Upon arriving in China, the first thing that hit me was the sheer magnitude of its cyberspace. China’s internet culture is a world in itself, with its own set of rules, its own language, and its own icons. Among these, the “momo” phenomenon caught my eye and has continued to intrigue me. “Momo” isn’t just a nickname for a cute pink dinosaur avatar that people use on platforms like Douban and Xiaohongshu, it’s become a symbol of free speech and personal privacy in an increasingly monitored digital landscape​1​.

Now, the word “momo” might also remind some of the tech-savvy among us about Momo, a popular social search and instant messaging mobile app in China. This app, which allows users to chat with nearby friends and strangers, has become a vital part of the social fabric here, illustrating yet again how the digital realm is intricately woven into the day-to-day life in China​2​.

As someone who cherishes the freedom and anonymity that the internet can provide, I find the emergence of the real-name registration policy in China quite intriguing. China has been moving towards real-name registration for years. This policy compels internet users to register with their real identities on various online platforms. Initially rolled out in 2017, this initiative aimed to authenticate users of major platforms like Weibo and WeChat​3​. The policy has seen updates and expansions over time, evolving to require users, especially those posting content in specific categories like economics, education, and health, to submit professional credentials alongside their real identities​4​.

The juxtaposition of the “momo” phenomenon and the real-name registration policy paints a vivid picture of China’s dynamic cyberspace. On one hand, there’s a community rallying around a symbol of digital freedom and privacy, and on the other, there’s a structured effort by the authorities to regulate and monitor online interactions. This interplay reflects a broader narrative of evolving digital identities and the quest for a balance between individual freedom and collective responsibility in China’s digital domain.

The Momo Army

The transition of “momo” from a default avatar and nickname to a social camouflage is a testimony to the creative adaptability of netizens in China. Initially, when users logged into platforms like Xiaohongshu, Douban, and Zhihu via WeChat without choosing a nickname or an avatar, WeChat would assign them a default ID and avatar, which was the pink dinosaur, and the nickname “momo”​​. However, it wasn’t long before this mere digital convenience morphed into a social phenomenon known as the Momo Army (momo大军).

The rise of the “momo” army has been particularly intriguing. As digital spaces increasingly became avenues for self-expression, the fear of personal attacks also soared. Many joined the momo army for varied reasons; some were introverts (self-termed “i人”) who sought refuge from being singled out and berated online, others wanted to maintain a degree of privacy by having different nicknames across platforms to avoid exposure (开盒), and some just relished the freedom to post anonymously​5​. The collective adoption of the “momo” avatar turned social media platforms into a sea of pink dinosaurs, with platforms like Douban and Xiaohongshu being predominantly “occupied” by the momo army, to the extent that it became a humorous saying among netizens that if you haven’t come across a “momo”, you probably haven’t surfed the web enough​6​.

Momo Army – A group of different users with the same pink dinosaur avatar and momo nickname.

This social camouflage also brought about a sense of community, especially among those with dissenting opinions. There’s a humorous but telling remark from a netizen who said that since joining the momo army, they’ve become more outspoken in comment sections, knowing well that there would be other momos to “take the blame” for them. This humorous aspect, however, has a serious undertone as it highlights how the anonymity provided by the momo avatar enables individuals to express themselves without fear of personal attacks, thus fostering a form of digital solidarity​​.

On a personal note, the stories shared by individuals who adopted the “momo” avatar reveal the intrinsic human desire for a safe space to express oneself. For instance, a user named Terry, who once had a unique avatar and nickname, found herself expressing discontent about her job situation more freely after adopting the “momo” avatar, without the fear of being recognized by acquaintances or colleagues. This shift to a “momo” avatar allowed her to voice her frustrations without the fear of societal judgments, reflecting a larger narrative of individuals seeking anonymity to express dissent or simply to vent​7​.

The “momo” phenomenon underscores a broader theme of identity, expression, and the pursuit of digital camaraderie in a society that’s grappling with the balance between individual expression and collective harmony. Through humorous engagements and serious dialogues, the momo army continues to be a fascinating lens through which we can explore the evolving dynamics of China’s cyberspace.

The Forthcoming Real-Name Registration

The digital landscape in China is about to witness a significant shift with the forthcoming real-name registration policy, especially concerning self-media accounts. Self-media, referring to platforms or accounts that publish news and information but aren’t government-run or state-approved, will now be under more stringent management, particularly those non-institutional content publishers on platforms like WeChat and Weibo​8​​9​. This new stride in policy is a part of China’s broader objective to foster a sense of accountability among online content creators and possibly curb the spread of misinformation. The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) has rolled out new requirements aimed at preventing accounts that disseminate fake news or misinformation from monetizing their content​3​.

