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    How Social Media Is Propelling Students to Stardom

    Chinese “study bloggers” like Liu Jianing have attracted large online followings for their tales of academic excellence and lessons in how to handle the pressures of college.

    Liu Jianing never meant to become an online celebrity. Like pretty much everything else in her life, it was initially just a study project.

    Since enrolling at Shanghai’s Fudan University about five years ago, Liu has posted regularly on social media about her academic adventures and how she monitors her progress and motivates herself to keep going, making her a must-follow for tens of thousands of people nationwide, particularly students.

    Though sometimes discussing topics in great detail, such as her experiences with writing essays, end-of-term grades, and rankings, Liu’s posts tend to be short and sweet. “March 6: Woke up at 7:30 a.m. — created a to-do list,” reads one typical example. Several days later, she added, “March 10: Studied for nine hours and 18 minutes — but need to keep improving.”

    At the beginning of 2023, much to the delight of her fans, she posted images of the acceptance letters she had received from postgraduate study programs at four prestigious universities.

    Liu began tracking her studies in high school. At the time, she was struggling to cope with the pressures of schoolwork, so decided to post daily on Baidu Tieba, an online forum, as a way to record her journey from grades two to three.

    “From first in my grade to 14th: pretty upset,” reads a post from that time, while in another she reveals, “Thought about how many high achievers are around me: really anxious.” She even chided herself for “goofing off” at times. In response, other netizens began leaving encouraging comments, telling her to “keep going” and to believe in herself.

    After achieving a high score in the gaokao, China’s national college entrance exam, and being accepted into Fudan’s School of Journalism, she was so proud that she posted her result on Baidu Tieba.

    Taking notes

    It was during her freshman year that Liu began attracting a significant following. Like many of her classmates, Liu had opened an account on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, shortly after starting college. However, she only began using it in earnest when she took an elective course in the spring semester that required students to create their own social media content.

    Following her teacher’s instructions, Liu adopted the style of some well-known bloggers and updated her account almost daily. As she had done at high school, she began sharing her study process. For photos, she would initially use crumpled pieces of paper on which were scrawled English words to demonstrate her work.

    To solicit likes and comments, she would frequently open Weibo and interact with fans throughout the day, often spending two to three hours at a time. She then experienced a sudden rise in popularity, or “very good data” as she puts it, although later she analyzed her blog’s performance and felt that most followers were mainly attracted by the fact she went to Fudan, one of China’s most high-profile universities.

    However, she felt flattered when a school counselor said that they had read her blog and referred to Liu as an “internet celebrity.” She also came across a younger student during a campus activity who said that she had been a fan of Liu’s since her senior year of high school.

    Recognizing that being a student of a prestigious university was a “selling point,” Liu decided to tag a new location on the Fudan campus in each post — the teaching building, liberal arts building, the library — to make the data look good.

    As her fan base grew, she started receiving messages from young people worried about the national college entrance examination, and some would even ask her for advice on dealing with depression and other serious issues. Liu began to think about her influence, occasionally sending heartfelt words but making sure her reply was visible only to her followers. Yet she was still concerned that her replies could be over-interpreted. She eventually made all her replies private, so that only she and the poster could see. Whenever she shared content that was visible to everyone, she made sure to be “as concise as possible.”

    Today, followers eagerly await Liu’s photos and news of her studies. She tries to post the maximum of nine photos in each post, as that generates more likes and comments, she says. If she’s unable to find nine pictures, she admits that she will blame herself and feel anxious.

    Liu now operates two Weibo accounts: One for posting her academic achievements and study experiences; the other she uses to pour her heart out. Her main account has tens of thousands of followers, and the word she uses the most is “busy.”

    “Early to bed, early to rise — study for eight hours daily like it’s a full-time job,” she writes. “End-of-month report: realized that I forgot to recite words for three days — OCD immediately kicked in.”

    One teacher sometimes recommends supplementary books for her class, but she is often the only one who reads them. Revising for finals until the early hours is also the norm for Liu. When she feels down, she immediately will tell herself to stop complaining and to just get on with it. At the same time, she’ll post something on Weibo to encourage herself, such as: “No generation’s youth has it easy.”

    High profile

    Even after receiving admission letters from master degree courses at several top universities, Liu’s final year at Fudan was still hectic, as she needed to land an internship.

    In truth, Liu has been this busy since she was a child. At primary school, her weekends were filled with extracurricular classes — music, art, and languages — and her application for junior high school included a list of awards she had won from various competitions. She says she was “used to being organized by my parents.”

    Ideally, the internship will help prepare Liu for employment, although it’s early days. In fact, she’s still not clear about what she wants to do in the future, explaining that generally she feels “work is basically all the same.”

    Liu has added “study blogger” to her résumé. At every upcoming interview, whether it’s at a technology company, advertising firm, or elsewhere, she expects to be asked about this experience and for her ideas on how to be successful. She’s aware that her online celebrity status could prove an advantage at this important stage.

    After deciding to look at overseas study options, Liu took both the IELTS and GRE standardized tests at the same time as completing her university classes and searching for an intern position. Her schedule has been particularly packed of late, but it also has served as social media content.

    Liu is among a growing collection of study bloggers in China. Zhou Xiaoxu, who runs another popular account, says that when she started out, she set herself the challenge of posting three or four times per week, sharing nine photos each time. Some of her early posts, including those covering her thoughts on goal-setting and class assessments, have been forwarded hundreds of times.

    However, Zhou was unable to maintain the necessary energy levels, and her enthusiasm diminished. Her followers began asking questions and expecting specific, detailed answers, with some leaving comments several paragraphs long about their struggles in learning English. But she wasn’t always able to respond. Over time, a section of her old fans drifted away.

    Other bloggers are more pragmatic. Li Qingqing started blogging while in high school. Her page has featured several of the prominent verification markers issued by Weibo over the years, such as “Top Campus Blogger,” while her videos have racked up nearly 6 million views in all.

    However, Li is not a traditional study blogger; she preferred to post about her daily life along with pictures of her photogenic campus at the Capital University of Economics and Business, in Beijing. She has faced some criticism, with comments such as, “Your grades aren’t good, what are you doing all this for?” One person even dug up her university information on Weibo, saying, “I thought she was a top student, but it turns out she’s not even at a top-tier university.” Li says comments like this annoy her. “I’ve never claimed to be a straight-A student.” she adds.

    In addition to engaging with her more than 200,000 followers on Weibo, Li posts on the short-video platform Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, and the lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu. She admits that she uses her accounts to earn money. After all, the more popular the Weibo account, the more money it can make — advertisers will come knocking, and the account owners can then promote products and services.

    Liu and Li both graduated from their respective universities in the summer. While Liu went on to study for her master’s degree at the University of Hong Kong, Li found a corporate job selling through social media.

    Upon starting life as a postgrad, Liu says she headed “straight to the library,” adding that the coming months will be filled with class and “enrichment activities.” As before, she sits front and center in the lecture theater.

    Since moving away from her native Shanghai, Liu’s Weibo content remains much the same, and it appears that she still experiences anxiety about her studies. One difference, however, is that her new campus is near the sea, which she likes to visit every day. She admits that when she watches the anglers on the shoreline, she sometimes feels envious of their relaxed lives.

    Liu also explains that she’s studying a one-year master’s program, so will soon need to start thinking about employment. That next chapter, she says, could be the scariest yet.

    Reported by Guo Sihang and Ge Mingning.

    (Due to privacy concerns, all the interviewees have been given pseudonyms.)

    A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translator: David Ball; editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.

    (Header image: Visuals from IC, reedited by Sixth Tone)