Thursday, April 26, 2012

The genie won't go back in the bottle

The meteoric rise of the Sina Weibo microblogging platform over the past 18 months or so is the most important phenomenon unfolding in contemporary China. It was a little slow to take off at first, taking some 18 months to reach a total of 60 million users; but just one year later, by the end of February 2012, it could announce that it had surpassed 300 million. Its only significant rival, Tencent Weibo, claims a similar or greater number of users, but some industry analysts estimate it has only around 10% of total microblogging usage. It is Sina that is clearly now the big cheese. If these figures are anything like accurate, its market share and market penetration are nearing their maximum potential, and far surpassing the reach that its original inspiration, Twitter, enjoys in America. 

Well, of course, all such figures are to be taken with a large grain of salt. 300 million users would be more than half of all the people who have any kind of Internet access in China, and four or five times the number that have a 3G smartphone. That figure is actually the number of ‘user accounts’, and there’s a great deal of redundancy there, with many people setting up multiple aliases but then soon allowing the accounts to fall into disuse. The number of daily active users is reckoned to be only around 10% of that eye-catching headline figure; but that’s still an awful lot of people, and they are generating around 3 billion messages each month. Moreover, these users are predominantly drawn from the moderately affluent urban middle class, in the 20-40 age range; in this highly influential demographic segment, Sina Weibo has attained an extraordinarily high level of uptake in a very short time. 

Sina’s shrewd CEO Charles Chao hurried to launch Weibo in August 2009, in anticipation of the imminent unveiling of the country’s first 3G phone services. He had the good fortune to find the new platform emerging into a market vacuum, as the government had just suppressed all existing microblogging and social networking sites – both foreign giants like Twitter and Facebook and the early Chinese players in the field – in a panicky response to the Urumqi riots the month before. Sina Weibo probably benefited to some extent from the absence of competition from Twitter in its early days, but it has now achieved such an overwhelmingly dominant position that there seems to be little prospect for Twitter ever being able to re-enter the China market, even if the government were to lift its ban on the site. Many of my expat friends, initially turning to Weibo reluctantly, tentatively, only because they tired of having to use a VPN all the time to access Twitter, now laud the service as vastly superior to Twitter. They tell me it is impressively user-friendly and offers a variety of features – such as the easy embedding of photos and videos rather than just links – that are not available on the American microblog. Indeed, it seems to be more a full-service social networking site, a kind of hybrid of Twitter and Facebook. And it looks set to evolve into a comprehensive mobile portal as it expands into gaming and e-commerce and encourages the addition of third-party applications. 

The roll-out of a full English version of the service at the end of last year was initially aimed at increasing uptake among the expat community (who are thought to account for about 10% of the active users) and, even more so, at facilitating the access of overseas companies to the Chinese user base. Sina executives have so far been downplaying suggestions that they might have designs on overseas markets, but Weibo surely has the potential to become an international player, and might even cause Facebook and Twitter some anxieties, particularly in territories where they have not yet established a dominant share. 

So, Sina Weibo is one of the great shining success stories of the Chinese Internet boom, beloved by its tens of millions of regular users, attracting admiring media commentary around the world, and stirring envy and fear in the corporate corridors of Silicon Valley. And they’ve got their own plane as well, with Tianjin Airlines last year unveiling a new Embraer E-190 twin-jet airliner in the Weibo livery. This was the first ever such high-profile sponsorship deal from a Chinese website, and I bet Jack Ma is kicking himself that he didn’t think of doing something like this for Taobao or Alibaba. 

Some would say it’s hypocritical of the Chinese government, and contrary to the spirit of its WTO undertakings, to continue to block foreign web services like Facebook and Twitter while Sina Weibo and other domestic enterprises – like the Facebook and FourSquare ‘clones’ Renren and Jiepang – are flourishing unchecked. The government’s concern, of course, is for the potential of such platforms to become a forum of political dissent and even to co-ordinate mass protests – as was vividly demonstrated in the spate of popular uprisings across the Arab world at the beginning of last year. Domestic Internet companies mitigate that risk by undertaking to self-censor, and often they will remove potentially undesirable content on their own initiative to avoid any possibility of incurring official displeasure. However, their actions are often not prompt or thorough enough. Again and again over the past year Weibo users have embarrassed the government with mass outpourings of critical comment: castigating attempts to hush up the causes of last summer’s high-speed train crash near Wenzhou, flocking to the support of dissident artist Ai Weiwei with donations to help pay the punitive $2.3 million tax demand that had been slapped on him, and speculating on possible political in-fighting within the walls of Zhongnanhai last month. 

