In 2008, Facebook was banned in China. Almost exactly a year later, Twitter was banned as well. With the removal of the two biggest social networking companies from China, many imitators tried to fill the void. No one social network was able to completely fill the void left behind by the forced departure of Facebook and Twitter, until the sudden and expected meteoric rise of Sina Weibo.
Weibo in Chinese stands for micro blog, but the term is now used primarily to identify with Sina Weibo. According to Sina, Weibo has a registered total user base of 358 million, and 36.5 million of them are active daily users. Twitter, on the other hand, has about 100 million active monthly users and a total user base of about 500 million. But keep in mind that Twitter is available worldwide, whereas Weibo still doesn’t have a full English interface.
But enough with the numbers — numbers drive me crazy. What exactly makes Weibo so great that some have even come out and said that it’s better than Twitter, even though the two are virtually the same?
According to long-time Beijing expat and tech industry extraordinaire Frank Yu, the two most fundamental differences between Twitter and Weibo (government censorship and Chinese interface aside) are the features. Weibo is chock full of features catering to the desires of the Chinese netizen, some of which should make their way to Twitter.
The first feature that makes Weibo stand out as a better version of Twitter is Weibo’s ability have inline pictures and media with posts. In Weibo, users can post pictures and embed videos directly into their feed. Much like Facebook, the media is thumbnailed and will expand if clicked on instead of opening up a completely new page/tab.
One of the biggest complaints about Twitter is its lack of threaded comments. Weibo had threaded comments from the get-go. On top of that, commenters can leave images, web pages and videos, again very much like Facebook.
Initially, when people look at Weibo for the first time and then look at Twitter, the first thing that comes to mind is how convoluted and confusing Weibo is (that’s minus the language factor too). Every Weibo page has way too many links to click on, creating a very messy interface.
However, despite the clutter, each of those links lead to an interesting feature. Unlike Twitter, which has the Connect and Discovery functions, Weibo creates categories and organises the most popular topics (hashtags).
Weibo also groups famous and verified accounts into a special page so that users can find other users with better ease. Of course part of the verified system has to do with government censorship and the like but we can talk about Big Brother another time.
Another feature seemingly stolen from Facebook and absent from Twitter is the Chat function. Taking a leaf out of most social networks, Weibo has a feature that allows users to chat incognito with other users without having to go through a private message function. Users pretty much do the same they do if they were posting messages but in private one-on-one chatting. [clear]
Weibo also has a virtual currency that can be earned through posting or using real-world currency. Weibo, unlike Facebook, hasn’t fully integrated games into its system, but it does offer a games portal with a healthy offering of mini web games, including one that looks like a bootleg Starcraft. So far, Weibo isn’t changing the way the Chinese play games, and it doesn’t look like it will anytime soon. [clear]
As of now, Weibo’s reign in China is nearly absolute. With Facebook and Twitter banned, Sina faces next to zero competition in the microblogging business. So far, its reach is only in China, and that is mostly due to issues resulting from the Chinese government than anything else. Like any social network, once information is shared on Weibo, it’s out there for good. What the Chinese government does is actively monitor what users post on Weibo. If the post is deemed sensitive or damaging to the State, the post is deleted — but nothing can really be deleted from the internet.
Weibo’s relevance and China’s relevance go hand in hand. As China becomes more important to the business world, more companies and people are going to head to Weibo as a means of connecting with China’s netizens. Celebrities, such as Paris Hilton (who doesn’t even speak or read Chinese) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, have their own personal verified Weibo accounts on which they use to advertise and interact with their fans. [clear]
Sina Weibo has its share of detractors and supporters, Beijing-based venture capitalist Steve Bell has said on his own Weibo account that Weibo is more than just a Twitter clone, but without real competition in its home market, comparing Weibo to Twitter is like comparing apples and oranges.