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 Renren and the other traditional social media networks are starting to look very outdated.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.