One of the things I noted when I got to the Bay Area was the pervasiveness of Twitter. It has definitely achieved mainstream here, with many small businesses advertising their twitter links. Of course, only few companies have had effective marketing success with Twitter, but the fact that everyone is aware of it, and wants to maintain a presence on it, is testimony to the service’s mass adoption.
In China, the micro-blogging scene is very different. Whereas in the US a winner-takes-all scenario has more-or-less already happened (as long as Twitter is scaling up rapidly enough to meet the demand), in China the space is severely under-developed. The single biggest reason to this is government censorship. Since July, most of the leading Twitter-clones in China (Fanfou, Digu etc.) have been ordered to close shop, due to government fears that rioters in Xinjiang will use these tools to communicate (Facebook was also banned in China around that time). As of now, Zuosa is one of the remaining twitter-clones still in operation, and it is walking a very fine line. One of the co-founders of Zuosa is Alex Mou, whose Twitter account is Aleksoft. His twitter stream is mostly retweets of saucy tweets on Zuosa (links to hot girls’ pics, for example, the type of borderline porn stuff that passes as “social news” on all major Chinese portals to attract traffic).
Another development in recent months is the entrance of big Chinese portals into this space. Sina’s offering, unimaginatively named “Sina micro-blogging” (literal translation), is currently invite only. From people who have signed up to the service, the discussions are heavily self-censored by Sina, and accounts seem to have been deleted due to sensitive political comments. My feeling is that Sina is walking a fine line here – at invite-only stage, the service is being well controlled in terms of scale, making it less of a nuisance for government watchdogs. And the self-censoring certainly helps keep it under the radar. But that also destroys the service’s value – since this is akin to a self-selection process of content, at the end of which only saucy gossip will remain (since high-value users will have migrated elsewhere).
Which brings us back to Twitter. Despite being blocked by the GFW, tech-savvy Chinese are still accessing and actively using the service. This is also a self-selection process – now the only Chinese bloggers on Twitter seem to be the politically charged activists / dissidents, and a big part of their discussion is about the sensitive stuff. Take Ai Weiwei (Twitter id: aiww) for example. Ai is a famous artist / architect in China, perhaps most famously known for his work on the “Bird’s Nest”, the Olympic Stadium in Beijing. He is also a famously outspoken activist, and his twitter stream is a constant rant against the system in China. And Chinese internet users have devised many ways to go around the GFW block, the result of which, I feel, that has consolidated Twitter’s leadership in Chinese micro-blogging – if this indeed turns out to be the case, then Twitter would join the ranks of a small list of international websites that have taken off in China (whereas Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Myspace, Yahoo etc. have all failed to make a dent in the local market), ironically due to the government’s killing of its major local competitors. But it will also mean that micro-blogging will still have a long way to go before becoming truly mainstream in China.
The Chinese web-space is craving for micro-blogging services, thanks to the artificial control on supply. This is why I have seen very healthy interest in the new Yahoo Meme from Chinese users on Twitter. So, somewhat perversely, the Chinese micro-blogging landscape remains a white-space (albeit a highly volatile one) for players to compete.