Sina Weibo

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A Weibo Experience – Lucy Ronald, Sam Cavanagh and Tim Williams.

 

Sina Weibo (Pronounced way-bo) is a microblogging platform in China with over 222 Million users (Raponza, K. 2011). Weibo is the microblogging platform throughout China, holding a significant market following. The popularity of Weibo can be attributed to the 2009 Ürümqi Riots where the Chinese government blocked access to non-Chinese social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook (Blanchard, B. 2009), allowing for Chinese platforms to become centralised and capitalise on the opportunity within the market (Tong, Y. Lei, S. 2016).

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Due to study and career involvement in journalism and marketing the interest in Chinese social media was the driving factor for our digital artefact, due to the interest by western organisations in China’s expanding markets. Primarily we attempted to utilise RenRen the equivalent of Facebook, and 51.com which we struggled to graspe whether it was a gaming site or perhaps a dating site (or maybe both?). Various complications and restrictions imposed upon foreign users and organisations engagement on Chinese social platforms by the state resulted in the absent opportunity to experience RenRen.

Weibo is comparable to that of Twitter and is open to foreign engagement on the platform. However Weibo still implements strict internal censorship guidelines, such as the manual removal of any sensitive political comments with 30 per cent of censorship occurring within 5 – 30 minutes (Zhu et al. 2016). As Twitter users this was an opportunity for us to experience through our own knowledge of the western platform.  

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Our capacity as users was limited from the beginning, as all communication must be processed through Google translate prior to engagement. For example, the first interaction was translating a video of a dog:

只成精的泰迪, 当被主人嫌弃衣服太脏后, 不开心的它选择了

According to Google Translate:

‘Only into a fine Teddy, when the owner dislike clothes dirty, unhappy it chose’

Due to consuming content primarily within the Australian filter bubble, it was difficult to gauge an understanding of what topics may be trending throughout China. According to Chiu et al. (2012) China has the most active social network, with over 300 million users, all almost exclusively Chinese, engaging in Mandarin at one moment. Therefore we utilised the source ‘What’s on Weibo’ in an attempt to provide insight into how a foreign individual may interact and produce content. Furthermore, just like western platforms, we followed, commented and shared content all through the process of Google translate.

This however came to a halt when Sam’s IP address was flagged, or as we assume to be flagged, by the Sina Weibo organisation. This resulted in the freezing of the account and failing to recognise the verification number in order to retrieve the account. According to Gallo, F. T. (2012) microblogging has come under intense scrutiny by the Chinese government. While throughout Western countries we express a degree of free speech, internet censorship is widespread throughout China. However while this may be argued as a form of state control we believe that there is an underlying philosophy that influences this.

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The three major schools of thought in China is Taoism, the belief in living in harmony with the Tao (the way), Confucianism, as a framework for a way of life, otherwise the importance of living in social harmony (Yao, X. 200). Finally Legalism which demonstrates the framework for the ideological and intellectual aspects of Chinese society. Legalism often is considered to be a progressive school of thought (Pines, Yuri. 2014).  

While the Chinese government enforces restrictions Weibo remains to be one of the more ‘open’ forums. Gallo, F. T. (2012) states that an unnamed Sina Executive illustrates the need for ‘balance.’ What China has done is produce a distinct response to the empowerment that the internet provides users, viewing it in a holistic manner or an organic part of society, rather than its own entity. Therefore reflecting upon the Chinese philosophies is that the reason our Weibo account was frozen, I am perceived by the Chinese state to be an entity that harms the ‘social harmony’ of Chinese society. Therefore I am unhealthy for Weibo.

References:

Blanchard, B. (2009) China tightens Web screws after Xinjiang riot, Reuters, viewed 20.10.16 <http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-xinjiang-internet-idUSTRE5651K420090706.

