Old Platform, New Community: PTT, a Social Media Platform in Taiwan
Social media are indispensable in our daily lives. With these platforms, information can be delivered easily and quickly, and at low cost. The accessibility of social media also provides spaces for everyone to share comments and opinions no matter who you are.
As a social media platform, PTT plays an important role in the society of Taiwan. Since its founding in 1995, it now has more than 1.5 million registered users. During the peak hours of the day, more than 150,000 users are online at the same time. The entire platform produces about 20,000 articles and 500,000 comments daily.
Besides Facebook, Twitter, and Whatsapp, many other platforms are used in different parts of the world, such as Line, Wechat, Kakao Talk, and 2ch in Asia. In order to attract and retain users, most of the platforms are developed to be more and more user-friendly. However, as a Bulletin Board System (BBS) that is running under the DOS operating system, PTT is not as friendly as other platforms for users, because it only uses a keyboard without a mouse.
Whether the system is user-friendly or not, it seems like this is not the most important factor for PTT’s popularity in Taiwan. In my opinion, it is highly related to the developmental history and the background of society in Taiwan.
BBS was first introduced to Taiwan in 1983. In 1992, the first localized version, a Chinese character based telnet BBS, was developed by a professor from National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. With the support from the Ministry of Education in Taiwan, almost all the main universities set up their own BBS stations, which were designed for educational and research purposes.
However, PTT is not an official BBS station of the National Taiwan University (NTU), yet, but it was launched at the 8th male dormitory of NTU by some students in 1995. It has not only made it through the decline of telnet BBS in Taiwan around 2005, but it also became one of the most popular social media in Taiwan.
The founders of PTT want it to be a space that is non-commercial and open-sourced, to protect freedom of speech from big companies or from the university, which is probably a main reason for keeping PTT alive, and remains popular among young educated people in Taiwan.
PTT is not similar to Facebook in terms of how the posts are organized and shared. On Facebook, people read posts from their friends; on PTT, people read posts from all the users. The posts and comments on PTT are organized according to the topic of the bulletin boards. More than 20,000 bulletin boards exist on PTT, and the popular ones include Gossiping, NBA, Sex, Boy-Girls, hate politics, jokes… etcetera. Anyone can find some topics that he or she is interested in, and wants to discuss with other people, which also helps to create a huge community for criticizing all sorts of aspects related to society.
Because BBS is a computer running custom software that allows users to connect to the system through a terminal program, it is easy to track how many people are using a BBS station at the same time. On PTT, the color of each bulletin board represents how many people are using or reading the same board at the same time, which is a good way to find out what are the most popular topics during a certain time. For example, during the Sunflower Student Movement in 2014, about 100,084 users were using the bulletin board related to the Sunflower Student Movement on the night of March 23.
With such a huge population using PTT, the users have developed their own terminology and culture throughout time. People who use PTT call themselves Xiang-Min/鄉民 (villagers), which is a similar concept as netizen, referring to the Internet users in the United States. In addition, Xiang-Min often call themselves Lu-She/鲁蛇 (loser) to satirize the economic inequality of Taiwanese society.
Yet, Xiang-Min are not just the people who sit behind the screens without participating in society. PTT, as a non-physical community, provides a platform for communication for sure. Since 2008, several social movements have been formed based on the discussions of PTT, and which had attracted attention from the public and traditional media outlets. Although PTT is not a traditional political platform, the practice of joking about and satirizing social issues makes PTT a unique media platform, which also provides an environment to challenge authority or to challenge the economic structure that is highly influenced by capitalism in Taiwanese society.