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The Demise Of Sina Weibo: Censorship Or Evolution?

Feb 4 2014, 7:14pm CST | by

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The Demise Of Sina Weibo: Censorship Or Evolution?
 
 

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The Demise Of Sina Weibo: Censorship Or Evolution?

While China’s social media users are at home spending time with their families for the Spring Festival holiday, the rest of the world is busy trying to make sense of what happened to Sina Weibo. Engagement on the popular social network has dropped like a rock, and no one is quite sure why.

Sina Weibo is a microblogging service that was being hailed as a revolution for China’s internet just a few years ago. Following its launch in the summer of 2009, Weibo grew quickly, attracting hundreds of millions of users. Users loved its brevity and the speed at which it could transmit information. Western pundits loved the way it seemed to be subverting China’s censorship system, which wasn’t quick enough to respond to the absolute torrent of messages Weibo could unleash when high-profile events like the Wenzhou high speed rail crash were unfolding. Investors loved it because it gave Sina a foothold in China’s massive social media market.

At its height, Weibo had more than 600 million registered users. Sina claimed the service had 60.2 million daily active users just a few months ago. But there’s no denying that things are on the downswing. A survey of the site’s power users last summer found that they were actually becoming less active on the service. And a recent study by the Telegraph that sampled the activities of 1.6 million of the site’s users found that activity had been dropping since late 2011, and dropped precipitously in the fall of 2013.

The drop is especially baffling because China’s internet is still growing at around 10% annually as new users come online for the first time, so the market for any social network in China expands significantly each year. So why has Weibo seemingly fallen by the wayside? That depends on who you ask. Whether the downfall of Weibo was caused by government censorship or the rise of competitor WeChat has become a topic of debate among watchers of China’s tech landscape.

WeChat—a mobile social app by Tencent that’s called Weixin in China—certainly has gotten the attention of China’s social media users. Launched in early 2011, the app had racked up 50 million users by the end of the year. It broke 200 million in 2012, and cracked 300 million in early 2013. WeChat is functionally different from Weibo in that it’s geared more towards one-on-one chat than broadcasting your thoughts to an army of followers. But it scratches the same itch for many Chinese users, who mostly use services like Weibo or WeChat to communicate quickly with friends. Plus, WeChat was designed specifically for mobile devices and (in my opinion) offers a superior mobile user experience; with more and more of China’s internet users going mobile, this gave WeChat a definite leg up on Weibo. Has WeChat lured users away from Weibo? Absolutely.

At the same time, though, it’s difficult to explain the timing of Weibo’s activity spikes and drops without talking about politics. The Telegraph’s recent analysis , for example, shows sharp drops after nearly every government incursion into Weibo’s world. In 2011 when the government first demanded users register with their real names before posting on Weibo, activity dropped. In 2012, when the government implemented a five-strike rule that suspended users after five posts about politically “sensitive” subjects, activity dropped. In 2013 when the government began a new crackdown on online rumors and arrested several high-profile account holders (including angel investor Charles Xue), activity dropped precipitously. Could this timing simply be a coincidence? Possibly, but it seems unlikely.

At the center of the debate over which of these things—WeChat or government censorship—is most responsible for the Weibo exodus is the question of political engagement on China’s web. If China’s web users are highly politically engaged, then censorship might well be what drove them away. If they are not, then government censorship is unlikely to have played a significant role in their decreased interest in Sina’s microblogging service.

Personally, I think political engagement on China’s web is often overstated in the Western press. One would get the impression from some articles I’ve seen over the past few years that Weibo users come online specifically to complain about the government, but in my experience most of the time, most of them are just there to chat with friends and pass along any photos or news in their feed that they find interesting. Often, this isn’t political at all.

With that said, I still think that censorship played a significant role in the Weibo exodus, although it did not directly cause it. Weibo, like any social service really, is driven in part by power users, the users with the biggest post counts and the most followers. When the government began targeting power users specifically in 2013, and arrested some high-profile Weibo users like Charles Xue, it may not have registered with everyday Weibo users as political censorship. But the Telegraph’s data indicates it did affect other power users, leading to lower activity rates and fewer highly active accounts. These accounts were responsible for passing along a lot of the news that made Weibo so interesting, but the crackdown on rumors has made the passing-along of news (even news that has nothing to do with politics) seem dangerous unless it comes from an official source. So, it seems, many of these users have just stopped passing the interesting-but-unofficial news and information they find along to their followers. And that, in turn, made Weibo more boring.

This—the fact that the service has become boring—is, I think, the biggest reason for the shift away from Weibo. For the average user, it doesn’t have anything to do with politics or political engagement; the issue is just that the most interesting users are coming online less often, and making fewer posts when they do come online. This effect has been exacerbated by the fact that WeChat is there to fill the void, offering a better and more easily mobile user experience, but it was not caused by WeChat. And in fact, if the government were to lift all censorship on Weibo, I would expect a massive spike in Weibo user activity the next time nationally-relevant, potentially-sensitive news (like the Wenzhou train crash) hit the wires.

I don’t imagine any of those returning Weibo users would abandon WeChat, but I think the two platforms could, in theory, coexist. Weibo is about transmitting information quickly to a wide following; WeChat is about chatting conveniently within small groups. The two are not mutually exclusive, and Weibo’s biggest problem isn’t WeChat—it’s the fact that transmitting lots of interesting information is now perceived as risky.

Source: Forbes

 

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