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It’s a well-known truism that the internet in China is lousy. But business has to be done and file transfers have to be made. New media artists in particular, who can work with large complex files, would be at a loss if they relied on Western sites like YouSendIt (blocked), DropBox (blocked) and even Skype (routed through servers outside China). Any file over 50 MB can literally take hours to download from the web, if not longer.

A screenshot from the QQ web site showing some of the interface features.

What’s a file-heavy new media artist or denizen to do? Enter Tencent QQ, China’s top instant messaging system. Know as QQ for short, the service hosts a ton of features, from chat rooms to games to avatars to custom skins, as well as its own robust microblogging service. This range of features has helped make QQ become the dominant instant messaging technology in China, with a reported 800 million accounts. That’s not a typo — that is indeed more than twice the population of the United States, all on one service.

Here’s why it matters for artists:

Quick, simple file transfers: This is hands down one of the best reasons for artists and designers to use QQ. When transferring files within China, avoiding the Great Firewall means you can have a normal internet speed again. I use QQ to transfer large files — from images to Illustrator vectors to even CAD and hi-resolution video. And despite its cutesy, cartoony interface, I even use it to conduct business with Chinese contacts.

An animated GIF floating around Sina Weibo with a baby saying “Good morning.” The animated GIF community on Tencent QQ is like Tumblr’s but on Red Bull.

Embeddable animated GIFs: It might be annoying for the average Skype user, but embedded animations can be collected on QQ and distributed to friends. Animated GIFs pop up in regular conversation, from basic smileys to more elaborate creations that you can build upon. Think of Tumblr’s animated GIF community on Red Bull.

Everyone’s on it: That might be an exaggeration when talking about most social media, East or West, but with QQ, it’s almost true. Most Chinese phones come with QQ built in, and on trains, planes and subways I regularly hear the familiar sound of a new QQ message chirping from someone’s phone, tablet or laptop. Some people here even place their QQ number on their business card. What this means is that using QQ opens the door to connecting with the arts community, and China in general, through voice, video and basic text chatting.

Fortunately, the barriers to beginning are a little easier than Sina Weibo, which I’ve written about extensively. With an international version available in English, there’s nothing stopping you from signing up and trying out Tencent QQ. With embedded media and a massive audience, it’s ripe for artistic exploration. More on this in a future follow-up on Chinese social media and art.

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