Sina Weibo: Reflecting and Challenging Culture

By Digital Strategy — December 7, 2012 - 7:45 pm

In China, social media is big. With more than 256 million users (compared to the 147 million in the US), the country has the most active social media population in the world. But they aren’t socializing on networks most Westerners are familiar with.

Facebook and Twitter may come to mind as the top networks for Western social media users, but for Chinese users it’s Sina Weibo, Renren, and Kaixin. With Government restrictions on Western social media sites, these sites vaguely resemble Western counterparts with the addition of distinctly Chinese characteristics such as “breakneck growth, a delicate balance between government interference and free speech, and a sometimes frenetic search for identity and individuality.” (Vanity Fair, 2012)

With more than 300 million registered users worldwide, Sina Weibo, or otherwise known as “Twitter for China” is an excellent example of the interplay of Chinese culture and social media technology. Launched in 2009, Weibo facilitates over 100 million messages each day from Chinese teenagers to government officials to brands to Western celebrities like Tom Cruise and Emma Watson.

Sharing (and Subverting) With Rich Media

Before Twitter enabled video and photo embedding, Sina Weibo provided the ability for users to insert rich media including images, videos, music, emoticons and polls. For users, rich media offers venue for communication that is not available elsewhere. For brands, the feature is an opportunity to feature coupons, images and videos—Adidas Originals has garnered a large following on Sina Weibo with exclusive, eye-catching videos and imagery accompanying nearly every post.

Perhaps more interestingly, users have utilized this function to communicate in subversive ways. Images are a clever way to dodge strict media censorship for longer periods of time—“long Weibo” lets users share long-form essays as a JPEG, which better hide content text crawlers are aiming to block.

Endless Conversation

More than 40% of China’s Internet users are under the age of 35, and they turn to social media as a place to interact with each other. Cultural influences like China’s one-child policy, massive urban migration and a general mistrust of the mainstream media have made social media the ideal place not only to make personal connections, but also to gather information from peers. (Hewlett-Packard Labs, 2010)

Sina Weibo caters to this audience of young social users with threaded comments that tie into the larger community conversation. The following posts are from Starbucks about their signature drinks of the season. Users share their honest thoughts about the drinks with the brand in Weibo comments.

Threaded comments are the ideal way for busy urban dwellers to quickly read up on consumer opinions. McKinsey notes that social media influences Chinese purchase decisions more than anywhere else in the world. “Chinese consumers say they are more likely to consider buying a product if they see it mentioned on a social-media site and more likely to purchase a product or service if a friend or acquaintance recommends it on a social-media site.”

A Trophy Case of Humble Brags

Image sharing has made social bragging (think Rich Kids of Instagram) commonplace, but the Chinese tend to shy away from flashing material possessions and sharing personal information on social media. Weibo is culturally aware of this distinction and offers the opportunity for ordinary users, celebrities, and brands to build a voice and an identity online.

Weibo Badges are a unique way for the community to ‘humbly brag’ about their activities online. Badges are “deliberately – or coincidentally – attained by doing something or following someone within Sina Weibo” and are displayed in a virtual trophy cabinet on a user’s profile page.

Below is an example from HTC, which utilized Weibo Badges to encourage users to choose a phone from its One S series for contestants of The Voice China for an HTC Music Badge.

This type of interaction is quite natural to Chinese users, who tend to be highly engaged with brands. But their interaction isn’t strictly an influence on purchase decisions or a request for customer service; it’s a demand for content and real-time engagement. Badges reflect this interaction with brands online and effectively build an online identity for the user that acquires them. For the Chinese social media user, relationships with brands are essentially a partnership and form of self-expression.

With the world’s largest population, an urban consumption boom and users on the hunt for trust-worthy information sources Weibo and other platforms fill a social void for many users. Social content offers information, interpersonal relationships and a space for social rebellion. Though the ‘Great Firewall of China’ blocks Facebook and Twitter, Sina Weibo and other social platforms have filled the gap providing a space for millions to communicate. Ultimately, social media in China not only reflects the country’s culture, but it’s moving to change it.


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