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Are micro blogs a blessing or a curse?

By Bai Ping | China Daily | Updated: 2012-11-24 07:49

Just a couple of years ago, few Chinese in the then anonymous cyberspace would use their real names when circulating a petition or exposing wrongdoings.

Once I checked well-known online campaigns promoting various social causes such as the rights of marginal groups and fighting against corruption. For a whole year, I found that the online activists who had revealed their true identities could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

It was a worrying phenomenon, because for virtual communities to exercise greater power online and offline, users need to develop solidarity based on mutual trust and responsibility. Nameless members who cannot be identified and trusted just don't provide the social glue for community building.

Now blogs and bulletin board systems have morphed into weibo or Chinese micro blogs that allow users to post and share little snippets of information about what they do, think or know. The credibility of online campaigns has been greatly enhanced as bloggers go by their real identities when they tweet.

However, to the dismay of social critics, the compulsory use of real names on micro blogs, as required by new government rules, has also encouraged a proliferation of streams of consciousness, self-promotion and spamming by prominent bloggers vying for followers who read posts but seldom interact during their visits. Sometimes, pointless babble dominates micro blogs and could drown out threads and messages on serious issues.

In recent months, I've subscribed to hundreds of prominent professors, journalists, business magnates and cultural celebrities who shared their opinions linked to stories they liked but seldom broke important news. Some of their daily messages were useful or witty, but most lacked taste or substance or both and were meant only to amuse their admirers.

For instance, one of the hottest topics among the "tycoon bloggers" swirled around how a wealthy real estate developer had dumped his first wife and married a much younger woman who acted in a popular television drama. And an actress known as the Chinese blogging queen, with a following of 26 million, shared daily updates on her stay in the United States and later her second marriage.

It's obvious that web nannies employed by the service providers have a role to play in the dominance of mundane and trivial content on micro blogs. But popular bloggers are also to blame because they try to keep their fame and stature by the sheer volume of posts. Since the majority of visitors to micro-blogging websites use them for entertainment or in the worse case, as rumor mills, it's easy to understand why the blogging queen beats all intellectuals and social critics hands down in terms of traffic generated.

While operators claim to have more than 400 million micro blog users, some say most are dormant and inactive accounts, as evident in the platform's difficulty in monetizing the eyeballs.

Then why are people going gaga over weibo as a major platform for political and social activism?

Probably micro blogs owes their popularity to the cross promotion between traditional and social media on scandal reporting. Some micro-bloggers exploded onto the national scene after they prompted further investigation by newspapers, radio and television, which in turn provided fodder for more discussions on micro blogs. How some journalists have picked up the leads from a sea of useless information is anybody's guess. Perhaps they were well connected or just lucky.

I've found myself browsing weibo only when major news breaks out due to a micro blog. And I always end by tapping "unfollow" on my smartphone to delete those influential "friends" who try to mesmerize fans with the one-liners that randomly pop into their heads.

The author is editor-at-large of China Daily. E-mail:

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