A Bombshell dropped, at least for the “in” crowd, arrived early this year, when a venerable local media challenged censorship directly on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter. What happened next has great ramifications, not least for Sina, who is caught in the middle of the crossfire. Now, what the battle means for grand topics such as the freedom of speech in remain uncertain. But the verdict is clear for Sina weibo: it came out both a winner and a loser.
The good news first: Weibo is THE channel for distributing news, one that could even rival mainstream media. When the editors at the aforementioned media wanted the controversy to get out of hand, they chose Weibo as their medium. Ordinary people and intellectuals alike followed the story on Weibo, expressed their opinions and sympathies on Weibo, and created instant martyrs on Weibos.
All of this, of course, is tremendous for Sina. Weibo has been challenged on all fronts. Tencent launched, and as only Tencent could, a competing service, and it has now accumulated more users and active users than Sina. Morever, Tencent’s WeChat threatens to make Weibo irrelevant altogether. Other competitors such as Netease and smaller counterparts such as Momo have also thrown their hats in the ring and are assaulting Sina on all fronts. Since this is China after all, traditional media is alive and well; with their influences and money generating capacities undiminished, they are also very much on Sina’s mind.
But the controversy we mentioned earlier has proven that Sina is the undisputed platform for carry out a public discourse. In an age of diminishing attention span, this means Sina has just proven it has something invaluable, and this will bode well for Sina’s effort to eventually make some cash out of its most valuable asset.
In order to accomplish this goal, Sina has re-shuffled its management to put more focus on Weibo, even launching an English interface (no doubt to attract the more highly valued overseas audience). But this may all be for naught. The instigator for this tragedy (for Sina shareholders, if not the users), ironically, is also the censorship controversy.
The Chinese websites have long acted as Zion in the film The Matrix. As the Architact explains, any system must have some outlet for dissent, otherwise the entire system would blow up. For the Matrix (spoiler alert!…… For a 10 year old franchise), the One and the Oracle fulfills this function; by leading some of the dissenters to Zion, they lessen the distress of the Matrix overall, and allow the system to chug along. The Chinese websites fulfill the same function: they let people vent, and the government may even fulfill their wishes once in a while in order to appease them and allow them the illusion of power (much like the Matrix allows Zion to destroy an octopus now and then).
However, when things get serious, neither the government nor the Matrix fool around; they will destroy and rebuild. In fact, Matrix built Zion to attract all the dissenters in one place so they could destroy them in one swoop.
Unfortunately for Sina Weibo, its dominance has also made it the Zion of China. Back in the good old days of an inter-web built by a series of tubes, it was relatively difficult for the government to search and destroy all dissenters. With all eyes on Weibo, however, now the government could seize shut everyone down.
Hence, this is the dilemma for Sina: Weibo could only survive and strive if everyone uses it, but if everyone uses it, that makes Weibo the Zion of China’s Matrix, and it will eventually be destroyed. Unless a Neo emerges, it’s unlikely Sina has a way out of thisjam.