The Limits of Weibo

Weibo penetration by province.
From King-wa and Michael Chau. “Reality Check for the Chinese Microblog Space: A Random Sampling Approach.PLoS ONE 8(3). 2013.

The Chinese government’s ongoing campaign against “online rumors” and the devils who spread them has the blogosphere’s China hands aflutter. A great number of articles and blog posts have explored the topic; this week Pop Up Chinese‘s renowned Sinica Podcast adds their voice to the chorus. Tea Leaf Nation founders David Wertime and Rachel Lu were brought in for this discussion.  As usual, the podcast is excellent.

You should listen to it. But I do not write this post to highlight the podcast itself but a comment written in response to it. In the comment thread below the podcast Mark Rowswell [1] perfectly summarizes the way Westerners go wrong when they talk about Sina Weibo and other Chinese social media:

I think this is an important point if we are to truly understand the Internet in China. The vast majority of social media users in China are non-political, or shall we say de-politicized. The main interest for the vast majority of users is to follow celebrities and socialize with friends. In this sense they are little different from social media users the world over. Yet our discussion of Weibo only ever focuses on that small minority that are politically active.

In the three years I’ve been on Weibo, I have been a front-row witness to the Weibo boom and subsequent decline as users increasingly migrate to WeChat. In talking with friends, fans and acquaintances, the main reason people give is that Weibo is too depressing and the online discussion is too angry. It’s still a great place to follow celebrities, but most users are frankly not that interested in the debate over constitutionalism or the endless exposition of social evils and corruption. Political junkies love that stuff, can’t get enough, but ordinary grassroots Weibo users gradually tune out. It’s depressing and they feel it’s irrelevant to their daily lives.

This is what I feel is missing from the Western discussion of Weibo, whether in this podcast or on sites like Tea Leaf Nation in general. We only ever discuss the political slice of the big pie, and then only from the perspective of activists who are (to say the least) out of favor with the Chinese state. This only helps reinforce the perception that Weibo is all about the people vs. the state, to repeat the grossly-overused analogy: a cat and mouse game. It’s a very limited and facile view that distorts our Western understanding of social media in China [2] (emphasis added).

 This is excellently said. It needs to be said and then said again until Western editors stop penning titles like the one I came across this morning: “Crackdown Highlights Weibo Power.” Mr. Rowswell’s comment suggests why these headlines miss the mark.  I would suggest that he does not carry this point far enough. Not only do Weibo politicos poorly represent Weibo users as a whole, but Weibo users as a whole do not represent Chinese internet users, much less the Chinese people.

 So who are Sina Weibo’s active users?

“The study, conducted by researchers at Hong Kong University, aimed to discover who was using Weibo by studying a random sample of roughly 30,000 users. Of those, 57% had no posts in the timeline, indicating either an inactive user or one of the so-called zombie accounts created by marketing firms to manipulate follower numbers for real accounts…. only around 30 million users will write a unique post in a given week. Sina said in its most recent earnings call at the end of last year that Weibo had 46.2 million daily active users, which means that a significant chunk of the people who actively use the sight aren’t posting or reposting messages, but instead just “lurking.”

…The study found that less than 5% of non-zombie Weibo users wrote a post that elicited a comment or was reposted, suggesting that much of the discussion on Weibo is being driven by a small group of influential microbloggers.

If influence is skewed on Weibo, so too is the location of users, according to the study.

The authors found that Beijing, Shanghai, and the province of Guangdong, which account for 9% of China’s Internet population, were home to more than a quarter of the 12,000 Weibo users they studied. As one might expect, the study found the greatest penetration of Weibo users on China’s more wealthy east coast.” [3] (emphasis added).

How are these users different from the rest of China’s internet users? Shen Yin explains the demographics of China’s internet users by relating the fates of two entrepreneur friends who built their companies around China’s “two internets”:

I have two friends; let’s call them L and W. L works at a company in Shanghai and spends half of his time running off to Guangdong. He graduated from a not-very-famous university in southern China, a simple guy with small eyes who used to be a young intellectual many years ago. The guy makes games for mobile phones, and I’ve seen him use several types of phones but the most expensive one was never more than 1,000 RMB [about US$150]. He cares a lot more about the millions of migrant laborers and struggling young graduates in the Pearl River Delta than he does about Web 2.0 or the mobile Internet. He chats with the night merchants in Dongguan, the night owls in the Internet bars outside the Foxconn factory complex, and convenience store owners who’ve earned enough to drive a BMW.

