Overview of Micro-blogging in China

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.


7 thoughts on “Overview of Micro-blogging in China”

  1. Please do not take as a political comment. I do not see why the censorship is the main reason that microblogging is not thriving in China. Short message as well as QQ both grow into huge business. And people are not online for sensitive information. Maybe I do not understand the difference. Would you mind point out?

  2. Hey I love the discussion! Helps me to be more precise in my thinking too.
    To answer your question, I think that from the adoption curve, the early adopters tend to be the more socially active / politically active people (empirical observation). The majority of users on Fanfou were still talking about the usual pop-culture stuff – just like on Twitter, perhaps 99% of the tweets are not “useful” – but the minority was discussing really important and sensitive topics (like corruption). Because of these minority users, the government will shut down the service, and as a result the majority of users also lose the service. That’s why new micro-blogs like Sina’s are so picky about users and censoring content.
    I think from the users perspective, if a service was used casually and shut down, they will not bother to sign up to another service. Only the hardcore users will try to continue to use micro-blogging, and that’s why a lot of the Chinese users on Twitter are so political (they are the hardcore users).

  3. Thanks for the reply! I see. So the main issue is whether there could be a reliable service under the censorship. Is the censorship predictable? If not, is it due to technical issues? Will reliability of the service improve if the censorship technique gets improved?

  4. The censorship is intentionally not predictable – this forces websites like Sina.com to self-censor first; if something is “illegal”, they will receive take-down notices from relevant departments; their site may also be blocked too at the same time. I think a critical issue here is that the government does not want people to know they are doing censorship. And while the technique is improving, it is also reducing the value of the services – for example there are so many keywords being censored nowadays that it is almost too hard to have a normal conversation. Not sure if this fully addresses your question…

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