013 Research Report on China’s Mobile Reading Industry, Beijing.
iResearch. (2014), China Mobile Digital Reading Report. Beijing.
Darnton, Robert (2009), The Business of Enlightenment: a publishing history of the Encyclopédie, 1775-1800, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Zhou, Baohua & Lü Shuning (2011). ‘An Empirical Study on the Uses of New Media by New Generation of Migrant Rural Workers in Shanghai. (Shanghai Shi Xinshengdai nongmingong xinmeiti shiyong yu pingjia de shizheng yanjiu) ’ Journalism Quartlery (Xinwen Daxue). (2): 145-150
[i] See a press release of the report at http://mil.chinanews.com/cul/2014/04-21/6088016.shtml
[ii] See an investigation of Internet use by rural people at http://it.21cn.com/tel/a/2014/0211/16/26364581.shtml
Image credit: Drawn away, from a wonder of the world by Michael Davis-Burchat used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) licence.