Chiu, C. Ip, C. Silverman, A. (2012) Understanding social media in China, Marketing and Sales Practice, McKinsey Quartley, viewed 22.10.16 <http://asia.udp.cl/Informes/2012/chinamedia.pdf>

Gallo, F. T. (2012) The Reality of Chinese Microblogging, Harvard Business Review, viewed 22.10.16 <https://hbr.org/2012/10/the-reality-of-chinese-microblogging>

Pines, Yuri. (2014) Legalism in Chinese Philosophy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, viewed 22.10.16 <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/chinese-legalism/#EpiLegChiHis>

Raponza, K. (2011) China’s Weibos vs US’s Twitter: And the Winner Is? Forbes, viewed 21.10.16 <http://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2011/05/17/chinas-weibos-vs-uss-twitter-and-the-winner-is/#5162494e646f>

Tong, Y. Lei, S. (2016) War of Position and Microblogging in China, Journal of Contempory China, 22:80, 292-311, viewed 24.10.16

Yao, X. (2012) An Introduction to Confucianism, Cambridge University Press, viewed 23.10.16

Zhu, T. Phipps, D. Pridgen, A. Crandall, J. R. Wallach, D. S. (2013) The Velocity of Censorship: High-Fidelity Detection of Microblog Post Deletions, Cornell University, viewed 26.10.16 <https://arxiv.org/abs/1303.0597>

Reflecting On The Usability of Sina Weibo

So as I wrap up my investigation of Chinese social media and my autoethnographic experience of having a Sina Weibo account, I think it’s important to discuss the usability of the site and my response to this in light of my research. To reflect on the experience, I felt it would be beneficial to explore how I went about responding to the features of the platform and how it was used by those in China, and compare this to my Australian experience of social media platforms, namely Twitter and Facebook.

Initially I found the entire experience of using Sina Weibo disorientating and frustrating due to my severe lack of understanding of Mandarin, however once I looked past the language barrier I began to find aspects of the site familiar to Facebook and Twitter. As noted by Chao, the creator, he aimed to make Weibo’s interface more closely related to Facebook’s to increase its “stickiness”, meaning users would be more likely to stay on the site longer than if he decided to replicate Twitter’s interface (Epstien 2011). In my own experience, I find that I definitely spend longer on Facebook than Twitter and choose to access Twitter through the Tweetdeck app rather than the site because I feel that’s how I can get full functionality out of the platform. I felt that the functionality of Sina Weibo was much more similar to Facebook due to its sidebar, top bar, private chat feature and comment system, however I found the way people chose to use it was more closely related to my use of Twitter.

Gao et al (2012) conducted a comparative study of the users’ of Sina Weibo and Twitter providing some insight into these differences between usage, however I could not find any comparison between Sina Weibo and Facebook usage despite the common description of Sina Weibo as being a hybrid version of Facebook and Twitter. One significant point of difference in usage was the time in which users of the site were most active. Gao et al found that Sina Weibo users posted 19% more messages per day on the weekend, whilst Twitter users posted 11% less messages during the weekend, which I believe aligns with my own use of Twitter and is reflective of each country’s differing lifestyles (p. 98, 2012).

In terms of actual usability of the platform and its technical features, it is once again more closely related to Twitter (see Breaking The Barrier). The use of hashtags, I found on Sina Weibo to be quite annoying, however later I found out that the platform had the ability to perform ‘double hashtags’, which enables hashtags to integrate better with the text and in hindsight I now see that (Ghedin 2013).

Overall, I feel like I have achieved my aim, which was to investigate Chinese social media using the methodology of creating a Sina Weibo account. Through investigating the sign up process, governance, technology and usability of Sina Weibo through an autoethnographic perspective, I feel I have learnt quite a lot about the social media use in China and am able to inform an Australian audience about this topic through a research report.

Sources:

Epstien, G, 2011, ‘Sina Weibo’, Forbes, 3 March, viewed 12/10/14, < http://www.forbes.com/global/2011/0314/features-charles-chao-twitter-fanfou-china-sina-weibo.html>

Ghedin, G, 2013, Understanding Sina Weibo: Hashtags, VIP Hastags and More, Digital In The Round, article, 4 July, viewed 6/10/14, http://www.digitalintheround.com/sina-weibo-hashtags-vips/

Gao, Q, Abel, F, Houben, G.J & Yu, Y 2012, ‘A Comparative Study of Users’ Microblogging Behavior on SIna Weibo And Twitter’, Unknown, pp.88-101.

