Scholars of social media spend a lot of time studying Twitter. Twitter’s not the largest social network in the world – Facebook has at least twice as many users – but it’s massive and influential, particularly in the world of journalism, where smart practitioners have learned to report on stories using accounts from Twitter. And Twitter is something of a model organism for social media researchers. Most relationships and content on Twitter are public, while relationships and content on Facebook are often private. There’s an ecosystem of tools that use Twitter’s API to understand popular topics and networks of influence on Twitter, and countless research projects that use Twitter’s API to understand behavioral dynamics on social networks.
By contrast, there’s little scholarly research in English on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblogging network. (The top article on Google Scholar that comes up for a search on “twitter” has 637 cites. Top article for “sina weibo” has 9 cites.) The service is structurally similar to Twitter, with @usernames, hashtags, reposting, and URL shortening (using the t.cn site instead of t.co used by Twitter.) In one sense, the service is richer than Twitter, as posts can contain both 140 characters (which may contain significantly more information than 140 alphanumeric characters, as the 140 characters in Chinese are ideograms), and an embedded image or video. And Sina Weibo offers an API and supports an ecosystem of tools and applications that interact with Weibo data. Oh, and Sina Weibo has almost as many users as Twitter – 250 million in October 2011, as compared to roughly 300 million for Twitter at the end of 2011.
The obvious reason for the lack of English language research is that most English-speaking social media scholars don’t read Chinese very well. But this a lame excuse for ignoring a powerful media tool. John Kelly of Morningside Analytics doesn’t speak Persian, but he’s done groundbreaking research mapping links in the Iranian blogosphere. Colleagues at the Berkman Center are using Media Cloud (built by researchers who speak no Russian) to understand conversations taking place in Russian blogs versus those in state-influenced media. Language is a powerful, but not insurmountable, barrier to researching a media space. In both the cases I mention above, English-speaking researchers worked with translators to understand novel social media phenomena.
I sometimes wonder whether English-speaking scholars pay insufficient attention to Chinese social media due to an assumption that Chinese media has been censored to the point of sterility. I often speak about internet censorship, and American audiences in particular are quick to share their knowledge of the “great firewall”, the “fifty cent party” and other aspects of Chinese internet censorship. Because Chinese censorship has been widely reported in American media, I suspect many Americans know more about what’s not on the Chinese internet than what’s present. (David Talbot of Technology Review wrote an excellent article about “China’s Internet Paradox” which makes the case that the Chinese internet is freer and more complicated than most audiences think.)
One of the best ways to get a sense for the complexity of Sina Weibo is through WeiboScope, a tool created by Cedric Sam and colleagues at the University of Hong Kong. WeiboScope uses Sina Weibo’s API to collect posts from 200,000 Sina Weibo users. His sample is a subset of Sina Weibo’s most popular users, and contains only users who have at least 1000 followers. (His blog, the Rice Cooker, offers lots of details on building and deploying the system.) Taking advantage of the fact that many Sina Weibo posts include images, WeiboScope offers a visual version of Weibo “trending topics”, showing the images associated with the most retweeted posts.
A first glance at WeiboScope offers a sense for what’s hot in the Chinese internet. There’s lots of images of pop stars, and lots of pretty women showing off cleavage. Dig a bit further and there’s some hope for the xenophiles amongst us: internet memes that need to translation. Sam the Seagull – a bird who steals Doritos from an Aberdeen convenience store – has been kicking around the internet since at least 2007, and an animated GIF of the thieving bird is the second most popular post today. Other memes appear to be shared in realtime – this comparison of pollution in a Chinese city versus the skies above Australia featured on WeiboScope today, and also appeared on Reddit this morning.
Dig a bit deeper and there’s quite a bit of political content. Take this deeply disconcerting image:
The face of the mammarilly-enhanced cow is that of Niu Gensheng, CEO of Mengniu Dairy, one of the companies implicated in the 2008 Melamine scandal, where companies apparently added a toxic chemical to milk powder to increase protein content in their products. Mengniu recently revealed that some of their milk is testing positive for another toxin, apparently because cows were fed moldy feed. The company’s share price dropped 24% on this news today, knocking more than $1 billion of the company’s value. The text accompanying the Gensheng cartoon warns the executive of the dangers of angering 1.3 billion people. Another post, the most popular today, links to an article on Songshuhui.net that argues that Chinese people should stop drinking milk. While the article doesn’t explicitly mention Mengniu, it references scandals about milk, and it’s likely that the conversation about eschewing milk is directly related to the Mengniu news. Another popular post suggests a boycott of Mengniu, reminding readers that Saatchi & Saatchi, which had worked to rebrand the company, left after the tainted milk scandal of 2008.
I suspect some readers will note that the story I’m featuring about popular dissent is about consumer issues, not about direct opposition to the government. It’s worth remembering that popular protest often focuses more on economic and social issues than on overtly political issues – the Occupy movement in the US has been triggered by frustration with banks at least as much as it is with frustration with US politics. And there’s more directly political content on Weibo as well – this post talks about a family’s house that’s demolished by the government and a man’s protests in Beijing. This isn’t to say that Sina Weibo isn’t censored – it is. But the speed of Weibo means that stories can be widely discussed before censors declare a topic off limits, as we saw with extensive online coverage of the July high speed train collision. And the popularity of Weibo gives Chinese authorities a classic Cute Cats problem – censoring the service too heavily would alienate the 250 million people who use it, including the majority who are largely interested in scantily dressed celebrities.
I should note: I don’t speak or read Chinese. That means that my interpretation of the Mengniu cow could be deeply mistaken. But it also means that it’s possible to puzzle out a breaking story in Chinese media using WeiboScope, Google Translate and a few web searches.
Here’s hoping tools like WeiboScope will help make the Chinese internet seem like less of a foreign land and more like a near neighbor.
Oiwan Lam at Global Voices has posted about online activism around Mengniu, with some wonderful (and generally less disturbing!) images. And An Xiao offers a great reaction post to the ideas I’m putting forward here, including a clever inversion of the Cute Cat Theory: “with Chinese political memes, the cute cats are the activist message.” Very interesting, something I’m still digesting.