China’s Year of the Microblog: Tracking an Online Revolution in 140 Characters or Less

When Twitter was launched in July of 2006, it was not immediately evident that we were catching our first glimpse of a microblogging revolution that was about to take hold of the online global community. It took Twitter 3 years, 2 months, and 1 day to reach its billionth tweet. The microblogging giant now churns out one billion tweets per week. On the day of its launch, Twitter users sent 224 tweets in total. Twitter users now send the same amount of tweets in 0.1 seconds. By July of 2011, Twitter had registered 200 million accounts, with users based in countries around the world. Microblogging’s rapid entrance onto the Internet scene has fundamentally changed the way that much of the online community shares, finds, and views information. Microblogging has helped ferment revolutions, exonerate prisoners, and track large-scale tragedies and triumphs alike.

It should not be surprising then, that microblogging, with its capacity for rapid dissemination and retrieval of real-time information both social and political, has been particularly popular in countries with repressive regimes, such as China, which actively controls and monitors the flow of online information. China first made its plunge into the microblogging frenzy nine months after Twitter’s launch, with the creation of its mirror microblogging service Jiwai.de, followed by Fanfou.

However, it was not until the launch of Sina Weibo in 2009 that microblogging in China really took off. Unlike its predecessors, Sina was more trusted by the Chinese government and consequently managed to avoid some of the stickier censorship issues that thwarted the first microblogging platforms in China. Sina Weibo took 66 days to reach its first its first million users. Just over 100 days later, Sina Weibo had amassed 10 million followers. The microblogging revolution had come to China.

Since 2010, China’s two largest microblogging platforms, Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo, have posted staggering levels of growth. Together, Sina Weibo’s 140 million users and Tencent’s 80 million users surpass the 200 million user bar recently set by Twitter in July 2011. This year in particular has been a big year for Chinese microblogging, one which may very aptly be dubbed China’s Year of the Microblog. Below are some of the major highlights from 2011:

Sina Weibo Takes Microblogging Community by Storm

While 2011 has been a big year for Chinese microblogging at large, it has been an especially big year for the current microblogging platform titan in China: Sina Weibo. When Sina Weibo hit 140 million users this past May, Twitter was edging up on its 200 million mark. However, what makes Sina’s 140 million bar particularly striking is that Sina Weibo’s userbase is almost exclusively Chinese, whereas Twitter has expanded to several countries around the world. Some may be quick to point out that China’s population of 1.3 billion is significantly larger than the US’s 313 million. However, this should be qualified by the fact that China’s level of Internet penetration lags far behind the US’s and that of many countries which make up much of Twitter’s international base.
If Sina Weibo’s home-turf success in China is anything to measure its global potential by, then Twitter may soon be in trouble. This past June, Sina announced plans to launch an English version of its popular Weibo service. While some have pointed out that users may be reluctant to sign up for Sina Weibo’s self-censored service, there are still many incentives for international users to sign up with an English Weibo. First, Weibo’s interface has largely been heralded as being better than Twitter’s, as it includes the ability to comment on other postings, directly include audio and pictures, start vote counts, and is generally more user-friendly­­­­­­­­­­. Second, due to the original Chinese language platform of Sina’s Weibo, Weibo will have the opportunity to poach current Twitter users, while the reverse will not be true: this is Twitter’s game to lose.
Beyond spreading its international ambitions, Sina has made some considerable power plays to secure its dominant role as the preeminent microblogging platform at home, not the least of which included debuting its two new domain namesweibo.com and weibo.cn. It may help to know that “weibo” translates literally into “microblog” or “microblogging.” Essentially, Sina bought the Chinese equivalent of “microblog(ging).com.” This should give Sina’s Weibo a significant online advantage over its next closest competitor, Tencent Weibo, along with other Chinese-language microblogging startups.

Chinese Queen of Microblogging Hits 10 Million Followers

Chinese actress Yao Chen, dubbed China’s microblogging queen, hit 10 million followers this past July on Sina Weibo, leading many news sources to claim that she had become one of the top 10 most followed microbloggers in the world, and the first non-Twitter user to join the top 10. Although Yao Chen may be close to edging out Lady Gaga’s 12 million-strong Twitter fan base, it is worth mentioning that Tencent’s weibo service has about 17 Chinese celebrities with more than 10 million followers each, including Olympian Liu Xiang, who may be the most followed microblogger in the world with over 18 million followers. This discrepancy in reporting may possibly be explained by the fact that Sina also owns its own news source and thus has more readily available access to disseminating newsworthy information than Tencent, which does not.

Chinese Microblogging Booms Even as Internet Growth Slows

2011 saw a massive surge in Chinese microblogging subscriptions, jumping 208.9% from 63.11 million at the end of 2010 to 195 million by the end of June 2011. Moreover, this growth occurred with the backdrop of China’s overall online growth slowing to a mere 6.1%. For perspective, this is down from 29.6% in 2007 and 9.4% in 2010. It is not as if China is running out of potential Internet users: its Internet penetration rate is still hovering at 36.2%, far behind the rates in the US, which top 70%. The conflict between these two trends may be partially explained by the large growth in the proportion of mobile users, which grew from 15.5% to 34.0% between the end of 2010 and the end of June 2011, an increase of 119.3% (mobile Internet users are not included in data on Internet penetration).

Microblogging Moves Faster than Censorship

What is perhaps most important about China’s microblog surge is its implications for the Chinese state’s control over media and the flow of information. On July 23, 2011, when two high speed trains collided in Wenzhou, China, killing 40 people and injuring over 210, the first wave of information about the crash came from China’s microbloggers. Microblogging from the scene of the crash frequently exposed details not covered by the state media. When local lawyers were ordered by officials not to take cases from crash victims, Weibo users reported on the mandate and officials were forced to apologize and reverse their position. After a flurry of microblogs aimed online suspicion towards the Chinese order to bury the first car of the train that was destroyed in the crash, the car was unearthed and brought back to Wenzhou for analysis.
If 2011 continues its trend as a boom year for Chinese microblogging, it will be one year that the Chinese state will want to watch. Microblogging has made information easier to access and distribute and far more difficult to control. It is too widespread to snuff out at this point (roughly 40% of China’s online population has a microblog), and the nature of reblogging allows damning information to go viral at a rate to fast to block. How far China’s microblogging revolution will go remains to be seen, but if the first 8 months of 2011 are any indicator, it shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.

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