The Birth of Sina Weibo

Differing from the creation of Facebook and Twitter, these being the most used social networking sites in the Western world, Sina Weibo was established as a spin-off from another already successful company, rather than a start-up. Sina Weibo was created and owned by Sina Corp, China’s tenth most grossing Internet Company, earning 620m yaun in renvenue in 2012 (China.org.cn 2013). Sina Corp is a multimedia online company that owns sites sina.com and sina.cn and now social network site weibo.com., giving users access to both professional and user generated content (Sina.com 2009).

Sina Weibo’s main competitor is Tencent Weibo, which is owned by China’s top ranked Internet company Tencent Holdings, with Tencent Weibo having 580m registered users and Sina Weibo having 556m (China.org.cn 2013; wearesocial 2014). Tencent Holdings isn’t the direct competitor for Sina Corp, however after the buzz created by Sina Weibo at its launch in August 2009, directly after the blocking of Twitter, Tencent Holdings chose to leverage its user base to create its statistically more popular social network Tencent Weibo (Epstien 2014).

“Chao hopes his Weibo’s market-topping success will one day remake Sina…into a dominant social networking platform like Tencent” (Epstien 2014).

The premise behind the creation of Sina Weibo was to create something that replaced Twitter and the Chinese Twitter clone Fanfou, but wasn’t Facebook as China already had RenRen. Charles Chao, Sina Corp’s CEO, came up with Sina Weibo just at the time when the government most feared microblogs, however it was approved and this fact arguably contributed to its success (Epstien 2014). Also much like its Western counterparts, Sina Weibo is free to use, given that I was able to sign up for an account without any prompt for money, however you could argue your cost is your privacy, as it is with most social network sites, the data you place on the site can be mined by marketers and developers through the sites API (Bamman et al 2012). However it is important to note that Chinese citizens don’t have the same concept of privacy or freedom that us in the Western world do, so whilst we as users of Western social networks have an issue with Facebook owning our content (even though we signed it away upon registering), Chinese users don’t seem to have the same qualms, rather they have found ways to avoid being censored through memes and jokes (Anti 2012). Interestingly, the opposite has happened, and the rise of weibo has changed the Chinese mindset and enabled them to have a public sphere and realise the importance of freedom of speech, whilst Western users of social networks have come to realise what it’s like to have that birth right taken away from them (Anti 2012).

Sources:

Anti, 2012, Behind The Great Firewall of China, online video, June, TED Talks, viewed 5/10/14, <https://www.ted.com/talks/michael_anti_behind_the_great_firewall_of_china>

Bamman et al, 2012, ‘Censorship and deletion practices in Chinese Social Media’, First Monday, vol. 17. No. 3-5, viewed 12/10/14, http://public01.library.uow.edu.au/refcite/style-guides/html/

China.org.cn, 2013, Top 10 mobile internet companies in China for 2013, China.org.cn, viewed 12/10/14, < http://www.china.org.cn/top10/2013-09/17/content_29998503.htm>

Epstien, G, 2011, ‘Sina Weibo’, Forbes, 3 March, viewed 12/10/14, < http://www.forbes.com/global/2011/0314/features-charles-chao-twitter-fanfou-china-sina-weibo.html>

Sina, 2009, SINA, Sina.com, viewed 12/10/14, < http://corp.sina.com.cn/eng/sina_intr_eng.htm>

wearesocial, 2014, Social, Digital & Mobile in China 2014′, wearesocial, viewed 4/9/14 <http://www.slideshare.net/wearesocialsg/social-digital-mobile-in-china-2014&gt;

Sina Weibo + Censorship

As most people are aware the Communist Party of China governs China, and as part of this regime “The Great Firewall of China” heavily censors the Internet in China. In terms of social media, this firewall has entirely blocked any web 2.0 site that originates outside of China and simultaneously the Chinese government has managed to clone each site for its country’s use. As Michael Anti states in his TEDGlobal talk, “On the one hand, he wants to satisfy people’s need of a social network, which is very important; people really love social networking. But on the other hand, they want to keep the server in Beijing so they can access the data any time they want”.

