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It looks like there really has been a mass exodus of Sina Weibo users, but it’s still not clear why

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As Tencent’s WeChat messenger grows in popularity across China, many followers of Chinese consumer technology have kept their eyes glued to the evolution of Sina Weibo – the desktop-first, Twitter-esque social network that launched in 2009 and saw its biggest boom around 2011. Several reports have surfaced over the past six months indicating a decrease in activity on Sina Weibo, but today Malcolm Moore and his team at The Telegraph have published the most thorough study yet demonstrating how many active users are abandoning the service.

The study, which the Telegraph commissioned out to the Institute for Data Science and Engineering of East China Normal University, analyzed the activity of 1.6 million Sina Weibo users from January 2011 through December 2013.

The research revealed two key data points.

In March 2012, 430,000 users within the sample were posting 40 times a day. By December 2013, the number of users posting 40 times a day had fallen to 114,000, marking a 43 percent decline.

Meanwhile, activity within a segment described as “highly active” declined over the period as well. In March 2012 this group tweeted 68 million posts, but that figure fell to 17.9 million by December 2013, marking a decline of 74 percent.

But what’s even more interesting is that of the three graphs the Telegraph has published – one tracking the number of “highly active users,” one tracking the number of posts made by “highly active users,” and one which appears to broadly track “use” – all show a steep decline in activity starting in July 2013, around the time when the Chinese government began the so-called “crackdown on rumors.” While Chinese government and media publicly framed this initiative as an attempt to curb the spread of misinformation – conspiracy theories, scams, and the like (in addition to politically sensitive information, which goes without saying) – in practice it served as a premise under which authorities could detain or taunt users that were high-profile and prone to airing grievances towards the government.

According to the study, two weeks after the arrest of Charles Xue, a prominent venture capitalist on Weibo, the daily number of tweets from the sample group was halved.

What’s behind the drop?

This report follows two other studies reporting similar drops in Sina Weibo activity. Earlier this month the China Internet Network Information Center reported a nine percent drop in users of Chinese microblogs, though that study analyzed Sina Weibo and the competing Tencent Weibo together. Meanwhile, last July, Chinese tech blog Huxiu published a graph showing declining activity among Weibo’s “Big V” verified users.

Of course, the question one wants to ask is, “Did activity on Weibo drop after July because of the crackdown on rumors? Have the highly-publicized pressures on Big-V accounts signaled users to cut back their activity? Or is Weibo simply less popular than it used to be?”

Questions like these seldom receive decisive answers, but the Telegraph’s release of the study – the best one of its kind, thus far – indicates that the answer might be “Yes, and yes.”

The extreme drop in activity after the arrest of Charles Xue certainly leads one to interpret the events as causally related, and marks the best evidence to date for those who want to attribute Sina’s decline to the crackdown on rumors. After the arrest of Xue and the detention of other Big Vs, ordinary active users might have decided Sina Weibo was no longer a safe place to socialize online, or at the very least, would no longer be a very interesting place to socialize.

But amidst the crackdown on rumors and before Charles Xue’s arrest, Tencent rolled out its 5.0 update for WeChat, which brought games, stickers, and voice-to-text functionality to the already-popular messaging app. While those additions might sound like marginal improvements on paper, they can help drive virality and cement adoption – perhaps, in some cases, deeply enough to turn Weibo and WeChat dabblers into full-time WeChat users. Couple the souped up WeChat with the unresolved pitfalls of Weibo – complicated UI, annoying ads, and ghost accounts – and making the switch becomes even easier.

So there’s two narratives at play. One tells a story of users abandoning Sina Weibo due to political intimidation, the other tells a story of users abandoning Sina Weibo because WeChat has grown bigger and badder. Intuitively, neither narrative feels satisfying on its own, and more research – both qualitative and quantitative – will be needed to tell a complete story. In any case, the study from the Telegraph suggests that the political narrative may not be unfounded.

Observers are correct when they point out that WeChat, as it stands now, will not become the online public square that Sina Weibo once was. There’s no means for tracking the spread of information and virality on WeChat. Articles posted on WeChat can be shared with friends on the service, but there’s no commenting feature in place. It’s not even possible to see how many followers a particular user or public account has. WeChat is way more than a messaging app, but it’s a messaging app at heart, not a forum for spreading information.

With over 60 million daily active users as of November (though some of those could be ghost accounts), Sina Weibo doesn’t appear to be dead just yet. And when the company reports staggering numbers of tweets during Spring Festival or New Year’s Eve, one is reminded that it’s still a powerful player in Chinese social media. But at the very least, Sina Weibo’s heydey of scandals uncovered and corruption exposed appears to be grinding to a halt.

(Source: The Telegraph)

(Editing by Paul Bischoff)

(Image via Flickr user stevec77)

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