Photo Credit: Yao Yao
The incomprehensible jargon of Chinese internet firms

“If the last 20 years have been about internet technology, the next 30 years could be called the internet era,” Jack Ma, the founder of Chinese internet company Alibaba, said at the 2017 Global Transformation Forum in Malaysia.

Ma’s speech was intended to be motivational, calling on businesses to abandon backward thinking and use the internet to their advantage. Some people, however, take so-called “internet thinking (互联网思维 hùliánwǎng sīwéi)” a bit too far, to the point where it even influences their language.

In China, internet professionals, or 互联网人 (hùliánwǎngrén, “internet persons”), are known for employing a lingo that makes little sense to people outside the industry. “I know every single character in internet jargon, but can’t figure out what they mean once they’re put together; it’s like a parallel language,” one Weibo user recounts of their first few days working at an internet company. In an industry founded on chasing novel concepts, where one must always try to position oneself as being more progressive than any other competitor, many employees find themselves unconsciously picking up the inspirational buzzwords and meaningless marketing terms in everyday life.

The Weibo user later admitted, “Ironically, I have used these terms in my PowerPoint presentations, since I cannot find more suitable expressions.” Likewise, “IT talk” has permeated conversations in and out of the industry, becoming funny memes, handy metaphors, or simply the butt of jokes.

Reinvent the wheel

As a saying on the web goes, “What internet companies do best is inventing things that already exist”—and the perfect way to do this is to dress up existing concepts with new terminology. Instead of discussing strategies (策略 cèlüè) and plans (方案 fāng’àn), pick new words like “striking methods (打法 dǎfǎ)” and “playing methods (玩法 wánfǎ),” which will make the customer feel like you are leading them on some action-filled quest for new solutions, rather than rehashing a problem that they themselves brought up:

Pinduoduo, Bilibili, and other emerging internet companies have employed some fresh playing methods and down-to-earth striking methods.

Pīnduōduō hé Bìlibìli děng yì pī xīnxīng hùliánwǎng qǐyè wánfǎ gèng xīnxiān, dǎfǎ gèng jiē dìqì.


Know your audience

New ideas won’t go down well if you don’t understand your customers. To sell themselves as action-oriented, dynamic players, who can break down any problem and find the most cost-effective solution, internet companies quantify users’ needs in simple, PowerPoint-friendly bullet items: “pain points (痛点 tòngdiǎn),” which are urgent, unmet demands; “itch points (痒点 yǎngdiǎn),” non-urgent needs that usually relate to an unsatisfying user experience; and “pleasing points (爽点 shuǎngdiǎn),” the user’s immediate desire at any moment.

Once those points are clarified, internet bosses encourage their employees to use these 抓手(zhuāshǒu, key points) to develop targeted products and services:

Viral products are created by inspiring and satisfying users’ potential pain points.

Jīfā bìng mǎnzú yònghù de qiánzài tòngdiǎn, jiù néng dǎzào bàopǐn.


One can also categorize real-life emotions in to “points”:

This online series is too awesome! The screenwriters finally understand audiences’ itch points.

Zhè bù wǎngjù tài kě le! Zhè jiè biānjù zhōngyú zhuāzhù guānzhòng de yǎngdiǎn le.


I was moved to tears by this inspirational essay. It really hit my pain points.

Wǒ néng bèi zhème yì piān jītāngwén gǎndòng de tòngkū liútì, jiùshì yīnwèi tā chuōzhōng wǒ de tòngdiǎn le.


Stay positive

Once a company has identified their customers’ needs, the next step is to promise results. An important factor for good internet products and services is that they can “empower (赋能 fùnéng)” the target user:

New products must empower business.

Xīnchǎnpǐn yídìng yào fùnéng yèwù.


Originally a term from psychology, meaning to influence others positively by changing one’s behaviors, attitudes, and surroundings, this phrase has been used in all contexts to mean any type of assistance or positive effect.

Influential people must be able empower person of themselves and others.

Yí gè yǒu yǐngxiǎnglì de rén, yídìng shì kěyǐ zìwǒ fùnéng hé fùnéng tārén de rén.


Meanwhile, businesses attach great importance to winning new customers, or 拉新 (lāxīn, “drawing new”), and developing their loyalty, or 粘性 (niánxìng, stickiness):

Social groups are an important new method of attracting new users cheaply.

Shèqún shì yònghù lāxīn de zhòngyào shǒuduàn, huòkè chéngběn dī.


