The Incredible Rise of Weibo in China
   2013-04-22 11:14:49    CRIENGLISH.com      Web Editor: Yang Yang

By Stuart Wiggin

As China's youth becomes more vocal within a modernizing China, Weibo has become the platform of choice for many by which to voice their opinions and views on a wide range of topics. Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of twitter, is a micro-blogging platform which allows for the immediate and widespread dissemination of information and opinions amongst Chinese web users; something which was not possible some five years ago. CHINATALKS was able to catch up with founder and editor-in-chief of danwei.com, Jeremy Goldkorn to talk about the rise of Weibo and its importance within today's China.

This year, Chinese Weibo users were able to approach the Olympics like never before. Olympic sports fans in China and around the world were able to receive real-time Olympic updates which led to the games being christened the "social media Olympics." Chinese social media was active with conversation and heated debate regarding dubious decisions at this year's games. The level of Weibo use during the Olympics was a testament to how important the platform has become for many within China and a sign of things to come in the future.

As Jeremy Goldkorn told CHINATALKS, the number of internet users in China at present is just much, much bigger than it ever has been; standing at roughly 550 million, which is almost double from 3 or 4 years ago. This incredible amount of internet savvy individuals combined with the fact that there is a high and growing rate of mobile internet access, according to Goldkorn, means that Weibo came along at just the right time in order to benefit from this incredibly huge user base.

Goldkorn also pointed out that compared to long form blogging, or even more flexible websites which have become popular in China following the rise of Facebook in the west, such as Caixin or Renren, the short form of Weibo means that it is very easy to set up and very easy to maintain. The alternative social media platforms mentioned above, such as Renren, require more time to set and maintain compared to Weibo without the addictive elements and instant payoff that Weibo ultimately provides.
 
It should be pointed out though that Weibo is used as an all-encompassing term, despite there being a number of separate Weibo platforms. When one sees Weibo in media reports, this reference often refers to Sina Weibo. As Goldkorn points out, Sina Weibo is the "most lively and vibrant platform for discussion." Aside from Sina Weibo, Tencent, Netease and Sohu all provide Weibo services, as do Xinhua and the People's Daily. However, in terms of long term prospects Goldkorn stated, "Aside from Tencent and Sina, and possible Netease, I don't expect the others to last for very much longer."

Regardless of which platforms stay around, there is no doubt that Weibo has revolutionized the way that information is shared in China. It has also had a huge impact upon government policy and has been embraced by the government in a clear sign that Weibo cannot go unnoticed or ignored. As Goldkorn, founder and editor-in-chief of danwei.com explained, the impact of Weibo on government policy is not unique. Goldkorn asserted that the Internet has been having an impact on government policy since 1995, at which time suspicions regarding the poisoning of a Peking University student were raised on a bbs, eventually leading to criminal enquiries. However, Goldkorn identifies 2007 as the year when things truly started to change, when the Tianya forum, blogs and social media postings exposed the scandal of children being kept as slaves at brick factories in Shanxi.

Weibo has magnified the effect of social media postings and has created an environment in which everything can be scrutinized almost instantly. Goldkorn notes that, "Because of the huge numbers of people on Weibo, and the fact that it is the perfect platform for making known a grievance or for getting word out about some kind of problem, (this) means that the government often first gets to hear about problems on Weibo and has to deal with them afterwards, and this is a new situation." As a result of the need to acknowledge Weibo, a number of state owned organizations are now dedicated to understanding what people are saying on the internet. And as Goldkorn told CHINATALKS, Weibo should not only be seen as a negative tool of scrutiny that the government has to be wary of, instead, "Weibos are a great source of information for the government to understand national sentiment," and thus react accordingly in specific situations.

In terms of the impact that Weibo has had on business, Goldkorn acknowledged that Weibo, and the internet generally are affecting the way that companies and organizations operate; "It's completely changed public relations; it's completely changed the way a crisis for a company unfolds." For evidence of this, one need only look at the way in which the so-called Guo Meimei scandal, which enveloped the Red Cross Society of China, played out thanks to Weibo. Aside from scandals, Goldkorn also reminded CHINATALKS that a number of companies are also using Weibo for marketing purposes. However, so far, Goldkorn has not been overly impressed by the use of Weibo for marketing and advertising, pointing out that, "Although you tend to see very optimistic case studies about these campaigns coming out of the ad agencies, I don't think many companies have yet really used Weibo to do anything really incredible in terms of marketing, but we're seeing a lot of experiments and a lot of the brands are playing on Weibo."

Obviously, companies will be attempting to exploit something with such a huge user base for commercial purposes, but there are a number of difficulties when it comes to finding the right way to do this. "It's not an environment where users particularly want to look at corporate messages. The way that company messages and advertising comes out is not the type of language that suits what people want to talk about in social media; it's an awkward fit,' Goldkorn explained, adding that "It's not easy to take the grassroots culture that makes social media interesting and put it alongside a brand advertisement and hope for that to be effective." Nonetheless, Weibo has become a permanent feature within China's online landscape and will continue to have an impact on the way that people interact with one another and share information; the way the government operates; and the way that businesses approach their customers.

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