China’s Web 2.0 space is in constant flux. Companies rise and fall, and the ones that remain are forever adjusting their positioning, rolling out new services to compete in new sectors, and even changing their corporate identity altogether. And that’s without accounting for the hand of the government in all-things digital.
Below we take a look at a few of the new microblog and social networking services that have arisen in the wake of the Great Microblog Purge following the Urumqi riots in early July.
Sina microblogging :
In late August, blogging behemoth Sina launched its own microblogging platform. Sina’s microblogging service shares a philosophy with its own blogging service, which recruited high-profile celebrities to attract interest from ordinary Internet users: the home page features a ticker-tape of well-known Sina bloggers and other celebrities who have started a Sina microblog. Sina is also known for its rankings, and it continues the practice for its microblog service. A list of the overall top-ten most-followed microbloggers is featured on the landing page, with former Google China Chief Kai-fu Lee (李开复), Phoenix TV journalist and noted blogger Rose Luqiu (闾丘露薇), and CCTV sports personality Huang Jianxiang (黄健翔), currently at the top, and a rankings page breaks things down further into top daily follows and most reposted. Although Sina’s service maintains the 140-character message limit that Twitter pioneered (and it comes with its own in-house URL shortener to assist), users can elect to “repost” (转发) other users’ updates and append an additional 140-character-long message. This serves the function of other microblogs’ @-quote feature (which Sina does not support). And instead of a Twitter-like single hash mark in front of a keyword to tie a message to a particular subject, Sina’s hashtag system wraps the keyword in hash marks (#keyword#). In addition, Sina’s service puts a comment thread under each update where other netizens can respond to a message without it being included in their own update stream. These comments are not easily accessible, so the additional feature in some ways makes the system less open and transparent than Twitter. Of course, Sina also offers other technical goodies like binding your account to major outside blog platforms for automatic updates when you make a new blog post, and the ability to post (and quote) images directly into the message stream.
Myspace.CN 9911 :
9911 is a microblog developed for Myspace China (聚友). Its impact in China was limited compared to homegrown social networks, and after the departure of CEO and founder Luo Chuan (罗川) in September 2008, buzz about the site has been subdued. 9911 provides a standard slate of microblog offerings, the most interesting of which is a prominent button to attach a video clip to an update (other services usually support images only). Like Sina, 9911 has a stable of celebrity users, and in addition to a handful of pop stars, organizations such as the NBA and the Wall Street Journal have signed up, as well as editors of major newspapers (e.g. The Beijing News, Southern Weekly). One of the most famous users is Zeng Yike (曾轶可). Zeng is a 2009 Supergirl contestant who has already been knocked out but remains incredibly famous, and her account has 22,438 followers. It directs links to her MySpace music page. However, 9911 sometimes feels like a ghost town. Many of the most active users of other microblogs registered on the site and began posting, but they quickly high-tailed it back to Twitter sometime in August, leaving dormant accounts behind. Well-known blogger and freelance journalist Michael Anti doesn’t update much, and Southern Weekly journalist Pingke (平客) has gone, and Hecaitou (和菜头), a blogger well-known for his humorous commentary, merely reserved an ID but did not post any updates. Even the full-on celebs aren’t doing much with it: Actress Gigi Leung (梁咏琪) has been using MySpace for years, apparently, but updates at a rate of one post every two or three months.
Digu reborn :
Digu was one of the Chinese microblogging services that was shut down in after the Urumqi riots. Its main page still claims that it is “closed for upgrades.” This is most likely a fiction, as the website has already been completely replaced by another microblog called Huotu (火兔), which means “fire rabbit.” In early August, Digu users received a notice that read in part, “All of your Digu history and friends list have been put onto Huotu.” Huotu support images, @-replies, and a variety of plug-ins. Its sidebar links to latest updates from a variety of celebrity Huotu users and a list of “interesting people of the day.” Huotu supports hashtags, and its sidebar currently holds a prominently-featured link to a page listing all updates that use the hash tag #60, in honor of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1. It’s part of a contest (winners receive a Nokia smart-phone) that requires posts be in the format: Image reflecting (social / standard of living) changes + text description + #60. Users have posted old wedding photos, scans of ration tickets, newspaper clippings, shots of modern-day construction, and snippets of memories from the past six decades. Huotu is associated with Dadi (打嘀), a service that binds into other SNS websites and allows users to coordinate their updates en masse through Dadi’s single interface.
China Mobile SNS :
China Mobile is identified with the phone-number prefix 139, and its 139.com website, an email service and more recently an attempt at a blog host, has been reinvented as a social network, an online home for China Mobile users based around a “talk” theme. Registered users, known on the site as “talkers” (说客), use 139’s microblog service to “be listened to” or to “listen to others.” Guo Degang (郭德纲) is a heavily-promoted celebrity member, although the page might not actually be maintained by the superstar cross-talker himself. Becoming someone’s fan, or “listening to them,” is the equivalent of “following” someone on Twitter. Guo has accumulated 951 listeners. Pop diva Wen Lan (温岚) also has a page that shows her music and a welcome message at the beginning on the audio asking her fans at 139 to stay tuned to her updates. Some profile pages also support music players so the famous popstars featured on 139 (there seems to be only about five of them), can then upload their music. For example, Taiwan pop singer Kenji Wu (吴克群) has an active 139.com account that hosts press photos for his fans. Associated functions include a music channel which lets the user listen to what the other users are listening to, a game channel, and a “magic shell” (魔贝) system, which is virtual money that can be exchanged for presents, similar to other more well-known Chinese SNS sites. 139.com claims to already have tens of millions of users, drawn from China Mobile’s immense phone user base.
Bage.me and reaching Twitter through the great firewall of China :
If the new services described above have you less than convinced to abandon Twitter all together, how can you continue to access your Twitter account? Sure, you can fire up your VPN or route your web browser through a proxy (see this earlier Friday 5), but that’s kind of a pain, and it’d be nice to have a seamless system that just worked without you having to think about it. Twitter (and many Chinese microblogs) make their services accessible through open APIs to third-party plug-ins – software you install that allows you to update your account and read messages through a separate application outside of your web-browser, or tools that tie into other Web 2.0 services for syndication, content remixing, etc. In some cases, plug-ins may be written in such a way that they avoid the mainland’s blocks on web traffic, or they may be expressly designed to vault the GFW. Bage (八哥) is a Twitter client (it also supports Zuosa) aimed at Chinese netizens who want to update their Twitter accounts from a standalone application without the hassle of a proxy. Post through the application to update your accounts on both microblog providers at the same time. There are other solutions if all you want to do is publish content on Twitter. Before Twitter was blocked, some of China’s microblog services sensed a desire for interoperability among users and offered hooks to a variety of other Web 2.0 sites, including Twitter. Although these direct links may no longer work, it is often possible to route a Chinese microblog through an unblocked third party and then to Twitter. John Pasden at Sinosplice has details. Even with open APIs, it takes motivated programmers to harness the system for everyday users, and if there’s not a critical mass of interested techies, you may not be able to link your preferred Chinese microblog to your Twitter account. Right now, for example, linking your 9911 account to Twitter is a fairly complicated process. Nevertheless, the block on Twitter and the suspension of other Chinese services have not put a stop to the exchange of snippets of information, ideas, and silly memes on microblogs.