Why You Should Join Tom Cruise & Bill Gates on Weibo

Shortly after I first arrived in China, I started hearing about QQ a lot. Phone numbers seemed almost irrelevant except for very close friends when virtually everyone in China had registered QQ accounts to chat with friends online. Like Facebook and Myspace before it, QQ demonstrated that ubiquity is the most powerful asset of any social network. And QQ had the entire market.

Currently we’re in the midst of another massive QQ-style internet takeover. This time it’s Sina’s Weibo micro-blogging service (think Twitter) that’s swallowing up millions of users. After hearing about it for weeks on end I registered an account and downloaded the Weibo app on my iPhone. After several months of exploring the system, interacting with old friends and making new ones, I barely even bother to get on QQ anymore since virtually everyone has already made the switch.

Here’s how and why you should get on Sina Weibo to begin interacting with friends in your neighborhood and across China.

Weibo.com

The Weibo.com post interface alongside the logged-in user stats

How Does Weibo Work?

From the beginning (almost two years ago) Weibo has been described by nearly everyone as the Chinese Twitter clone. This does a serviceable job of describing how Weibo works: at it’s heart it’s a chronological timeline of less-than-140 character posts authored by people you follow. Simple enough.

Since its inception though, Weibo has added several features distinguishing itself from Twitter and becoming something of a Facebook-Twitter mashup. Since both of these juggernaut social networks are inaccessible to users in this country, this unison makes a lot of sense since Facebook and Twitter have already gone through the trouble of spending years figuring out how social networks like this should work.

Quick Facts About Weibo

  • You follow people, have followers, and save favorites. Very similar to Twiter.
  • Photo sharing is easy since Weibo automatically hosts images for you. Upload them from your phone or computer and they automatically appear directly inside the timeline. Like Facebook.
  • In addition to pictures, you can also upload audio and video. These also appear in the timeline and play instantly just like on Facebook.
  • There’s already over 150 million registered Weibo accounts and the user base will soon eclipse Twitter. Adding tens of millions of new users per month.
  • Just like Twitter, Sina has verified accounts, indicated by a “V” insignia, for celebrities. Or anyone with a pinch of guanxi with Sina.

Why Weibo is Worth Your Time: Making Connections

Weibo connections

New & old friends on Weibo

Being connected to your friends is a wonderful thing. Facebook or Twitter on their own don’t hold much appeal to me and I don’t think my case is very extraordinary. It’s the connections that are valuable. Weibo offers the exact same thing: a connection to all of your contacts in China.

If your friends in China are like mine (mostly people in their 20’s and 30’s), there’s a good chance that they’re all on Weibo and cruise their own timelines from their office computer or smart phone. And once you’re connected to them, you’ll stumble upon others with similar interests.

For instance, one of the first people that I followed on Weibo was Gas, Chengdu graffiti artist and friend. A few weeks ago he traveled to Changsha to participate in the biggest annual graffiti event in China. During his extended weekend in Changsha he posted dozens of photos of artwork all around the city and through those posts I got connected with artists I hadn’t even heard of before. The same thing has happened in many of the other social circles that I’m in be it technology, photography, or music.

In short, Weibo is a great way to connect with people who have similar interests in China. Or just connect to Tom Cruise or Bill Gates who have recently joined Weibo and accrued hundreds of thousands of followers in a matter of days.

Another Benefit: Improving Your Chinese

It goes without being said that since Weibo is mostly dominated by Chinese people who don’t speak English, almost no one is using English at all. This is either a huge problem, if you can’t read any characters at all, or will really catapult your written interaction in Chinese.

Like many of you, I’ve been (informally) studying Chinese as long as I’ve been in China, experimenting with different tools and tricks along the way. I’ve already gone on about Studying Chinese with an iPhone or iPod Touch and Weibo is really an extension of that.

J-Dilla tribute on Weibo

J-Dilla (US hip hop producer) tribute on Weibo, courtesy of Zhenkai, Chengdu local B-Boy

I cannot understand everything on Weibo upon first glance (not by a long shot) so here’s what I do: tap and hold to copy something I want to translate to the clipboard. Then pop over to Pleco (the best Chinese-English dictionary app) and paste the contents into the pasteboard reader. Any words or characters that I don’t understand and are likely to be used within the next 6 months get added to my flashcards. Using this technique alone I’ve added 500+ new flashcards to Pleco that I’ve stumbled on in Weibo. Since I don’t have much time to sit down and read Chinese books for hours at a time, collecting and recording these bite-sized pieces of vocabulary works great for me.

Registration & Weibo Clients

After you head over to the Weibo site to register your account, you’ll receive some suggestions on who to follow. If you aren’t interested in following Mainland pop stars and celebrities, I suggest you find at least a single friend who’s on Weibo so you can get connected with people you actually know. If you get connected to a few people that you know from the beginning, you’re likely to stumble upon more people that you know or are interested in. I’ve found a handful of local artists, musicians and photographers who I’ve met (so to speak) through Weibo.

