Yao Chen and Han Han are two of Weibo’s most followed users
A brief introduction for the uninitiated
Sina Weibo is a micro-blogging service offered by internet giant Sina. Similar to Twitter (which is blocked in China), it enables users to upload 140-character posts, along with pictures, videos and links. Other users can then repost, share or comment on these posts. Sina Weibo’s main rival is Tencent Weibo, which has successfully brought over a large number of users from its immensely popular QQ instant messaging service.
For those who aren’t confident in their Chinese, Sina launched a partial English language version of Weibo in January this year. So far, the update only gives access to some menu options in English, but it is a clear indicator that Sina is placing more emphasis on its non-China users. (Note: the English service is currently targeted at users in Southeast Asia, but people have had success selecting the English option in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries as well)
Why you (and your business) should be on Weibo
If you’re interested in contemporary China, Weibo is the perfect place to read thought-provoking (and sometimes scandalous) news stories before they break on mainstream news channels. Many of the biggest stories that have rocked China over the past few years were first picked up and then amplified by Weibo, including the Wenzhou train collision and a slew of food safety scandals. You can keep up to date with what Weibo users are talking about by following the “热门话题” (hot topics) on the right hand side of the Weibo homepage. These topics are also used in posts as hashtags.
Weibo also places a great deal of focus on social feedback and interaction. Sina Weibo’s threaded comments feature remains more advanced than Twitter, allowing you to see a timeline of responses to your post with a single click. This encourages debate and commentary within the comments thread. Users can choose to share the original post to their own weibo when they post a comment, increasing the potential exposure of the post.
Just like Facebook and Twitter, Weibo has also become a major boon for businesses; there are over 230,000 enterprise accounts on Weibo. According to a recent Sina white paper, over 1,000 foreign companies have also registered Weibo accounts, including 143 Fortune Global 500 companies. Foreign companies are beginning to grasp the potential of Weibo as a convenient way to promote their brand to China’s burgeoning consumer-minded middle class. It is a cost-effective way to reach consumers in lower-tier cities and even rural areas, where brands might otherwise have to rely on local sales channels and partners. More importantly, it provides a platform to monitor and respond to what people are saying about your brand in real time.
Getting in with the in crowd: Who to follow
So now you have your Weibo account up and running, who should you follow? Weibo’s search feature makes it easy to find people who post about topics you are interested in. For example, a simple search for “美食” (food) brings up both posts on the topic and related users. You can also refine your search so that it only includes posts from verified users (认证用户) who have passed Sina’s strict verification procedures.
Commanding the attention of tens of millions of users, the Weibo accounts of celebrities and opinion leaders are extremely influential. Some celebrities are worth following for their interesting and candid takes on current events, while other accounts simply offer a glimpse into the life of a celebrity in China. Sina’s top Weibo user, actress Yaochen (姚晨) has over 38 million followers (by way of reference, Lady Gaga has around 34 million Twitter followers). Other popular users include outspoken Taiwanese TV host Xiao S, Innovation Works’ Kai-fu Lee and blogger and race car driver Han Han.
Although they don’t command the same amount of followers as their Chinese counterparts, Western celebrities are also getting in on the Weibo act. Tom Cruise’s official Weibo account has over 5 million loyal followers and he (or perhaps more likely the account admin) regularly uses the platform to interact with his fans. Brad Pitt caused a stir in January when he joined Weibo and posted the cryptic message “It is the truth. Yup, I’m coming…”. Speculation erupted over whether the message implied Pitt would finally be allowed back into China, having been banned from entering the country for his role in the film Seven Years in Tibet. However, it seems that as of mid-February his account has been deleted.
The darker side of Weibo
The questions raised by the removal of Pitt’s Weibo account bring the darker side of Weibo to the fore. Much like China’s traditional media outlets, Weibo is plagued by censorship issues. In addition to employing advanced algorithms that block searches for sensitive terms or posts containing blacklisted keywords, Sina Weibo is believed to employ thousands of people to manually check and remove posts. Even celebrities aren’t safe; on February 18 Kai-fu Lee took to Twitter to announce that he had been banned from both Sina and Tencent Weibo for three days, encouraging his followers to use Twitter instead. Although it’s still unclear as to why he was blocked from Weibo—Lee speculates that it’s due to a post he made criticising the recent appointment of former Olympic table tennis champion Deng Yaping as CEO of search engine People’s Daily-operated search engine Jike—it just goes to show the enormous power of the Chinese authorities over content and online opinion.
If this is the case, how then is Weibo so often the site of popular backlash against corrupt government officials and food safety scandals? In fact, many contend that the Chinese government allows a modicum of criticism of small-scale or local-level corruption and scandal in order to create the illusion of a lively public sphere based on free speech. In reality however, these discussions are far from random and serve to deflect attention away from wider-ranging political and social issues.
As a result of this tightly controlled, difficult to navigate environment, Weibo has developed a rich sub-culture that thrives on ambiguity. Chinese characters twisted to reveal a new meaning, emoticons used instead of text, vague quotes from famous authors; all can be used to express displeasure or support for a particular cause. Moreover, many users still hide behind a mask of anonymity, giving them scope to say what’s on their mind. In theory new Weibo users have been required to register with their real names and Chinese ID card number when signing up for an account since March 2012. However, Sina has struggled, perhaps even been reluctant to, implement this policy and some users have been able to bypass it by faking their ID card numbers.
It is impossible to say whether Weibo will have a radical effect on Chinese society as a whole. For better or worse, most users are aware of the Chinese government’s censorship policies and remain content to use Weibo as a place to share pictures of their cats and check up on what their favourite actress had for dinner. What is clear however is that Weibo is happening right now and if you aren’t on it already, then you’re missing out.