Tweeting's so yesterday

By Lin Shujuan (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-06-17 08:03
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Huang Jianxiang, 42, was once China's best-known sports commentators.

He came to international attention during a World Cup commentary on June 26, 2006. Five months after his passionate outburst against Australia, while describing the final goal of the match between Australia and Italy, he resigned from China Central Television. Many thought that was the end of his career as a soccer commentator.

But Huang is back in business, commenting on each team and game of the ongoing FIFA World Cup in South Africa - in any tone he likes. Quite to his delight, he is not running short of an audience.

Huang is now a star in the world of Sina Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter, closely followed by more than 1 million fans who forward his comments to many more within minutes.

His made this comment on Wednesday's early morning, right after China's socialist neighbor North Korea played against Brazil:

"I plan to go to sleep immediately. Forget about any dream related to Chinese soccer. The idea of having a dream about Chinese soccer is itself ultimately stupid. Chinese soccer and soccer are in fact two different sports."

Despite the early hours, this post was viewed nearly 2,000 times, forwarded by 140 people and commented on by 92 followers.

Weibo (which translates as microblog) has become a phenomenon since Sina started beta testing of its microblogging service, Sina Weibo, in August.

Over the past 10 months Sina Weibo has established itself as China's leading microblogging service, raising the country's microblogging population from less than 1 million to an estimated 10 million.

In early March 2010, Sina's CEO Cao Guowei revealed there were 5 million registered users of the service. Then, in mid-May, Cao added the "number of registered members has doubled over the past quarter".

In comparison, it took Twitter nearly 30 months to attract the same number of users.

"Twitter brought the concept of the microblog to China, but it is Sina Weibo that has popularized this kind of Internet service here," says Hu Yong, an expert on new media from the School of Journalism and Communication of Peking University.

The service is much the same as Twitter in that it allows users to post messages of 140 Chinese characters or less via the Web, SMS or MMS.

But 140 Chinese characters can say a lot more, according to tech expert and Beijing resident Kaiser Kuo.

Before Sina Weibo, a few Twitter-like services had emerged in China, such as Fanfou, Jiwai and Digu.

Like Twitter, however, they were banned in July last year after deadly ethnic unrest in Xinjiang was blamed, in part, on agitators spreading their messages on the Web through Twitter.

Ironically, this turned into an opportunity for Sina Weibo to fill the gap.

Hu says Sina, as one of the top 20 websites in the world according to the Web-traffic monitoring agency, had a huge advantage building the massive user base needed to create a truly Twitter-like experience.

Moreover, the company's decade of experience in content monitoring allowed it to avoid the potential pitfalls of its predecessors.

Within months Sina Weibo had become a hit with mainstream Chinese Internet users, thanks in part to a solid base of over 400 million netizens.

Many have attributed Sina Weibo's success to Sina's strong marketing, but Cao Zenghui, Sina Weibo's project manager, doesn't entirely agree.

He says celebrity sign-ups for the service did help drive up registrations but Sina Weibo also scored because it is easy to use.

"Weibo, unlike Twitter, is tailored to Chinese users," Cao says. "That means Sina is able to create a more user-friendly microblogging experience for them than Twitter does."

Cao says those who have used both services tend to agree that Sina Weibo is also more expressive, with its embedded emotions, photos, video and lyrics.

Duan Hongbin, an IT analyst at Anbound, reckons that even if Twitter was available in China, it still could not compete with Sina Weibo and other Chinese micro-blogging services.

"It's like Baidu and Google in China. Generally, Google is better in terms of technology and branding, but most Chinese still prefer Baidu," Duan says.

While Google's global share is over 90 percent, its best performance in China was 31.1 percent against Baidu's 63.9 percent of China's Internet search market share in the third quarter of 2009, according to data from Analysys International, a leading advisor on technology, media and the telecom industry in China.

"It's not because of nationalism, the language barrier is one reason. It is normal for Chinese users to use a Chinese-language interface. There are not many Web users in China who prefer an English interface," Duan says.

Kaiser Kuo says that if Twitter became available again in China, it wouldn't take Chinese netizens by storm because of the popularity of the services that have developed.

While Twitter would have Chinese users, he says, Sina Weibo and other similar services have gained too much momentum.