Sina Weibo is the clone of Twitter and was founded just one month after Twitter was blocked in China, and just like Twitter it has become the newest media platform enabling people to interact with eachother in a public sphere (Anti 2012). If it hasn’t been on Weibo than it hasn’t happened. However there are some limitations to this given that the government monitors and censors content on Weibo, which is achieved in many ways. The first was the attempt to fully implement of the ‘real name’ policy in March 2012, which requires users to put in their full name, phone number and identification number and enables the government better control over what people say due to being able to track them down easier (Robertson 2012, Ghedin 2013). When I signed up to Sina Weibo I was also required to put in my phone number, however due to my name being English I was suggested names that contained Chinese characters, of which I chose Melissa精彩, which means ‘Melissa Wonderful’ in English, implying that I somewhat bypassed the ‘real name’ policy because of my English name. I was still able to sign up without an I.D number, implying that the strength of the ‘real name’ policy is still rather weak. Interestingly, Facebook has also now implemented a ‘real name’ policy, however it only succeeded to discriminate against those in the LGBT community (Montgomery 2014).

The second way that the Chinese government and Sina Weibo have restricted the free speech of its users is through introducing a ‘user contract’ in May 2012 that runs on a points system (Russell 2012). As a user I was given 80 points when I signed up, and have a maximum of 100 points according to Russell, which will be retracted for bad behaviour, and once you have reached 0 points your account will be deleted. Upon finding out about what the points system was for, I tried to search for the user contract, but I was unable to find it. Instead I have found a translated version to read here. My inability to find it may have been due to my language barrier, either I was given the option to read it and didn’t realise or it does not appear on the translated page. The user contract contains several clauses, many of which restrict what can be posted on Sina Weibo, although Michael Anti points out that Chinese users have found ways around this by using memes, puns and humour, which would explain why in my experience of my home page that most things trending seem to appear to be jokes or humour. http://blockedonweibo.tumblr.com is a Tumblr page that has been developed to track what is blocked on the site for a Western audience.

Sources:

Anti, 2012, Behind The Great Firewall of China, online video, June, TED Talks, viewed 5/10/14, <https://www.ted.com/talks/michael_anti_behind_the_great_firewall_of_china>

Ghedin, G, 2013, Understanding Sina Weibo: Hashtags, VIP Hastags and More, Digital In The Round, article, 4 July, viewed 6/10/14, http://www.digitalintheround.com/sina-weibo-hashtags-vips/

Montgomery, K, 2014, ‘Facebook Apologizes For Discriminatory “Real Name” Policy’, Valleywag, 10 January, viewed 6/10/14, http://valleywag.gawker.com/sources-facebook-to-apologize-for-discriminatory-real-1641078942

Robertson, A, 2012, ‘Sina Weibo users near March 16th deadline to verify identity’The Verge, 12 March, viewed 6/10/14, http://www.theverge.com/2012/3/12/2865317/sina-weibo-beijing-government-verify-account-identity-deadline

Russell, J, 2012, ‘Sina Weibo to introduce ‘user contract’ on May 28 as China’s microblog crackdown continues [Updated]’, TNW, 9 May, viewed 6/10/14, http://thenextweb.com/asia/2012/05/09/sina-weibo-to-introduce-user-contract-on-may-28-as-chinas-microblog-crackdown-continues/

 

Breaking the Barrier

Sina Weibo is best described to a Western audience as a hybrid version of Facebook and Twitter, and over the next few weeks I set out to find out why. In my previous post, Melissa精彩, I discussed the signup process I went through to gain a Sina Weibo, this week I’m going to report back about my first week using the social networking site.

One of the founding features of Twitter is its limit on how many characters you can tweet, this being 140, which is also a feature on Sina Weibo. I wrote my first weibo (which literally means microblog in English) using a translated version of the site, assuming that it would turn my English characters into simplified Chinese once posted, because of the Chinese orgins of the site, but it did not. Despite the site not translating my posts, I thought I would of received the equivalent amount of characters in English, but this was not so. 140 Chinese characters allows the user to be significantly more expressively than 140 English characters as you are not forced to abbreviate like I often am on Twitter, which implies by using English I would be significantly limiting my weibo capacity (Gao, Abel, Houben and Yu 2010).