Once you’ve got that covered, you have just to select whether you’ll be accessing Weibo from a computer or a mobile device. Here are your options:

Web interface

Weibo iPhoneThe traditional method of accessing Weibo is through their website at Weibo.com. The interface looks virtually identical to what Twitter.com looked like before it’s redesign about 6 months ago. It’s a 2-column chronological listing of posts by people you’re following. You can hover over usernames to see information on their account like where they’re located, who their following and so forth.

iPhone & iPod Touch

Although there’s an official Weibo client (developed by Sina) which does the job perfectly well, there’s a superior third party alternative called Weico (App Store link / official site). It has virtually all of the same functions as the official client but is better designed and includes several different themes which you can toggle in the app settings. I’m using the Graphite thing which works well and looks great (pictured at right).

Android

Similar to the situation on iOS, there’s an official Sina client as well as Weico. The Weico app on Android is still in beta but is available for free download just as on iPhone and iPod Touch. I haven’t used either of these apps (I don’t have an Android phone) but expect them to be virtually identical to their iPhone counterparts in function and design.

Personally I much prefer accessing Weibo from my iPhone since it perfectly fills idle moments throughout the day: waiting in line, taking a taxi from here to there, etc. If you have a smartphone with 3G access (either an iPhone or Android device), reading and posting on Weibo will be especially quick and convenient for you.

Join Tom Cruise & Bill Gates on Weibo

Since going through the paces of registering an account on Weibo and locating friends, I barely even bother with QQ anymore. Although I was never a fan of QQ to begin with, it was the connections it provided – to virtually everyone in China – that were really valuable. Since Sina’s Weibo network has been spreading like wildfire over the previous year, I can retain all of the same connections on a service that’s much less intrusive.

If you haven’t already, it might be worth your time to check it out and see what it can offer you. If you do, send me a message and say hello!

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Charlie

About Charlie

Having lived in Chengdu for ten years, Charlie has traveled to every corner of China and back again, calling the Yulin neighborhood of Chengdu his adopted home.

23 Responses to “Why You Should Join Tom Cruise & Bill Gates on Weibo”

  1. just got weibo today, will try and figure it out tonight 😉

    • Charlie

      Hit me up on Weibo. It’s pretty simple if you’ve used Twitter before. Even if you haven’t, it’s kind of like the timeline in Facebook.

  2. Haha you posted a screenshot of Luna forwarding my joke.

    Recently joining the ranks of the underproductive office workers in China, I too signed up Weibo. Its great to catch up on the latest gossip, viral videos or just joke with friends.

    Naturally I’m more inclined to re-post or send links to political/environmental issues and believe Weibo is pushing the great platform for pushing the envelope of alternative news and free speech.

    As Charlie said, it is hard to read Chinese Weibo posts the first time through as users often use lots of slang. I use Google Chrome and can quickly translate the whole timeline (although the translation isn’t entirely accurate) I can get a quick glimpse of what my friends are posting. If the content is interesting, ( i.e. not pictures and descriptions of what they ate for dinner) then I’ll be inclined to check out the original text and pull apart new words.

    I try to post in Chinese as often as possible, sometime I mistype characters but most of my friends can understand and either laugh at my mistakes or offer to help with my grammar.

    All in all, Weibo is great fun and I love the medal concepts.

    • Charlie

      Yeah, Weibo is really pushing expression on the internet forward. It’s much less policed than I thought it would be.

      I noticed that you’re sending Weibos out in Chinese – that’s a great practice to get into. As you spend more time on Weibo (or reading characters anywhere) you’ll slowly absorb the correct usage of words and phrases. It just takes time to sink in. Participation is crucial to getting good at it quickly, though. When it comes to Chinese, I find that you either jump in and make mistakes or sit on the sidelines and wait a huge amount of time to see noticeable improvement.

      Also, this is just anecdotal but for me Weibo is way more engaging and entertaining than QQ ever was. And Renren Wang is just plain terrible.

  3. Great post on Weibo! We’ve featured it in Best of the Net Weekly, our favorite China travel stories from around the web.

  4. Cool post. I have not really gotten into Weibo, but I would like to. My girlfriend loves it, but Im afraid it might end up sucking up my time. How many followers do you have?

    • Charlie

      I noticed that you have registered a Weibo account but haven’t used it much. Hopefully you get back on it when you return to Chengdu.

      Here’s the thing about Weibo sucking up time: it completely depends on how you use it. It’s unlike Facebook in that you probably won’t be browsing around endlessly, but I use it in many short intervals throughout the day. This is why having Weibo on your mobile device (preferably iPhone) makes it really convenient. I check Weibo probably 3-4 times a day when I have a few spare minutes – standing in line, sitting in a taxi, and so on.

