Pretty much every story about China mentions Sina Weibo and Chinese “netizens”—the easiest barometers for westerners of public sentiment in China.
But for the average, non-Mandarin speaking Westerner, is it worth joining Sina Weibo (or Tencent Weibo or similar sites)? It’s hard enough to understand Chinese culture, let alone a poor Google-translated version.
Here’s seven reasons you should consider joining.
1. It’s huge, and will probably get even bigger
Despite the fact it was founded 3 years later than Twitter, by summer 2012 had 324 million users in China alone compared with 500 million worldwide for the US service, according to the BBC.
While we can assume a fair amount of these accounts are rarely used or spam accounts, that’s a big number, and there’s also a lot of reason to suspect that Weibo will grow further and dwarf Twitter. Earlier this year the number of internet users in China during 2011 was put at 457 million — only 34.4% of total.
2. It’s a window into what people think in China
By now everyone knows that China is important. However, actually understanding the Chinese public can be difficult, especially when Chinese media faces so many government restrictions and access to Western websites is limited by the “Great firewall”.
While Weibo users shouldn’t be taken as representative of China as a whole, they are representative of a subset of Chinese society. Weibo offers a glimpse into what this segment of society is interested in — hence why journalists love to look at Weibo in the aftermath of a scandal about corruption, for example.
On the other hand, the interests of Weibo users aren’t always political. The most popular user on Weibo is Yao Chen, a Chinese actress who has almost 21 million followers. Her profile picture is of a “spiced egg”, and many of her pictures are of cats — which certainly gives you another perspective on the Chinese netizens.
3. It’s a window into Chinese government censorship
While its interesting to see what’s popular on Weibo, it’s also pretty interesting to see what isn’t popular on Weibo. Weibo is one of the most impressive branches of Chinese government censorship. It can take just three hours for a sensitive topic to be deleted. For anyone hoping to search about a controversial subject over the last year — Bo Xilai, Chen Guangcheng, et al — was greated with the now familiar message:
“Due to relevent laws and regulations, results for [search term] cannot be displayed.”
While its not exactly clear if the censorship was direct government intervention or just Sina being extremely cautious, it’s still fascinating to watch. This (unfortunately out of date) list gives you an idea of some of the blocked searches.
It’s also interesting when news becomes “unblocked” — such as when, after news of Bo Xilai’s expulsion of the party appeared, his name began to appear in Weibo searches again.
4. Weibo users are ingenious at getting around this censorship
Weibo users have been known to use various methods to get around censorship, some quite ingenious. For example, the use of what Yale describes as “homonyms, puns and wordplay” to get around automatic censors.
Perhaps even more ingenious is the use of images (or “memes”, to use a term incorrectly) to get round those censors — the Atlantic and Tea Leaf Nation wrote a great summary of the practice in September.
5. The fascinating power of the “human flesh engine”Earlier this year, Yang Dacai, a local government official in China, was photographed grinning broadly at the scene of a tragic accident that left 36 people dead.
To Chinese netizens, it represented the worst of the uncaring government bureaucracy, and they were determined to teach him a lesson. Soon, they had found the officials name, and discovered numerous photos of him wearing expensive watches — watches vastly more expensive than what he could have afforded on his salary, netizens reasoned. The government soon opened an investigation against Yang, and he was fired last month.
What we saw in action there was what has become known in China as a “human flesh engine” — which broadly refers to the group actions of Weibo users to uncover justice.
Of course, it’s hardly a unique feature of Weibo — Reddit’s “hive mind” functions in a similar, for example. But in a country where official corruption is often believed to go unpunished, this function of Weibo is fascinating. The Chinese government has become so threatened by “human flesh engines” that they have considered making it a crime.
6. It’s actually really good
Weibo is a lot like Twitter, but its not exactly a clone. A couple of years ago Bill Bishop of the influential Sinocism called it “a better designed and more stable product”, and added “I hope Twitter has people dissecting Weibo, as they could learn a lot” (they do seem to have been with hindsight).
The biggest difference is probably the character limit. On Weibo you’re allowed 140 Chinese characters — which roughly translates to 70 or 80 words. Hence, messages carry a lot more depth. Additionally, photos and videos are integrated into the site very well.
The emoticons are probably the best feature however. There’s even a trending emoticons feature which will allow you to (very crudely) take the pulse of netizens.
Kotaku has a pretty good run down of the best features.
7. An English-language version is in the works
While you can send messages in English if you really want, and its possible to Google Translate Mandarin (into garbled, half-understandable English), we admit you probably won’t use Weibo that much right now.
(And no, you cannot link your Twitter and Weibo accounts at present).
But Sina has talked about officially launching an English-language version of the site for at least a year. At one point there was an English-language sign up page (it appears to be dead at the time of writing), and you can download unofficial English-language iPhone apps. Tencent Weibo, one of the most notable Sina microblogging competitors, has an English-version too.
If you want to get get your desired username it may well be a good idea to sign up now.