Having realised that my posts didn’t translate, I decided to explore and see if I could find any other accounts that used English, my results were negative, however I left my post in English along with my biography, which also didn’t automatically translate, to experiment. A few days later and I have received zero likes on my post, despite 59 people having read it. I also only gained 4 followers, and all the private messages I received were still in Chinese (this feature being more closely linked to the Facebook feature). Even upon discovering that there were other Australian accounts on the site, I still feel like an outsider, as they have taken to using Chinese, so this suggests I really should also.

Last week I also downloaded the Sina Weibo app to my phone, presuming when I found out it was English that it may actually translate certain things. I was mistaken and the only thing it enables me to do is navigate around the app because those are the only elements in English. All notifications, posts and messages are still in Chinese, so it’s a lost cause for me use it, not knowing an ounce of Chinese. Interestingly, the partial English interface for the site only eventuated last year, whilst the app has been around since April 2011 (Custer 2013).

So next week I’m going to give up attempting to use the app except to examine posts in Chinese, and try using Google Translate to translate my posts and see if that enhances my popularity and experience on Sina Weibo. I also intend to start mapping out my research report, which I have decided  will be an investigation of Chinese social media through the methodology of Sina Weibo.

Sources:

Custer, C 2013, ‘Sina Weibo Launched an English Web Interface, But Why So Little So Late?’, TechInAsia, 10 January, viewed 11/9/14, < http://www.techinasia.com/sina-weibo-launched-english-web-interface-late/>

Gao, Q, Abel, F, Houben, G.J & Yu, Y 2012, ‘A Comparative Study of Users’ Microblogging Behavior on SIna Weibo And Twitter’, Unknown, pp.88-101.

Melissa精彩

After much discussion, research and deliberation I have finally nutted out what I’m going to focus on for my autoethnography, and how I’m actually going to make Chinese social media autoethnographic. Autoethnography is explained as an approach to research that describes and analyses personal experience in order to understand cultural experience (Ellis, Adams & Bochner 2011), and in order to have a personal experience of the cultural experience of Chinese social media, I have created a Sina Weibo account. I have decided to use this account to investigate Chinese social media first hand and create a research report that aims to teach an Australian audience about social media in China, and more particularly about the platform Sina Weibo. Over the next few weeks I will be documenting my experience of the site, any challenges that occur and how the site and my interactions with it differ from my own Australian experience of social media.

I chose to create an account on Sina Weibo as it has 559million subscribed users worldwide, and 129m in China, making one of the most popular (wearesocial 2014). Also there is an English version of the app, which will allow me to have a more realistic experience of China’s social media landscape with 73% of Weibo users accessing the site through mobile devices (wearesocial 2014). The app itself is just an English interface, meaning it doesn’t actually translate the posts, so to actually read posts on the site I need to use Google chrome and its translation feature on my laptop. The signup process was relatively similar to that of Twitter, however I found the verification code harder to crack than normal. Also due to the emphasis placed on the use of mobile devices, I was required to enter my mobile number to gain another verification code via text. The extra emphasis placed on security I assumed could be attributed to the level of internet security China exhibits due to its extreme censorship, or it could just suggest that our social media sites are not so secure.

My name on Sina Weibo is Melissa精彩 , this was suggested and I translated the characters and they mean wonderful, so for the next five weeks I will be known to Sina Weibo users as this. Language and my location became a barrier to my sign up experience as not all writing translated and often Australia was not listed as an option. I had to put an area code in front my phone number, Google the characters for gender, translate my name to Chinese characters for the site to recognise it as a ‘real name’ and put my school as ‘other’ due to no Australian schools being listed, despite it being an option on the initial sign up page, which suggests that there is very few Australian users of the site. However, I made it through and my profile can be viewed here. Feel free to check up on account and give me some feedback on my progress, or even better create an account and join me for the journey.

