According to the Wall Street Journal, a recent study from Hong Kong University found that over 57% of the 500 million-plus registered users on Sina Weibo, China’s favorite microblogging service, may be “zombie” accounts that post no original tweets. The study further found that just over 10% of users appear active in a given week, which squares with information recently shared by Sina Corp itself.
The study may be a blow to Sina investors. But it should not dishearten those who believe that social media has changed China or want to use social media to gauge social sentiment. Here are six reasons why.
1. “Not that many” is still quite a lot.
Even if only 43% of Weibo’s 500 million registered users post original content, that is still 215 million active users, or roughly the adult population of the United States. There are more than 100 million tweets generated every day on Sina Weibo. Granted, not every one of those tweets is original, thought-provoking, or meaningful, but millions are. Despite the size of the zombie population haunting Weibo, there are still millions of tweets generated by millions of active users for interested analysts to sink their teeth into.
2. The active Weibo users are the current and future leaders of China.
The Wall Street Journal theorized that Weibo is more like a cyber version of the Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, where a vocal minority dominates discussion. Even if that’s true, the speakers and their audience are not limited to grassroots activists and passers-by.
Some of the most influential power users of Weibo are genuine movers and shakers in China, including millionaire businessmen and businesswomen, trailblazing journalists, leading scholars and economists, and bestselling authors. In the West, these people might find outlets for their views in traditional media, but in China, where traditional media is tightly controlled, they often have to log on to Weibo to make themselves heard.
And their audiences are numerous and interested. The active users on Weibo are likely the most educated, tech-savvy, socially aware and politically active bunch in China. In other words, they are the type of people who help drive the debate and bring about change in any country. In the U.S., this type of person votes, signs petitions, writes to their congressmen, or runs for office. In China, they log on to Weibo.
For companies and marketers, active Weibo users are also the ones to watch because they are likely young, college-educated, living in urban centers and are consumers of the newest and latest products and services.
3. Lurkers count too.
Even inactive users get their information and find like-minded people from Weibo and other social media sources. China’s pluralism is brought to the surface when people “eavesdrop” on conversations on Weibo and learn that they are not alone in whatever opinions they hold. This is important for a country where the Party’s voice speaks the loudest, political organization is forbidden, and dissent is virtually shut out.
4. Weibo’s impact is multiplied through other media platforms.
Nowadays, any Chinese journalist worth her salt is plugged into Weibo, busy mining stories and spotting trends that she can use in her reporting at a local paper or television station. Some of the stories will not be approved by government censors, but many will.
Weibo has completely changed the media landscape in China, and the way news is generated and shared in China online and off — that means its social impact far outstrips mere numbers. China’s mainstream media is heavily controlled and censored, and so Weibo becomes the place that news gets broken and discussed.
Mainstream media reporting now often responds to social media chatter. Even a 70-year old grandmother who only reads the local paper probably will become aware of social issues such as PM2.5 air pollution readings and potential changes in the labor camp system, as a result of loud calls for change trickling from social media to traditional media.
Weibo is also not the only social media in China. China’s Internet also has a multiplicity of other discussion forums. What’s discussed on one platform, such as Weibo, easily migrates to others, say Tianya Community, KDS or Baidu Tieba, and vice-versa.
This means that once an issue becomes a hot trending topic on Weibo, it can take on a life of its own and generate greater impact on traditional media and other social media platforms. This amplifying effect is not reflected in the number of active users and tweets on Weibo alone.
5. Inactive users can become power users overnight.
On Weibo, everyone is given a proverbial loudspeaker. Most do not use it, but they can, especially in times of distress and need. For example, after a street vendor killed two “chengguan” city enforcers out of self-defense in 2009, the vendor’s wife opened a Weibo account to try to gather support for her husband so he could avoid the death penalty. The woman (@沈阳张晶), who had never heard of Weibo before the incident, is now followed by more than 55,000 people and has generated hundreds of tweets. Before the advent of social media, the woman would not have been able to find an outlet that allowed her to keep the issue alive and connect with lawyers, social activists or sympathizers.
6. There is nothing better out there to gauge social sentiment in China.
Or if there is, no one has discovered it yet. For reporting on the world’s most populous and economically dynamic country, we must use the best tools we have available. Weibo is too important to miss.