Social Media: The Weibo generation

Twitter and Facebook are no competition for China’s latest Internet rage – Weibo, writes Geoff Tink.

Young, social-climbing girl posts pictures of herself posing with her Lamborghini, Maserati and array of Hermes handbags online for the adulation of her friends: it is an increasingly common sight on China’s Weibo these days – but for one girl, the consequences were not so common. Her online name: “Guo Mei Mei Baby”; and her “occupation”: General Manager of the “Commercial Division” of the Red Cross Society.

The resulting explosion of outrage, fueled by the rapid spread of these pictures online, brought severe recriminations within the state-run charity which denied the existence of such a Division (but it was strongly rumoured she was the mistress of a senior official) and donations dropped off sharply. And it didn’t end there, with the young girl (and her Mum, bless the solidarity), dragged across some very public coals. In an amusing subplot – unless you were manning the phones at the Visa Office of the Australian Embassy that week – word quickly spread that Guo Meimei was escaping with her riches on the next Qantas flight to Australia. Weibo users were mobilised, and reportedly after a billion angry phone calls, the trip (if it was ever in the pipeline) never occurred.

“What is Weibo?” you might be saying. Weibo (微博) is a new wave of social media continuing to sweep China. Launched by the Chinese internet giant, Sina, in August 2009, not long after the banning of Twitter in China, it translates as “wei” (微) meaning “micro” and “bo” (博) meaning “blog” – microblog. From humble beginnings, it has expanded at breakneck speed, recently surpassing the milestone of 300 million users.

Even accounting for some fake user accounts, that’s still more users than Twitter, accrued in half the time.
It is common for Weibo to be simplistically labeled the “Chinese Twitter” – but the reality is not so simple. Weibo has a more customisable user interface, allows simpler posting of photos and videos, and offers quick and easy ability to comment on any other users’ page. Statistics say Weibo users stay on the site much longer than the average Twitter user. Weibo is better described as a hybrid of Twitter and Facebook. Two birds with one stone.
Every day, tens of millions of young Chinese citizens, are detailing their thoughts, actions, gripes, jokes and dreams, in snippets of text, images and sound. With each message allowing 140 characters, these snippets of information can be quite detailed. This is not to mention the ability to post up to 5 MB worth of photos, or link to a significant catalogue of music stored by Sina. You can even post the greatest hits of Jimmy Barnes.
Commercially, the potential is huge, and indeed, celebrities and companies have been quick to seize the opportunity to communicate with a very targeted audience. This use alone, demands an entirely separate column, so I will be brief. Suffice to say, that many Australian businesses – even the AFL – are now or soon to be, using it to not only engage with a Chinese audience in Australia, but also abroad.
The Australian Embassy in Beijing has its own account as does the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Beijing. Even Hugh Jackman has a Weibo account.
The top 100 Weibo accounts have a combined total of over 180 million followers, and “opinion leaders” are paid handsomely for a single positive Weibo post. At the top of the tree, is movie-TV-model star (that’s the standard celebrity description in China), Yao Chen (姚晨) with over 13 million people following her every move. That’s a lot of people helping her decide what to wear each morning.
Weibo is such a big deal, that even Government departments have been forced, kicking and screaming, onto the bandwagon – with mixed results. The Guangdong Provincial Government was this year the first to hold a summit for Party members to learn more about the appropriate use of Weibo and other social media. It was still too late to save the bungling Party official, Liu Ning of Baiyun District who memorably sent nude pictures to a “xiaosan” (a mistress) on his Weibo. He had missed the memo informing him that everything he posted on his page was in the public domain for all to enjoy.
Since joining Weibo myself, I haven’t become a food photography aficionado, nor have I found a new interest in pictures of smiling cats or dogs wearing clothes (there are millions). However, Weibo is offering a unique window into the minds of young Chinese people today, unlike anything else before. The average user is aged in their 20’s to early 30’s and while this demographic may not represent the direct political decision makers right now, they certainly are vastly influential.
This younger generation of Chinese citizens has grown up within a relatively isolated cultural bubble – looking increasingly towards the west, but lacking the same tools of expression. Sure, the growth of the Internet brought millions of Chinese “netizens” into the world, but only now is Weibo providing them with their communication de rigueur. They are now experimenting with a crowd-based information sharing service in a country where both crowd opinion and information sharing are not the flavour of the month.
Nonetheless, Weibo is turning an entire generation of Chinese citizens, into a mobilised force of “citizen journalists” – documenting everything from the bubble tea in Xi’an, to the success of the latest changes to marriage law. Following the Wenzhou Train Disaster, the first breaking news came from users at the scene, while other users relished the opportunity to post by-the-minute updates of progress at the crash site – with a thoroughness and criticality that proved well beyond traditional media outlets.
Colleagues and friends now tell me that they are watching or reading traditional media less, instead preferring to read Weibo in the morning and at night for an update on current affairs. Weibo stories are not always completely accurate (for example, Guo Meimei’s rumoured flight to Australia), but they are considered less tainted by the suspicion of ulterior motive that pervades the traditional media. Where this goes will be interesting. It isn’t just another Chinese Internet fad like Farmville, and it’s more significant than MySpace and Facebook, which have grown uninhibited by restrictions on free speech.
This is empowerment of the mainstream in China and the consequences remain to be seen. 

* Follow Geoff on Weibo: @T_丁先生.

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