How to tweet in China

HENRY COOKE
Last updated 09:19 23/03/2014

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Some western brands do well in China.

Some do not.

Western internet brands have mostly failed to catch on in mainland China. It's not hard to understand why.

Many of the larger ones are outright banned - Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the ones that aren't, often don't put too much effort into expanding there, since they could get blocked at any time.

Still, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook visits all the time, and Dick Costolo of Twitter is planning his first visit right now.

A desire to break into the People's Republic is understandable. China has at least 174 million broadband users, more than twice that of the United States, and this number is going to grow.

But regulation isn't the only issue: China has its own gigantic and vibrant social-media culture. When social network Sina Weibo does come up in Western media, it's usually called a "Chinese Twitter". This is pretty inaccurate. While Sina Weibo is a microblogging service (that's what Weibo means), much like Twitter, it also offers much of the functionality that Facebook does. It is used by twice as many people as Twitter, performing functions that Twitter doesn't even attempt.

Sina Weibo is entering the American stock market with a relatively modest IPO of $500 million - noting that possible government interference is a risk factor. Comments on Weibo are regularly deleted. Weibo celebrities can be shut down easily. Blacklisted keywords (think "democracy") can simply not be posted, a form of self- censorship that much of the Chinese web engages in. Most damningly, the service requires that you use a real name.

Sina Weibo isn't the only Chinese heavyweight. Corporate partner Alibaba has its own gigantic eBay-like marketplace. Competitor TenCent has its own Weibo service, and more importantly, a hugely popular messenging service. An evolution of the MSN-like QQ service, WeChat (or Weixin) is a mobile messenging app much like WhatsApp, Kik, Line or Facebook Messenger. Only, WeChat has around 600 million users, to WhatsApp's 400 million.

My favourite of these services is much smaller and a much more direct clone. Lofter is essentially identical to banned blogging service Tumblr.

As a longtime Tumblr user, Lofter is eerie, like talking to your best friend's identical twin.

These services all share pretty similar problems. Censorship. Politics. The possibility of closure. But China's users are less scared than you might think. In a nation where the traditional media is state-run and where the middle class is growing at a rate of knots, any place for public discourse in relative freedom will become popular. Maybe in five years we will all be using Sina Weibo too.

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Henry Cooke believes the internet is mankind's crowning achievement. Read more from him on his blog at rectangles.cc.

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