W lives in Beijing’s [tech zone] Zhongguancun. From a young age, he was a genius with a big brain and shining eyes, top grades in the hard sciences, preternatural logical reasoning abilities, and equal mastery of the Chinese and English languages. He graduated from a famous university in the capital, then immediately went to the U.S. to get his master’s from another famous university, returning to China afterwards to start a business. I always thought that he was a Chinese version of the Silicon Valley geek. He was always the first to introduce me to new tech gadgets like the iPad. He was the type of person who would use Facebook, Twitter, Groupon and Foursquare while in China. [Note: Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare are blocked in China, but users of a VPN, or virtual private network, can still access them.] Whatever the future of the Internet was, it was probably to be found in whatever website W was working on….

L’s business was truly taking in money every day to the point where he could afford to play golf, but he never wanted to tell outsiders that he was making money. I know people won’t believe it, but hundreds of thousands of laborers making less than 2,000 RMB per month were paying hundreds of yuan a month in ARPU [average revenue per user] to play games made by L’s company on their fake, 300-yuan cell phones. Put another way, they were happily giving about 1/10 of their entire income to L. Sometimes I can’t figure it out myself. W’s target customers were obviously elite customers from Beijing, Shanghai and other big cities who had more purchasing power than anyone. Why is it that although these people were willing to spend to buy the newest phone, upgrade to the newest laptop, and eat at the best restaurants, they still wanted everything online to be free?

It’s well known within the industry that whatever W works on gets immediate attention. It can be other techies, members of the media, marketers—everyone talks about it, and the growth in the number of online links and users seems to be a straight upward line. But the strange thing is, after a short period of time the upward trend stops, then it starts to slow down like the heart of a middle-aged or an elderly comrade. I’ve even asked L: Most of these grassroots users don’t even have their own computers, much less 3G; how did he have so much success targeting them? L responded with a laugh that an Internet bar isn’t the best path to reach them. There are a lot of convenience stores in the area around the factory, and the workers gather there as soon as their shifts end. The proprietors make available computers pre-loaded with every kind of mobile game, MP3 and movie, along with a book listing the offerings on tap much like the “song menu” at a karaoke bar. There’s no need to go online—just pick up a USB data cord and download whatever you want. In fact, there’s an even easier way: Push a shopping cart up to the factory’s dormitory gate….

China does not have an “Internet for all,” rather, the Chinese Internet is separated by its people. It exists simultaneously in the Thinkpads of elites and the fake MTK cellphones of the grassroots. While our elites perhaps keep pace with the Americans, our grassroots is instead keeping pace with the Vietnamese.

The truth is, China’s “age of digitization” is only happening in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou among a few tens of millions of middle-class between the ages of 20 and 40. The remaining hundreds of millions of Chinese Internet users are QQ users from head to toe. [QQ is a popular messaging service but is not considered prestigious or high-end.] The Internet cannot itself change this status quo. Could it be that a macro-level revolution in the society and the economy is required?

I believe that L has seen the true essence of the Chinese Internet. No member of the elite lacks the means to be satisfied, not while too many companies continue to chase this spoiled and frankly very limited user group. Conversely, a great number of the “digital poor” are unable to utilize the Internet to change their own destinies. They don’t have the means to use the Internet to raise their living standards, and can only lose themselves in cheap virtual entertainment.”[4] (emphasis added)

There is no evidence that the 30 million people who actively use Sina Weibo or the even narrower group of politicos who catapulted the Big Vs to prominence share the tastes, preferences, or political beliefs of the  “QQ grass root” users Shen Yin talks about. If we want to truly understand modern China and its internet then this reality must be recognized. 


[1] Mr. Rowswell is something of a nobody in west but a great somebody in China, where he is a well known comedian (his Chinese name is Dashan). Youtube has a short video of one of his comedy routines; Dawei has a great article introducing the xiangsheng comedic tradition he has adopted.

[2] Dashan 大山. Comment no. 2 (21 September 2013) on Sinica Podcast. “Chinese Twitter and the Big-V Take Down.” Pop Up Chinese. 21 September 2013.

[3] Paul Mozer. “How Many People Really Use Weibo?Wall Street Journal. 12 March 2013. The original study is: Fu King-wa and Michael Chau. “Reality Check for the Chinese Microblog Space: A Random Sampling Approach.PLoS ONE 8(3). 2013. 

[4] Shen Yin. “Telling You the Truth about the Chinese Internet: The Elites and the Grass-roots” in “Why China Had Two Internets, Not One, and What To Do About It.” trans. David Weirtime. Tea Leaf Nation. 3 August 2013.

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