China’s Weibo Doesn’t Stack Up to Twitter in the Global Conversation

by Echo Xie

Last weekend, the annual “Media That Matters” conference was held at American University. Everyone was told at door that the hashtag for the conference is #MTMDC and encouraged to use Twitter and tweet throughout the conference.

And they did.

During the conference, #MTMDC gathered thousands of tweets and was featured as a breaking trend by @TrendsDC. I was at the conference the whole time and was amazed by how Twitter acted as a broadcasting tool to spread the word in the most timely and direct manner, and also helped people connect and communicate with one another.

It’s almost like there was an online conference simultaneously.

This got me thinking: how do countries without Twitter, like China, become part of the conversation?

Since Twitter was banned in China in 2010, people developed two ways to deal with it. One is to bypass the Great Fire Wall (the state’s online filtering machine) using technical methods like proxies, the other is to use an alternative service instead. The first solution is do-able but can be tricky and unstable from time to time, so most people settle for the last alternative.

Several companies like Sina, Tencent, and Sohu earned buckets of money by offering the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, also known as Weibo. In less than two years, Weibo attracted more than 500 million users and become the it thing in the Chinese online world. Like Twitter, Weibo introduced a brand new way for people to communicate and acquire knowledge, it also gives us a slim hope to fight against government censorship. For a time, we Chinese were so proud of Weibo and we bragged about how fast it grew, how it influenced our ability (and sometimes willingness) to speak, how it shaped the online discourse, reallocated power, etc. Occasionally we even imagined Weibo bringing fundamental changes to our society. Everyone was blinded by this hallucination of power.

Like others, I didn’t think we missed much until recently after I gained more understanding of Twitter. I realized something so obvious but no one is willing to admit: if you compare Twitter to Weibo, Weibo is missing a key ingredient. It’s not international enough. In fact, it’s not really international at all.

Weibo has done a beautiful job connecting all the Chinese people from across the world, but not others. As its international reputation grew (of course, because let’s face it, Chinese make up about one-third of the world’s population), people from the outside started to peep in to Weibo and some even registered to use it, yet most of them are foreign institutions, companies and celebrities aiming at the huge Chinese market, not Chinese culture or Chinese society as a whole. Regardless, Weibo is still like an isolated island, people can only come in, but they cannot reach out. Chinese is still the dominate language on all Weibo platforms.

From what we have learned from the Arab revolutions, there are two very important elements that make Twitter stand out: the free flow of information and a global connection.  (For more discussion on this please see: “Twitter’s New Censorship Policy: Betrayal or are the Protests Wrong?”; “Social Media:  The Recipe for Revolution?”; and “A Deeper Dialogue on the Media’s Role in ‘The Twitter Revolutions’.”) Surprisingly, during the past year of the Arab Spring, most tweets were in fact from outside of the Arab world. This international supporting system greatly contributed to the efficiency of information sharing and ensured that the message got out even when a government decided to block Twitter entirely in its country. Without this global connection, Twitter could never have gone that far.

So, although it seems identical to Twitter at first glance, from a global standpoint, Weibo is more of a monologue, instead of a conversation. It can inform, it can certainly entertain, it can even promote small changes in China, but it can hardly be as revolutionary as Twitter.

We Chinese need other ways to join the conversation club.

(The Weibo logo is used here under fair use and fair comment guidelines.)

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