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Why the WeChat vs. Weibo War Will Be the Year’s Biggest Story, and Why Weibo Needs to Win

C. Custer
C. Custer
10:00 am on Feb 25, 2013

Weibo and WeChat are in an old-fashioned duel.

When it comes to Chinese social media, it’s increasingly clear that there are two real players: Sina Weibo and Tencent’s WeChat. Oh, sure, there are others, but they’re all a bit passé these days. Renren and the other traditional social media networks are starting to look very outdated. Tencent Weibo and other microblogging competitors may have big user numbers, but there’s a reason that the big stories always break on Sina Weibo. And while some Chinese BBS forums still boast massive user numbers, they appeal to a limited demographic — chances are your grandmother is never going on Tianya.

So it’s down to WeChat and Sina Weibo for the crown of who’s the coolest and who can grow the fastest. Outside China, WeChat has already won that race, and Sina isn’t even attempting to attract non-Chinese users to its weibo service. But inside China, Weibo boasts an intimidating 500 million users (although most of them aren’t active). WeChat broke 300 million users last month, and although not all of those users are in China, the service is growing fast and poised to overtake Weibo within the next few years.

If you’re not a shareholder in Tencent or Sina or a Chinese social media user, it might seem like this doesn’t really matter. But because the services themselves are so different, who wins the Weibo vs. WeChat war could have a significant impact on Chinese society.

As weibo has grown over the past several years, it has also made a dramatic impact on Chinese civil society and politics. Information spreads very quickly on microblogging services, and because of this Weibo has put a spotlight on social issues from censorship to corruption to environmental problems. I would argue that Weibo has quite literally redefined the way many users think about China, as it has taken what were previously understood to be “local” problems and demonstrated them to be national ones.

Five years ago, for example, you might think that the pollution of a local river was just a problem with a nearby factory, but thanks to Deng Fei’s weibo campaign and others, it’s easy to see on Weibo that many rivers nationwide have similar problems. So, what you previously considered a local problem is now a national one, and when that happens, you’re more likely to try to push for national changes instead of just complaining about your local authorities.

The access Weibo grants to unfiltered information (if you check it fast enough) from across the country instantly has already changed Chinese society, forcing both companies and governments to be more transparent, more responsive, and more willing to interact with the people they affect. Obviously, Weibo hasn’t transformed China into a representative democracy or anything, and there are plenty of problems with the service itself (starting with its draconian censorship practices, though they’re often circumventable). But even so, I think Chinese society is better off with Weibo than without it.

That’s why Weibo’s fight with WeChat is so crucial. WeChat is a totally different service with a very different focus, but the more time users spend on WeChat, the less they’re spending on Weibo. And while chatting with your friends and following celebrities is fun, the service just isn’t designed for the swift passing-along of information the way that weibo is. WeChat’s focus is your circle of friends and your local area, Weibo’s focus is far wider. To return to our polluted river analogy, on Weibo you share your photos of the river with your followers all over the country, and they pass it on to theirs; quickly, it can go national. But on WeChat, you bitch with your friends and coworkers about the river and it stays in your (mostly) local social circles. Even if it does spread, that spread isn’t easily visible or trackable, which makes it seem like fewer people are talking about it and thus reduces its impact.

WeChat is still an evolving service, and obviously there are ways of using it to move information quickly and distribute it widely (for example, getting a celebrity to share a message with all of their followers). But because it’s simply not designed for this kind of information sharing, I fear that the social impact that Weibo has had — which in my opinion has been mostly positive — could be undone if Chinese social networking users start spending their social time on WeChat instead of Weibo.

Unfortunately, things are already looking grim, and even Sina has admitted it faces a stiff challenge in WeChat. 2013 looks to be WeChat’s year, but I hope that it doesn’t come at the expense of Weibo and the impact it has had on Chinese civil society.

(image source)


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Have Your Say
  • Jeff P

    This seems to me more like a Twitter vs Facebook comparison. Twitter / Sina Weibo are about broadcasting yourself in the public realm; Facebook / WeChat are about interacting with friends. If the analogy holds, there is no reason Sina Weibo and WeChat can’t both thrive, as Twitter and Facebook have.

