The intriguing evolution of “China’s Twitter”

The intriguing evolution of “China’s Twitter” (FT) Jul 14 2011

To outside observers of China, the country’s internet seems to be powered by copies of Western online services – Baidu is known in the West as ‘China’s Google’, Renren is ‘the Chinese Facebook’ and Sina Weibo is a ‘Chinese Twitter clone’, writes Kathrin Hille in Beijing.

But those using and watching the Chinese internet know that many of the web platforms in the country with the world’s largest online population have little in common with the Western pioneers they borrowed the initial idea from. Now, a solid piece of research shows just how little.

Three social media experts at HP Labs have compared how users of Twitter and Sina Weibo share content – how often they re-send messages received from others, what kind of messages get re-sent most often, and what sources they come from.

“We find that there is a vast difference in the content shared in China, when compared to a global social network such as Twitter,” write Louis Yu, Sitaram Asur and Bernardo A. Huberman of HP’s Social Computing Lab.

First of all, Twitter users have a clear focus on current affairs and news content, whereas Chinese microbloggers mostly ‘re-tweet’ jokes, images, videos and stories, the researchers found.

Secondly, trends on Twitter are formed by traditional news sources such as The New York Times, which distribute their own content on the microblog. On Sina Weibo, by contrast, trends are fed almost exclusively by excessive re-sending of a very diverse array of content. “The consistent trend-setters on Sina Weibo are not media organizations. Instead they are unverified accounts acting as discussion forums and a platform for users to share funny pictures, jokes and stories,” says the report.

That is not surprising, given that the tight censorship of China’s traditional media and its role as a propaganda mouthpiece for the ruling Communist party makes it less credible to many. Conversely, unofficial information on social media is often more credible.

The third key finding involves the mind-boggling re-tweeting rates. The HP researchers found that the most re-tweeted Sina Weibo user alone sent 37 posts that were re-sent a total of more than 1m times. Overall, 62 per cent of all trending topics in the survey were re-tweets – contrasting with a re-tweet ratio of just 31 per cent on Twitter.

The HP researchers’ insights are extremely interesting for two reasons.

First, Sina is preparing to start monetising Weibo – Charles Chao, chief executive, has said this will start in the second half of this year, and the company is currently introducing concepts for a virtual currency to external developers.

Second, the Chinese government is watching the growing power of the microblogs warily. Earlier this week, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences warned in its annual report on the development of new media in China that microblogs had become one of the main original sources of information that aroused public opinion last year, and identified this as a certain risk to “ideological security”.

For those seeking to use China’s microblogs for business, the HP survey indicates that Sina Weibo could become a more powerful viral marketing tool than anything the world has yet seen. For China’s rulers, it might look more like a tool for revolution.