I think dating is like doing business. I’m good at drawing new, but they lack stickiness.

Wǒ juédé tán liàn’ài jiù xiàng zuò shēngyì, wǒ lāxīn de nénglì háishi yǒu de, kěxī niánxìng dōu bù hǎo.


Seek the new

In the internet era, “traffic (流量 liúliàng)” is king, since more internet traffic means more exposure to target users. Word-of-mouth advertising is known as “private traffic (私域流量 sīyù liúliàng),” as much of this is now conducted through personal social media accounts.

Customers who can influence friends or followers to buy a product or service are called “Key Opinion Customers (关键意见消费者 guānjiàn yìjiàn xiāofèizhě),” while those who know the product and can influence thousands of followers are “Key Opinion Leaders (关键意见领袖 guānjiàn yìjiàn lǐngxiù).”

She gained hundreds of thousands of followers in just a few months, and became a fashion KOL on [e-commerce app] Xiaohongshu.

Tā jǐ gè yuè li zhǎng le jǐshí wàn fěn, jiànjiàn chéng le Xiǎohóngshū shàng de chuāndā KOL.


Based on their influence, KOCs and KOLs are divided into three levels: “head (头部 tóubù),” “waist (腰部 yāobù),” and “tail (尾部 wěibù).”

With over 20 million fans on Taobao Live, [livestreaming celebrity] Li Jiaqi is the hottest of head KOLs.

Lǐ Jiāqí yǒu liǎngqiān duō wàn Táobǎo fěnsī, shì zhìshǒu kě rè de tóubù wǎnghóng dàihuòwáng.


The ranking can also be applied to content, companies, and other groups of people:

After a decade in the industry, he is still just a waist-level actor without fame, internet traffic, or advertising contracts.

Cóngyǐng shí duō nián, tā háishì yì míng yāobù yǎnyuán, méi míngqì, méi liúliàng, yě méi shāngyè dàiyán.


By employing KOLs and marketing tricks, internet companies try to influence users’ “intelligence (心智 xīnzhì).” This means getting users to think of the brand whenever they need similar products or services. In e-commerce, one way of doing this is by providing users 沉浸式体验 (chénjìnshì tǐyàn, “immersive experience”), a term often associated with virtual reality, which involves recreating real-life sensory experiences with internet technology:

Livestreaming is popular among consumers because it brings them an immersive shopping experience.

Zhíbō màihuò gèng shòu huānyíng, yīnwèi néng gěi xiāofèizhě dàilái chénjìnshì de gòuwù tǐyàn.


In many ways, this mimics the effect internet thinking has on one’s real-life thought process. In a recent online comic called “If Guo Degang were an IT person,” the artist replaces typical lines by well-known “crosstalk” performers Guo Degang and Yu Qian with IT jargon. The two comedians tell readers that they wish to “develop a crosstalk matrix, then incubate a new business model (形成一个相声矩阵,再孵化出新的商业模式 xíngchéng yí gè xiàngsheng jǔzhèn, zài fūhuà chū xīn de shāngyè móshì),” and “draw new from all scenes and channels, activate traffic, and create crosstalk Black Technology (全场景,全渠道拉新,盘活流量池,打造相声黑科技 quán chǎngjǐng, quán qúdào lā xīn, pánhuó liúliàngchí, dǎzào xiàngsheng hēikējì).”

For some readers in the industry, though, who have received similarly incomprehensible emails from their supervisor, or used more than a few of these phrases themselves to meet the minimum page requirement in a presentation, the experience was immersive enough to “induce PTSD.” As one reader commented under the comic on Weibo:

From the opening line, “Dear all,” I was brought directly into the real-world scene. The immersive experience surrounded and easily infected this user’s intelligence.

Kāitóu yí gè Dear all, zhíjiē bǎ wǒ dàirù zhēnshí chǎngjǐng, chénjìnshì tǐyàn pūmiàn ér lái, gǎnrǎn yònghù xīnzhì yì rú fǎnzhǎng.

开头一个“Dear all”, 直接把我带入真实场景,沉浸式体验扑面而来,感染用户心智易如反掌。

Techno Babble is a story from our issue, “High Steaks.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine.


author Tan Yunfei (谭云飞)

Tan Yunfei is the editorial director of The World of Chinese. She reports on Chinese language, food, traditions, and society. Having grown up in a rural community and mainly lived in the cities since college, she tries to explore and better understand China's evolving rural and urban life with all readers.

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