Sources:

Ellis, C., Adams, T.E., and Bochner, A.P. (2011) ‘Autoethnography: An Overview’, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12:1. http://www.qualitativeresearch.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095

wearesocial, 2014, Social, Digital & Mobile in China 2014′, wearesocial, viewed 4/9/14 <http://www.slideshare.net/wearesocialsg/social-digital-mobile-in-china-2014&gt;

Tom Cruise Has A Weibo?

I have decided to follow on from last week’s blog post based on the celebrities of Chinese social media, namely Han Han’s following on Sina Weibo, by investigating Western celebrities and their use of the social media site as this could be recognised as a peripheral group. The rise of Western celebrities using Sina Weibo has come about due to China now being the second biggest market for Hollywood movies worldwide, so it makes sense that those who star in these movies or intend to, find a way to tap into the market (Stadd 2013).

One of the most popular U.S celebrities on Weibo is Tom Cruise, with over 5 million followers, and from examining his profile it is interesting to note that his posts are in both English and Chinese on the original site, meaning I don’t require a translator to understand his profile. Most posts are plugs for his upcoming movies, mixed in with the occasional shout out to his Chinese fans. It’s evident to me that the majority of these posts are lacking the sincerity and personalisation of a true account, and after checking his Twitter account, many posts mimic eachother. It’s also interesting to note that his account is identified as the ‘officialtomcruise’ with a gold V placed next to his name, unlike in other Weibo accounts.

tom cruise weibo. jpg

After doing some research, I discovered that the gold V is a form of verification given to public figures to denote their status, which creates a two-tiered system amongst users. This I think is ironic because it seems against the social equality promoted by such a platform and within my Western society if compared to Twitter, where freedom of speech is the founding appeal, but it is somewhat supportive of Chinese culture in the sense that they seek approval and authenticity (DeWoskin 2012).

It was also unsurprising to discover that someone has found a way to make money out of this lucrative market of placing U.S celebrities on Sina Weibo. FansTang, a cross-platform media and entertainment company, specialises in exposing U.S celebrities to the Chinese market via promoting them through various media channels and most popularly Weibo. Essentially the company specialises in translating content from their other social media platforms and places it on Weibo, which would explain why Tom Cruise’s content is often the same and written in both English and Chinese. The concept behind FansTang seems frivolous to me because in essence a marketing team is translating what another marketing team has written, which can easily be done using Google Translate, and contradicts this notion of authenticity and verification noted by the gold V, however, from a marketing perspective it is genius and fundamental to a celebrity’s following or potential following in China. Currently, U.S celebrities could be considered a peripheral group amongst Weibo users, but FansTang is quickly building a large base of celebrities to manage and we could see it become a major group in the near future.

Sina Weibo-China’s Answer To Twitter

Encounter: 
Initially trying to experience the site is difficult and confusing given it is published in Chinese and I do not know the language, but to overcome this barrier it is necessary to use a translator. The appearance of the site includes the original logo in the left hand corner, with the English name for the site written underneath on both the original and translated version. There are a variety of tabs based on topics to navigate the site, clicking each produces posts including images and videos about that topic. It differs from Twitter by breaking the posts up, whilst Twitter just gives us one home page feed with everything together. I can only assume these posts are ordered based on popularity or what’s trending on the site, given the top of the page defines them as ‘Twitter Highlights’ on the translated version.

The posts include many more videos and photos than Twitter, because this is something that’s only just starting to take off on the Western site. However amongst the posts there are sponsored links or advertisements, which is a familiar aspect of both sites. There are names I recognise in the posts because I clicked entertainment, so there are celebrities, whilst there are multiple names I don’t recognise and many that are not English names.

Overall, the translated site was relatively easy to navigate and understand, however it wasn’t an authentic experience because in order to do that I would have to learn Chinese.

Analysis:

Describing Sina Weibo as China’s hybrid version of Twitter and Facebook is the only way the Western world can understand the concept of the website, but it is also interesting to note that Twitter was launched before Sina Weibo.

It was also interesting that the translated version mentioned Twitter, but it makes sense, as it’s the only way I would think of describing it. How else do you describe Twitter to someone without using the word?