  • http://home.failsafe.nl Ed Sander

    “(..) but the more time users spend on WeChat, the less they’re spending on Weibo.”
    I’m not so sure this is actually true. Weibo and WeChat serve very different purposes for users and one cannot really replace the other as far as user experience is concerned. I think Weibo will cannibalize on other social media like RenRen, Douban, Kaixin, etc but WeChat will cannibalize on phone and text messaging or services like Faxin.
    Although I understand your point why Weibo is more important to China’s society I think in reality there is no matter of one or the other. Users will want both applications.
    Now, if only Sina Weibo, QQ and WeChat/Weixin would be fully integrated and create great symbiosis. As such it’s really a shame that some of China’s best IM and microblogging tools are made by different companies.

  • http://www.techinasia.com Willis Wee

    Hi Ed, Sina actually admits that Wechat does have some impact in its business. More here: http://www.techinasia.com/sina-financials-q4-2012-weibo-rivalry-with-wechat/ The weibo vs wechat battle is also a common talk among techies in Beijing nowadays, even way before sina’s Q4 financial announcement.

    @Jeff – Here’s my take: Both weibo and wechat are mobile-first company so the clash is more head-on compared to FB and Twitter. And the social mechanism of wechat is more similar to weibo which is basically follow and chats (for celebrities too!). Wechat also has moments which is sort of like news feed under FB’s definition and that’s similar to weibo. It is also arguably harder to censor wechat’s content compared to weibo. Sensitive texts are still tracked but a lot of people are using wechat through voice which weibo users aren’t accustomed to using voice. Voice messages are certainly harder to track. So both being mobile-first company, wechat has the advantage of having what weibo has plus voice functions with less censorship restriction put into place. Though for viral widespread message, weibo IMHO is still number one in China. I agree with you that both can thrive together but there’s a closer rivalry between them as compared to fb vs twitter. my $0.02!

  • http://www.techinasia.com Steven Millward

    @Jeff there’s actually a lot more overlap between WeChat and Weibo than such comparisons suggest. as so often happens among Chinese web companies, they feel the need to cover as much ground as possible (even if some areas are done badly). So, if someone fancies following celebrities and brands online and sometimes sharing photos with a bunch of friends, they can indeed choose WeChat *or* Weibo – WeChat can do all that stuff too. So there’s a definite case for us – and for consumers – to be thinking that this rivaly is about choosing one over the other.

    Personally, I use Weibo and WeChat very differently, so I wouldn’t stop using one because of the other’s features. But not everyone uses stuff in the same way.

  • http://www.socialagent.me michael michelini

    Tottally agree with this article! And yes, it is a bit like twitter vs facebook (and I am bored on both wechat and facebook because it is just that – friends bitching between themselves about stuff, and no one else hears it!)

    Sina weibo has changed china! Wechat is just a closed circle of friends chatting about meaningless stuff. I tottally hope that Sina Weibo can survive, but based on my own usage of the 2 – everyone is flocking to wechat!

    At events, at least more people use Weibo.

    But my chinese friends PREFER privacy…and now that wechat is here as an option, I hear a lot of my Chinese friends saying that they don’t want strangers to see their posts……

    sigh….

    I hope weibo makes it!

    But on another hand – some feel that Tencent wechat may cross promote it tencent weibo platform once they dominate the market. QQ is known to be a master at cross marketing….so maybe tencent weibo will take over the public updates in the future?

  • http://monica-tan.com Monica Tan

    I’m still unconvinced as to how comparable these two services are. My feeling is that weixin is still more like whatsapp (or QQ) than anything Weibo or twitter like.

  • james

    an insight which we all seem to oversee is that competition is great. They challenge and egg each other on to progress and develop better products in the end. Sure, we’re talking Benjamins and prowess,. but in the end the user, the people that drive this stuff win.. its so easy to be a big kid about this and act all snooty, as we’re programmed top behave in Asia… in the end we’re all striving to open all platforms for social progress… or what ever you use that for….i.e to share ….