Self-censorship may not be enough: that is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Pre-emptive filtering may not be enough: Chinese Netizens are endlessly inventive in finding ways to circumvent blocks on particular words or phrases. You cannot expect to be able to effectively moderate an online conversation when there are this many people taking part in it, and when it is happening in real time. The government began getting anxious about Weibo during the Arab Spring. It is even more anxious now, as the year of the leadership transition is coinciding with a worrying slowdown in the economy. Many senior cadres would like to find a way to emasculate Weibo, or to suppress it altogether, a desire manifested in recent ham-fisted attempts to restrict the provision of wi-fi in public places (a campaign which rapidly fizzled and died) and to require ‘real name’ registration of Weibo user accounts (an initiative to which Sina lent conspicuously half-hearted cooperation), and in a complete suspension of the commenting facility for three days at the end of last month (which provoked a vehement outcry from Weibo users). Clearly such efforts to clamp down on Weibo users are not going to work. Weibo has become too big, too successful, too popular to be suppressed or restricted now. The Chinese people have acquired a convenient means of communicating with each other instantly, and they are relishing this newfound freedom. They are not going to give it up. 

The genie is out of the bottle for good. The CCP is going to have to learn to live with that.

This is the second of a series of articles I prepared at the start of this month for a China-based English-language business magazine. Unfortunately, that anticipated cooperation went up in smoke, and... well, there aren't too many other outlets I could shop this around to. And I couldn't be bothered to make the effort. I thought I'd just share these observations via my blog.

My major frustration with the violent implosion of this job prospect, though, is that I had very much enjoyed the challenge of writing some pieces that were rather longer, more focused, more serious, and more researched than my usual output on here. I would like to find a magazine that might give me an outlet for such writing... so long as they don't seek to impose a ludicrous slave-labour contract on me, demand to keep all rights to my work in perpetuity, and pay only peanuts. [Yes, Business Tianjin, that's you, that is.]


John said...

I'm surprised at your choice of subject Froog, I thought you hated micro-blogging?
PM on BBC Radio 4 had an interesting piece on the political impact of Twitter on Tuesday. If you're able to access it it starts at around 41 minutes in.
It wasn't focusing on the phenomenon of the rallying cry Twitter has given the disgruntled populations of problematic countries but rather that politicians here have accepted the power it gives the public and have learnt to keep an eye on it (not trying to block it, yet); we of course had the whole trouble with super-injunctions some weeks back.

Froog said...

I would never indulge in this microblogging lark myself, but it is a significant socio-cultural phenomenon - particularly in places like China, where it is attaining such massive uptake so quickly.

The Internet in general, and these sorts of 'social networking' application in particular, were kind of launching into a void here. Mass media, mass entertainment, and mass communication didn't exist here in any meaningful way until just a decade or so ago. Nobody places much trust in the state-run newspapers and so on, the TV channels here are unimaginably shite; there wasn't much of a telephone network until the late '90s, and people didn't even have much access to e-mail and IM until around 10 years ago. People have been denied avenues of diversion (not much free time, not much disposable income, not very much to do outside of work, and - with this One Child Policy generation - perhaps not many friends), and denied easy means of communicating with each, and denied opportunities for self-expression. Suddenly that's all changed - and they're going a little bit crazy with it!

It's fun to behold, but also somewhat frightening. I can see where the government's alarm is coming from. However, I think the CCP largely makes it a problem by its reaction. They've been so used to being ABLE TO CONTROL EVERYTHING for so many years that they panic when they discover that this new medium is almost impossible for them to control; they feel they must still try to exercise the old rigid forms of control; they fail, they make themselves look stupid, and they make matters far worse for themselves - they create a problem where there really wasn't one.

If the CCP just ignored what people said online, nothing would be any different. Except perhaps that people wouldn't bitch about the 'sensitive topics' quite so, would graduate on to more mundane and less controversial matter. It's the government's hopping anxiety about certain things that attracts attention, that makes them interesting. Netizens - not just in China, all over the world - revel in winding people up; if you don't let yourself be wound up, they'll move on to other targets.

And those new targets and topics will be mostly very trivial and non-political, I suspect. The Chinese, by and large, are too self-centred, too complacent, and too disunited to REBEL. We're not going to see any repeat of the 'Arab Spring' here, I don't think. Not any time soon, anyway. Alas.