By Yi Ling, Chen Chuanlin (China Features)
Website business manger Shao Yibei describes herself as "a tiny water drop in the ocean of Chinese netizens longing to shine". But she never knew she would shine with instant fame overnight.
The 26-year-old music lover had a five-minute video clip uploaded to the Internet in February, in which she was singing while playing guitar a self-composed song about an urban single woman's attitude towards marriage.
"My friend uploaded the clip just for fun," said Shao, "But none of us expected what would happen the next day."
Response from the virtual world was overwhelming, leaving more than 300,000 hits during the first couple of days. Shao also received thousands of requests to "become her friend" on her blog.
Movie producers invited Shao to compose songs while her first album is under preparation.
"I feel difficult to communicate with others in real life, so music is my way of expression," said Shao, "But it's the Internet that makes me 'heard'."
Shao is now best known as folk music singer and blogger "Shao Xiaomao."
"It's such a happy surprise to see my ideas being shared by so many people. I'm not alone," said Shao.
However, doubts, criticism, satire and even verbal abuse come along with praise. Shao learns to face them all at the same time.
"If I'm able to express my ideas freely, why shouldn't others?" she said.
Shao's mother, a high school teacher, can't digest her daughter's "Internet incident" easily.
"My mom first felt shameful that I was talking about marriage in the song straightaway, which she thought should be private," said Shao.
"Then she blamed me for standing out on the Internet even though she knew it wasn't me who started it."
In a country like China where traditionally "I" is likely to surrender to "we" , Shao and her peers are witnessing a revolution that turns more and more Chinese to identify themselves as individuals in the cyber world.
The different opinions towards the Internet between Shao and her mother reflect the profound changes in China since the country adopted the reform and opening-up policies in the late 1970s, said Hu Qiheng, chairwoman of the Internet Society of China (ISC).
The Internet is playing an important role in raising the publicawareness of individuality and citizenship in China, by "providing a platform for the Chinese, who tend to be silent in real life, to express themselves and exchange ideas", said Hu.
On April 20, 1994, as the vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Hu applied to the National Science Foundation of the United States to be connected with the Internet, and thus ushered in an entirely new cyber world for the most populous country in the world.
The first Internet surfers in China were more than 1,000 scientists. Fifteen years later, the country's netizen population surged to 338 million, according to a report released by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) in July.
"Everyone is someone on the Internet, which has been shaping a new generation in China. Between their own interests and the mainstream social values, they are more freely pursuing the former than their parents," Hu said.
Internet has broadened the information channels for the general public, and "more importantly, the distribution of information is interactive and real-time," said Chen Jiangong, a CNNIC senior analyst.
Zhang Jie, a 26-year-old magazine editor in the southwestern municipality of Chongqing, has found surfing online indispensable in her daily life since she first had access to Internet 10 years ago. Like most of her friends and colleagues, Zhang relies heavily on the Internet for things like working, entertaining and shopping.
"The Internet does not only bring convenience to my life, but more importantly, it reforms my mindset," said Zhang.
Before there was a thing called Internet, there was less accesses to information and a lack of diverse voices from the media, she said.
"It didn't differ much to read one newspaper or 10 because what they said was similar. But this has been changed by the Internet," she said.
Tianya Forum, a virtual social community based in the southern-most Hainan Province, is Zhang's favorite. Her daily visit to the forum includes reading entries from "Tianya By-talk" ,which focuses on hot social issues.
Founded in 1999, Tianya has become one of the most popular online communities in China, where Zhang transforms herself into a netizen named "Caocao" or "Grass" .
The latest hot topic that attracted Zhang's concern is the crackdown on mafia in Chongqing.
"There are plaudits as well as doubts of it's long-term effect," said Zhang.
"Different opinions stir scepticism and push me to look into the issues more carefully before coming to a conclusion," she said. "The Internet gives me much more than a digital identity, it transforms me into a person with independent thought and open mind."
Zhang's story is by no means unique on the Tianya By-talk, which receives more than 100 million visits each month.
Administrator Xiaodang attributed the forum's success to its openness and tolerance of different ideas.
"Everyone can express their own ideas, carry out discussions. Sometimes quarrels are inevitable," he said.
Xiaodang's parents, however, are not used to the "active atmosphere" on Tianya, although they also read news on portal websites such as sina.com and check emails from their Yahoo inboxes.
"When they know I make comments on some sensitive topics, they will ask me to be prudent and restrained," he said. "Self-expression seems less important to them."
The 25-year-old declined his parents' suggestions. On the contrary he feels it is his right and responsibility to voice thoughts of his own.
"A responsible netizen should be honest, objective and rational," he said.
Xiaodang is proud of Tianya users' involvement in social issues. A recent example is a Hong Kong-based user who called for compassion and donations for the typhoon victims in Taiwan.
"It has raised a stronger sense of social responsibilities among netizens," he said.
The Internet has given rise to Chinese people's awareness of citizenship, which is helpful to build a civil society in China, said researcher Chen Jiangong.
"It was some elites taking the lead to push forward reforms in China in the past, but nowadays the Internet has become a driving force, especially of topics with much public concern," said Chen.
"Expression of individuality needs to be encouraged in a country which values creativity. The Internet is speeding up maturity of Chinese people's individuality," said Hu Qiheng.