In China connections mean power, so it is no surprise that social media have become such big business here. For many, the networking landscape in the East is a mystery. But how do these Chinese sites compare with what we have in the West? Are social media sites in China really that different?
The top social media sites in China are -
Sina Weibo: According to research by the DCCI, (Defense Cyber Crime Institute) Weibo users account for nearly 89 per cent of total Chinese web users. But Sina Weibo should not just be thought of as the “Chinese Twitter,” because it has evolved to mean a lot more than that.
On Twitter any images or videos you attach to a post have typically appeared as a link. On Weibo they appear immediately, so Sina Weibo has been a more immediate visual experience, although Twitter now seems to be following Weibo’s lead by embedding content within tweets.
Renren: What is thought to be the Chinese version of Facebook, however, is called Renren. It has 147 million registered users and 31 million active users per month. Renren is set to take over as the social networking platform for the college-educated population in China. Renren has a similar look and feel to Facebook. A timeline design was also introduced in August, though it is still not available to all users but it involves a cover photo and life events. However, there are some major differences – Renren’s ads are less targeted and most of the revenue comes from its games.
Douban: Douban is an open forum popular among intellectual Chinese interested in films and books. There are 60 million registered users. Yang Lei who works for CMoDA (China Millennium Monument Museum of Digital Arts) described Douban as “unique” saying that it started as an online community sharing cultural interests but has become a social media site and is “fast becoming the most concentrated cultural community, with the most diverse cultural content”.
Weixin: Weixin, or Wechat as it is now known, is also growing. It is a mobile voice and text app with social features such as “friend discovery”. Mobile space will be the next battleground between Chinese social networks because 69 per cent of Chinese people access the Internet through mobile devices.
As well as these top sites a few location-based services such as Jiepang, similar to a FourSquare app, and Momo, a dating app, have gained popularity in the past year. The Pinterests of China Mogujie and Meilishu have also become popular.
These social networking sites are similar to a lot of the top UK sites, proof once again that the trends are not dissimilar to what we see in the West. However, rather than imitating Western sites, the Chinese have now started to go beyond what we have. They are innovating to create a better experience for users, adapting to Chinese tastes and values. For example, take Renren, although it started as a virtual clone of Facebook, it now has instant messaging and gaming capabilities, light blogging and video sharing.
Social media sites have adapted to suit Chinese Internet users who tend to use Weibo and other sites more on weekends than at work. Research has also suggested Western users retweet information faster.
The way brands interact with users via social networking sites is also different. Mary Bergstrom, founder of The Bergstrom Group, a consultancy helping brands understand the Chinese consumer, said: “Brands know that young people spend more time online and value online communication more than other audiences so they emphasize these channels. Right now, true communication between brands and consumers in China is in its infancy. Consumers don’t necessarily trust a lot of what they see; they know that followers and endorsements on Weibo are for sale, and they know that fake products and information pervade the Internet. The next stage in communication between brands and consumers will have to emphasize authenticity and generous exchanges.”
Brands are already becoming aware of how important it is to engage with the Chinese consumer through social media. Yang Lei, who works for the China Millennium Monument Museum of Digital Arts, said that the “commercial exploitation of social media has surpassed its Western buddy at an unprecedented rate because of its rich media-based system design”.
Despite these subtle differences, it might surprise you to hear that social media sites in China are open to the same abuses that ruin the Internet for many Western users. Mary Bergstrom argues that in some ways these abuses are actually more “serious” and “organized”.
She says: “Netizens (the Chinese slang word for web users) can easily be challenged by false claims and personal affronts. China is also the origin of what is called a ‘human flesh search engine’ – essentially a form of online stalking that can lead to confrontations and even actual harm in the physical world.”
Bergstrom adds, “Extremes work in both positive and negative, though; human flesh search engines have also been launched to help people find missing relatives, uncover criminals, and affirming communications are critical for building a sense of belonging.”
With reliance on the these sites growing, evident in news last week that Weibo now has 400 million users, it seems that the main difference in how Chinese people use social media, is that the connection is much deeper. Bergstrom claimed that this was due to China’s one child policy, which has led to more being expected of the single child and stricter academic work schedules leaving little time for young people to “connect offline”.
She said: “Online, youth are able to find a critical and beloved means of experimenting anonymously with identities and expressing opinions and experiences they would not be able to offline. This intimate connection starts as soon as youth go online and the connection continues and expands, as they get older. Ultimately over time, young adults need multiple simultaneous connections to feel tapped in.”
There are certainly similarities between how social media are used in China and the West; there are also some very notable differences that make the networking spectrum in China unique. Social media in China is starting to move beyond what we have in the West and the connections that are being made online are even more deeply rooted in society.
Sarah is Foreign Expert at 21st Century, a newspaper connected to China Daily and has also written for The Guardian and Wired. She blogs at sarah-marsh.co.uk