They’re a physical commodity, but they’re also a meme — popularized by celebrities, shared endlessly on Twitter and Instagram and Vine, discussed to death by the chittering idea factory that is the English-language internet. ... One of those factories is Gaoke (or “High Tech”) Times, a midsize plant situated on 120,000 square feet in a Bao An industrial park. ... churn out 600 boards in a day, for customers in the U.S., U.K., Dubai, and Australia. ... In the two decades Gaoke has been here in Shenzhen, it has made desktop phones, then DVD players, televisions, mobile devices, and eventually tablets, which today are the largest part of its business. ... About six months ago, at the request of some of the company’s existing tablet customers, Gaoke had started manufacturing them. New product crazes present struggling businesses and eager entrepreneurs alike with an opportunity to leave behind glutted markets, and the nature of China’s booming electronics business is to be adaptable to the whims of a global market. ... Fang Zuoyi estimated that there are at least 1,000 factories in the Shenzhen area making hoverboards. ... It starts when a (typically) Western company, eager to cash in on a product made popular by the social internet, contracts a Chinese factory to make it. From here, the idea spreads throughout the elaborate social networks of Chinese electronics manufacturing until the item in question is being produced by hundreds and hundreds of competitors, who subcontract and sell components to each other, even as they all make the same thing. It reaches its saturation point quickly. It moves from product to product without sentiment. And it is proof that our never-ending digital output, our tweets and Vines and Instagrams and Facebook posts, has the power to shape the lives of people on the other side of the world.
Around Shenzhen, since mid-December a cottage industry of more than 1,000 factories that were churning out the boards has shrunk to a couple hundred. “We maybe lost 50% of our revenues after the Amazon announcement,” says Feng, speaking from his shamrock-green factory floor. ... Unlicensed manufacturers had begun copying Chic’s board immediately after it appeared at the Canton trade show. By the summer of 2015, more than a thousand factories—up to 10,000, by some estimates—were making boards for distributors who sold them abroad online. Factories like Feng’s that had been making LED screens or iPhone cases switched to building hoverboards in a matter of days. And many factories, licensed and otherwise, cut corners on safety standards, often by subbing in cheaper, potentially flammable batteries.