Sina Microblogging: An Alternative Model to Twitter?
It took more than three years for a Twitter user to garner one million followers. But for China’s Sina microblogging, it only took a little over six months. Considering that Twitter is used by speakers of myriad languages and Sina is basically limited to the Chinese speaking community, this achievement is particularly impressive.
For Chinese Internet users, microblogging services are a ubiquitous web 2.0 gimmick. After Twitter’s founding, the number of Chinese copycat sites mushroomed, with some ripping off every aspect of Twitter’s layouts and templates. However, none of these early adopters, mainly computer engineers and geeks, seemed aware of the tool’s potential for cultural significance.
That changed with the tragic events of spring 2008. In the weeks following the Sichuan earthquake, and later with the Uighur riots in Xinjiang, microblogging sites, played a central and unexpected role.
However, unlike Twitter, Sina has declined to embrace this type of social relevance. Instead, Sina’s developers have ceded concepts like decentralization and grass-roots spirit in favor of manipulation and celebrity craze in order to secure their success.
Of course, Twitter is entangled in the world of celebrity culture. Ashton Kutcher, was, after all, that first user to gather 1 million followers. But it seems fair to say that this fact was accidental for Twitter. The celebrity obsession is always a factor – from the print era to the bit era – but it was not the essential ingredient for Twitter’s success.
Sina, on the other hand, has built this celebrity craze into the architecture of its microblogging service. The most obvious example of this is the omnipresent and meticulously-detailed recommendation system.
After new users finish registering for Sina, they are provided with different lists of suggested users to follow. Rather than suggest people you actually know, Sina provides a list of well-known people from various sectors, such as entertainment, fashion, sport, media, finance, IT, government, etc. Under each list, there are sub-lists. In the media category, for example, sub-lists include TV anchors, Radio DJs, correspondents and editors. These lists and the number of people included in them are ever expanding.
Another unsavory feature of Sina microblogging is that it collects extensive information about its users. Sina knows where you went to middle school, what company you work for now, and even keeps a record of your IP address.
Censorship is yet another tool that Sina uses to ensure its success. A couple days ago, for instance, I posted the name of the Oscar-nominated documentary, China’s Unnatural Disaster, which is about the students that died in Sichuan earthquake. This topic is a taboo in China’s mainstream media, and the post got deleted immediately.
Of course, the difficult thing about censoring content is knowing when to draw the line. If it is done too infrequently, politically or socially controversial material, which is prone to turn up on these sites, will get the service provider into trouble with the government. If it is done too frequently, annoyed users will abandon the site. To make matters even more complicated, the line is not stable, but fluid and fluctuating. Previous microblogging sites all had issues with content filtering and many sites were forced to suspend or even shut down because of clumsy handling of this delicate matter.
Sina stands out among these sites since it has years of experience in content filtering, as China’s biggest news portal and blog service provider. The learning curve for Sina was not painless. Heavy prices were paid, and valuable lessons learned. However, now Sina has positioned itself better than anyone else to placate both authorities and users.
One secret to Sina’s success is that they employ a large army of men rather than machines to do the filtering. The process is much more accurate and doesn’t suffer from the nonsensical mistakes of robot filters (for instance, censoring images of Garfield the cartoon cat because orange patches are an indication of human nudity).
Sina also maintains tight control over the applications in its service. Instead of outsourcing to other companies, Sina hosts its own photo, music and video sharing service, its own url shortening service, and it develops its own mobile applications.
All told, there are many things to envy about Sina’s business model. And it is, in fact, taking hold among China’s other microblogging services. The question remains as to whether this model will be exported to other parts of world. However given some governments‘ mounting hatred for Twitter, it is safe to say nothing is impossible.
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