Weibo isn’t dead. It’s China’s public square

Weibo, one of China’s most popular social platforms, has been frequently compared to Twitter. However, like many technological innovations in China, the social platform has managed to transform itself into a different beast. Sina Weibo started its journey in 2009 as one of many “weibo” or microblogging platforms in the country. Today it firmly holds its place as “the Weibo” and with 392 million monthly active users, it is now bigger than its international rival.

“[Weibo] is actually many things in one: its IMDB, it’s Goodreads,” Editor in Chief of What’s on Weibo Manya Koetse told TechNode, adding that Weibo’s venture into video was ahead of many Western platforms, including Facebook and Instagram. “It is more suitable for Chinese tastes in a way because it has many functions of social media in one platform.”

The platform also holds a special place in China. Many scholars have devoted ink to Weibo, exploring its role in what sociologist Ya Wenlei calls the rise of China’s contentious public sphere. The platform not only changed the everyday life of Chinese citizens but it also pushed them into participation in public affairs.

It was this participation that first landed Weibo in trouble. In 2012, the Chinese government published a long list of rules for regulating Weibo. Accounts from many popular bloggers known as Big Vs (V for “verified”) were shut down. Real name verification was made obligatory three years after.

During 2014, Weibo saw its numbers drop from 331 million to 275 million accounts. Some of this was attributed to the rise of a new social media star in China—WeChat. This, however, proved only to be a slight hiccup for the microblogging site. According to Koetse, the public square of Weibo is still vibrant. During the past few years, China’s netizens have gone after corporate injustices as in the case of Baidu’s medical mishap and the kindergarten scandals that have rocked local communities. The global #MeToo movement has also translated itself in China into students rising against abusive college professors.

Manya Koetse, China social trend watcher and the editor-in-chief of What’s on Weibo (Screenshot from YouTube)

“If you look at the online media environment in China, Weibo still plays a crucial role in people commenting and sharing the news and public debates. You can look at Weibo as the marketplace of China’s online environment.”

Influencing Weibo

Weibo has remained an arena of combat for public opinion. But there are also new types of conversations. Much like other social platforms in China, during the past three years, the influencer phenomenon has really kicked off on Weibo. And according to Ashley Galina Dudarenok, founder of social media marketing agency ChoZan, Weibo is built for marketers.

“Younger people go to Weibo because they want access to bloggers, KOLs, and celebrities,” said Dudarenok. “They want access to this kind of viral news. Yes, it’s a bit spammy, they have topics that are changing every 30 minutes. And yes, there is less audience in 1st and 2nd tier cities. But 3rd and 4th tier cities are huge—that’s what makes it extremely interesting.”

Ashley Galina Dudarenok, founder of Alarice International and ChoZan social media marketing agency focused on China (Screenshot from YouTube)

Influencers are not new in China. In fact, one the very first influencers on Weibo, Hanhan who is known for bringing up controversial topics, is still active with more than 44 million followers. But unlike the early bloggers which were more critical, the newer generation is more about glamour and fame. And their efforts are paying off—Weibo helped its Big Vs pocket RMB 20.7 billion in 2017.

“What has been erupting is the news that some of these influencers have been buying their way into trending topics,” says Koetse. “This is one of the main problems Weibo will face in the times to come—the algorithms. It is something Facebook is dealing with too: the army of bots that have made it more easy for people to buy their way into the discussion.”

Occupying Weibo

Facebook and Twitter users are just now discovering how algorithms, bots, fake accounts, and influencer networks sway our opinions, especially when it comes to politics. But in China, political influence on social media has been there since the very beginning.

Far from just cleaning up unwanted information, the Chinese government has been actively using social media to ensure space for its own messages and, as some might add, “strategic distractions.” The government started opening Weibo accounts in 2011 in response to the Wenzhou high-speed train collision. According to reports, Wang Cheng, deputy director of the Central Propaganda Department, then encouraged local government units to “occupy Weibo.” As of May last year, nearly 170,000 governmental departments have created accounts.

But as recent news shows, the relationship is still fraught with uncertainties. In February, around the time Twitter was facing its bot crisis, regulators ordered Weibo to temporarily shut down its trending topics feature over manipulated traffic and the spread inaccurate, vulgar, and ethnically discriminating content. The feature was then brought back with a section called “New Era,” a part of the Party’s new slogan.

While Koetse believes that Weibo’s lifespan will be determined by how well they play with regulators, Dudarenok thinks that Weibo has a bright future ahead. The company has been receiving funds from Alibaba which owns more than a third of its stake. This has enabled Weibo to invest in video platforms like Miaopai giving it an additional kick two years ago when it was dying, she explained. The company announced in October it has prepared $700 million for future acquisitions likely in video and entertainment. In short, it is keen on developing its own strategic distractions for China’s contentious public sphere.

“A lot of people don’t realize that with the investment from Alibaba, Weibo is going to continue to innovate,” said Dudarenok. “They are definitely going to be buying other platforms, they are going to be merging, coming up with new features. So Weibo is definitely not dead.”