      But I observe other people (notably Kafe, my roommate) who spends probably hours on Weibo every day. Nearly every time I walk past his room I see weibo.com open on his computer. He can’t use it on a mobile device so instead of occupying idle moments in his day, it occupies time that could be used on something else.

      Just my observation. I recommend you stick to Weibo on a mobile device, it’s just much more convenient.

    • Charlie

      Forgot to answer your question: I have 220 followers. I’m not following that many people though – currently 60, almost all of which I know personally. I’m not really concerned with how many people are following me and I don’t reciprocate follows from people I don’t know because I don’t want my timeline cluttered with stuff that I don’t care about. If you keep the number of people you follow under control, checking Weibo only takes a minute or two at a time to see all of the updates.

  5. shinichi

    Nice guide to Weibo 🙂

    My Weibo: Shinichi_1

  6. Does it bother you (or anyone else commenting) that there’s a decent chance Weibo wouldn’t exist–at least not as the success story that it is now–if it weren’t for the blocking of Twitter & Facebook? Or that you’re effectively handing over everything you post to a company that supports a heavily censored and monitored internet in China and would hand over whatever info the gov’t requested instantly?

    I’m still thinking all this through myself so I’m not commenting as someone who’s reflexively hating on Weibo or Chinese internet companies or entrepreneurs, but as a foreigner–American, in my case–it’s something I can’t gloss over. (And it’s not because of any kind of knee-jerk pro-American/pro-Western reflex; I’m equally concerned about how the U.S. and any other governments–not to mention corporations–might use/abuse individuals and groups of people in the social networking space.)

    I’m sure for a lot of long-time China expats this is a boring/annoying/tiresome question, but I do think it should at least get a bit of play in a piece like this. It’d be interesting to note, for instance, the many cases of censorship of terms deemed sensitive by the gov’t.

    • Charlie

      David, that’s a great question and I’m glad you asked it.

      I highly doubt that Weibo would exist if Facebook and Twitter were accessible – what reason would it have to exist? I don’t feel good about these sites being blocked, but I’m kind of at a loss as to what action to take about it.

      Although I approach Weibo with the mindset that it’s a copycat clone of a Western innovation, the most valuable thing that it offers me (as I said in the post) is connections to friends. I’m reluctant to sacrifice that knowing that my silent boycott will change nothing except sever contact with friends and people important to me in China.

      I’m mindful about what personal information I divulge on the site and obviously wouldn’t trust Sina to do anything outside of what serves them best. We all know the deal and what is expected of Sina for them to be given the right to get permission to enterprise Weibo. This kind of permission doesn’t get granted easily and the right to enterprise Weibo surely comes with some heavy strings attached.

      One thing I’d like to add though is that it’s shocking how lax the censorship on Weibo actually is. Unfortunately it’s almost always stuff I don’t want to see – I won’t get into details, but I’ve run into a lot of stuff on Weibo that I wish I hadn’t seen. I think this is because the number of users on Weibo and its real-time nature makes it almost impossible to police entirely, even with a staff of thousands combing the entire network and harmonizing it. Which you can bet there is, somewhere out there.

      Thanks for your comment David. This is stuff that I do think about.

      • A “stuff on Weibo that I wish I hadn’t seen” blog (Tumblr?) needs to happen.

        Related piece on Shanghaiist about syncing up Twitter and Weibo accounts, allowing you to have your cake and tweet it too.

        Thanks for the response. Love the blog.

        • Charlie

          Hahaha, that Tumblr account could be highly successful. In my spare time I check Reddit (www.reddit.com) and have reposted some images from there onto Weibo and people wonder where I get this stuff. Similarly, there is a lot of stuff on Weibo that I doubt sees the light of day on other social networks outside of China.

          Thanks for the Shanghaiist post, maintaining all these social networks (Weibo, Twitter, Facebook, and now Google+) is starting to feel a bit like babysitting.

  7. Interesting thoughts on Weibo. I’ve been in China for six weeks but I joined just to try to begin to attempt to navigate the Chinese web waters.

    What is consensus on Ren Ren (the Facebook clone)? Anyone use it?

    Meanwhile, Sina has a Tumblr clone in beta that I just joined. It’s called Qing. Anyone up on that yet?

    I’m here: http://qing.weibo.com/adweezy

    Qing is a lot more like Tumblr than Weibo is like Twitter, I’d have to say.

    • Charlie

      Smart move. Weibo is the hot social network in China right now for sure.

      Renren in my opinion sucks. I’m told that it’s popular with college students (like Facebook was 5+ years ago) but I registered an account a while ago and discovered that none of my friends use it. It’s kind of a cluttered Facebook clone, I don’t even bother with it.

      I haven’t heard about Qing before. I tried to check out your page and it says “Sorry, this user is exceptional, please try later or call this telephone number” lol.

  8. Great article, I just given this onto a co-worker who was doing a little research on that. And he in fact purchased me lunch because I discovered it for him

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