This upcoming policy isn’t the first of its kind but is a more beefed-up version of the 2015 real-name registration rules. The updated regulations now require users posting content in specific categories like economics, education, medical and health, and judicial matters to submit professional credentials alongside their real identities​10​. These changes come with a dual objective: to ensure that information shared online, especially concerning critical and sensitive topics, is credible and to hold individuals accountable for the content they share.

The implications of such a policy are vast and varied. On one hand, supporters argue that real-name registration creates a more credible online speech environment, encouraging individuals to be more responsible with their words​11​. However, on the flip side, this policy has sparked widespread controversy, particularly around issues of free speech, privacy, and law enforcement​12​. The real-name registration facilitates government surveillance of online activities, undermining the right to privacy in a disproportionate manner​13​.

Drawing parallels from past policies, the enforcement of real-name registration has historically ignited fierce debates. For instance, when real-name registration rules were enforced for microblog users in 2012, it was met with resistance as it was seen as a move to curb online freedom of expression and privacy​14​.

Interplay Between Momo and Real-Name Registration

The direct impact of the real-name registration policy on the “momo” army and the broader culture of anonymity online in China doesn’t seem to be explicitly outlined in the searched resources. However, based on the information gathered about the real-name registration policy and the “momo” phenomenon, some educated analysis and predictions can be made.

The “momo” army emerged as a form of social camouflage allowing individuals to express themselves without fear of personal attacks, fostering a sense of community among those with dissenting opinions, and creating humorous and serious outcomes like mistaken identities and digital solidarity​​. The forthcoming real-name registration policy is an initiative aimed at ensuring accountability and curbing misinformation by requiring self-media accounts, especially those with a significant following, to display real names on the front end​​.

The interaction between these two phenomena is bound to create ripples in the digital ecosystem of China. The real-name registration policy might pose a threat to the culture of anonymity that the “momo” army cherishes. This policy could deter individuals from expressing dissenting or controversial opinions for fear of retribution, thus potentially diminishing the “momo” army’s strength and influence. The culture of anonymity has long served as a buffer against potential backlash, but with real names out in the open, the dynamics might change significantly.

Moreover, the overall culture of Chinese social media platforms might shift towards a more restrained and cautious environment. Community interactions could become more civil yet less vibrant as individuals might restrain from engaging in discussions that could be deemed sensitive or controversial. The real-name registration could also discourage new users from joining these platforms if they are not comfortable with disclosing their real identities.

Additionally, the real-name policy might drive a wedge between different community groups, with some supporting the move for a more responsible and credible digital environment, and others opposing it for stifling freedom of expression and privacy​​. This polarization could lead to a less cohesive online community, with potential clashes between different groups.

Lastly, these changes might also affect the platforms themselves. They might have to invest in more robust moderation systems to ensure compliance with the real-name registration policy, which could in turn affect their popularity and user base.

The impending real-name registration policy represents a pivotal moment in China’s digital evolution, potentially marking a shift from a more free-wheeling online environment to a more regulated and monitored one. Through the lens of the “momo” army and the real-name registration policy, the complex interplay between digital freedom and accountability in China’s cyberspace continues to unfold.

As someone who has navigated the waves of China’s vast digital ocean, I can’t help but feel a pang of nostalgia for the early days when the “momo” army was in full bloom, and the digital landscape felt like a wild, uncharted territory. The camaraderie among momos, the vibrant discussions, and the shared laughter over a sea of pink dinosaur avatars created a sense of belonging and freedom that was palpable even through the cold glow of the screen.

But as the proverbial winds of change blow through the realms of China’s cyberspace with the impending real-name registration policy, the contours of this digital wilderness are bound to change. The veil of anonymity that once allowed for uninhibited expression is lifting, making way for a new era of digital accountability.

It’s a bitter-sweet transition, to say the least. On one hand, the quest for a more accountable and transparent digital environment is a noble endeavor, one that aims to curb misinformation and foster a sense of responsibility among netizens. On the other hand, the charm of the unknown, the thrill of exploration, and the essence of free expression that came with anonymity are aspects of the digital culture that will be dearly missed.

As I pen down these thoughts, I can’t help but wonder about the myriad voices that might go silent, the potential creativity that might be stifled, and the unique community interactions that might fade away with the enforcement of the real-name registration policy. Yet, amidst these reflections, there’s a glimmer of hope that the spirit of the “momo” army will continue to live on in some form, carving out new spaces of expression within the evolving framework of China’s digital realm.

The journey through the complex, ever-evolving landscape of China’s cyberspace has been nothing short of enlightening. Each day brings forth new lessons, new perspectives, and new understandings of the delicate balance between freedom and accountability. And as the tides of change continue to shape the shores of China’s digital domain, I remain eager and open to witnessing and adapting to the new narratives that will emerge from this intricate interplay between policy, technology, and community.