The popularity of a new auto-chat app among young Chinese netizens has sparked debate about social skills and tendencies under China's one-child policy and craze for online networking tools.
By Sunday, the "little yellow chick" app had attracted more than 2.2 million followers. It was launched in December on Renren, the Chinese version of Facebook, a social networking site most popular among students.
Anyone can post a message to which the "chick" will respond with its smart while mischievous replies. Although the replies are generated by sophisticated software rather than human direction, netizens have been amused by its humorous and frequently surprising answers.
It has become a perfect talking mate for fun-hunting youngsters. It knows Lady Gaga's "Poker Face," and can tell a boy to go get his love if he has a crush on a girl. It often humors the human conversation partner as the best-looking guy or girl in the world.
"We don't have to worry about bothering others when talking with this chick, which is a relief for us overseas students," said Chang Yue, a university freshman.
It also gives young people a channel to vent their complaints about study pressure, emotional problems as well as their opinions about social events.
Web users even asked about solutions to tackle Beijing's worsening air quality when China's capital city choked in dense smog in January.
"The app has catered to the need of youngsters to communicate with people and feel emotionally connected," said Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociology professor from Renmin University of China.
Under China's current family-planning policy, most Chinese families only have one child, and Zhou believes this feeds into the success of little yellow chick.
"The only child in a family lacks emotional communication when they grow up, which makes them more prone to be technology dependent," according to the academic.
But some also worry about what such apps says about people's alienation from conventional society.
"Not just people's loneliness in the real world, but also their lack of trust in society, has contributed to the success of the auto-reply app," said "ccllong" on Twitter-like Sina Weibo.
The chick is not the first technology of its kind to draw netizens' attention. "Xiaotu," a robot-like auto-reply app on the website of the prestigious Tsinghua University's library, quickly went viral last year after users found it cute and cunning.
Like "Xiaotu," the chick also has the ability to learn by itself. It understands the latest news events, hot words, and even dirty jokes, which it actually learns from online followers.
An in-built "teach" button has enabled its users to design and update commonly used language for the program.
For example, when the chick receives a new buzz word beyond its database, the app will automatically memorize it and use it in subsequent responses.
Humanized as the the auto-reply system may seem, some netizens have been disappointed to learn that they are only communicating with a program speaking a computer code-converted language.
"I'd rather talk with my mother," said "_goushu_" on Sina Weibo.
Di Qian, a Chinese student at the University of Pennsylvania, is just one of those disillusioned by the app. An analytical article he wrote and posted on his blog may speak for most of the chick's followers.
"We are disappointed that the chick is just a program. But it also means that there is no such person that can come to us any moment when we need them. It is only us. We always need a companion, be it with family members or our loved ones," wrote Di on his Renren account.