Sina Weibo's new logo

“We are going to be the Facebook of China.”

I heard this in a single day from three different Sina Weibo employees. They are hell-bent on becoming the Facebook of China, which means total dominance.

Does this make any sense? Can a microblog become a dominant fully fledged SNS?

The answer comes from the complexity of Sina Weibo’s product development plan and their excution speed. Since Sina Weibo’s April launch of weibo.com the service has evolved even further away from the usual concept of microblogging  and accelerated down the path of building a social network with almost daily updates. In a sense, Sina Weibo is not trying to recreate the SNS model established by Facebook and cloned by Renren in China, but instead the technical team at Sina headquarters in Beijing are experimenting with completely new ideas and educating users in the Weibo-style of social networking.

What Makes Sina Weibo a SNS:

Friend invites and recommendations – Microblog users follow each other, but they do not necessarily know each other. But now Sina Weibo has given users the chance to know friends of their friends through recommendations on the right side bar of the user homepage and even request another user to follow them via request DMs. These features are changing the structure of user relationships in Weibo. Those who follow you back will be a real friend.

Sina Weibo friend invite and recommendations (Click for full view)

Public Pages – Pages are the customizable mini-sites on Weibo. Following the recent launch of weibo.com, Sina Weibo now has their own unique version of public pages that are fully customizable. As a sample, this is the NBA Page in Weibo. On top Sina hosts a video stream of the latest game, and on the left are the latest scores and the season schedule.

Sina Weibo Public Pages NBA Page layout (Click for full view)

Revamped Groups – Groups, I wrote last November, threaten China’s social networks. But it hasn’t turned out to be the success I hoped for. That all changed with the newly revamped 2.0 version of Groups–the main page of each group closely resembles an SNS profile page. New features include a chat-room, cloud storage file sharing, and a new algorithm for news feeds. In the chat-room, up to 50 users from the same group can instant message each other in a public forum.

This revamped Groups along with the friend invites and recommendations are the ultimate weapons for Sina to restructure their user socializing behaviours into the SNS patterns.

Sina Weibo revamped Groups with chat-room and file sharing (Click for full view)

Open Platformopen.weibo.com Sina Weibo’s open platform for developers to create third-party apps just launched version 2.0, which offers new reinforced authorization keys to developers. Sina is also working on an extended open platform that supports online app coding, so that developers can create apps in a browser presumably stored in the cloud.

In the mobile market, HTML5 will be the next battleground for Sina. There is already a third-party HTML5 mobile game center that uses Sina Weibo login.

(If you are a Sina Weibo user or developer, follow @indigo, in charge of Weibo’s API)

Social Gaming & Online PaymentFive Minutes, the company responsible for massive social game hits in China was rumoured to be developing social games for Sina Weibo. I’ve confirmed this rumor with inside sources from both Sina and Five Minutes. What’s more, Sina is ready to launch their own online payment service soon, we were told at the last Sina Weibo Developers Forum in Shanghai. Sina is aiming not only at the general online payment market but also specifically focused on mobile payment.

Interest Filter – 20th May, Sina introduced “interest filters” in Weibo. Users can now filter their news feeds in the browser via interest. The algorithm is still unknown, but it’s a step forward for organizing Weibo posts into a more acceptable structure for socializing.

Self-Verification – Verification in Twitter is reserved for only the top-most public figures. Sina however saw it as a tool to verify user information. As part of the recent updates, Weibo now hosts self-verification applications for users to provide their real information and get an orange V next to their usernames. Perhaps Sina will be the first true real-name SNS in China!

Why Sina Weibo?

Sina Weibo was a microblog, but Sina has far more planned than being a simple 140-character media platform. Connecting the dots, each Weibo update adds a new experience, steps in Sina’s tutorial for users to adapt to this new form of social networking. Instead of launching a full-fledged SNS upfront, Sina has adopted a gradual approach.

It starts from the basics in social networking: content creation, through enriched multi-media posts (tweets), to the current stage of coaching users to re-approach their social relations in Weibo by offering functions that will consolidate the bonds between users.

From BShare, China's largest social button provider, monthly tracking of contents share to each social platforms.

Looking at the stats of traffic shared on the social platforms for April and March (according to bShare), Sina Weibo has managed to rank second for yet another consecutive month and is increasing its distance from Renren (ranked third after Weibo).

The latest official figure on Sina Weibo is 140 million registered users out of 477 million internet users in China. Sina Weibo has a Chinese government-trusted model of social networking, users love them, media love them (there are already Weibo-related TV Shows), and developers see the platform as potentially the most profitable one, and marketers are scrambling to promote on Weibo. Sina Weibo is on it’s way to becoming the Facebook of China.

And here are some of my predictions for Sina Weibo:

  1. Revamped User Profiles – The UI of user profiles will be updated in a visually pleasing manner to accommodate the Communities, Groups, and social games.
  2. Centralized Messaging System –  Mark Zuckerberg has envisioned that Facebook messages will take over from email. In China, the same can be said for Sina Weibo’s DMs, especially with the latest iPhone Weibo App update which adds a SMS interface to DM’s. With chat rooms coming, and notifications from Communites and Groups, a central messaging hub is required for user to navigate through this social networks.
  3. New Friend Management – As Weibo becomes a full-fledged SNS, users will be offered more options to manage friends who are linked to their user profile and messaging system.
  4. Virtual Currency – for social games, a virtual currency is required. According to the rumors, Sina already has a virtual currency project underway.

In my work at CIC I worked on a report on social media applications on Sina Weibo. It is available here.

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  • http://techrice.com Leo Chen

    One of the challenges that both Weibo and Twitter face is content filtering. It’s really hard to distinguish btwn signal vs. noise when their main objective is user growth and encouraging free-form content generation. I don’t think becoming the Facebook of China is the right analogy/goal — it’s more of a media buzz line. RenRen is the Facebook of China, but that doesn’t mean the market here has the same appetite for a Facebook equivalent as the US.

  • http://twitter.com/21tigermike Michael A. Robson

    “Centralized Messaging System –  Mark Zuckerberg has envisioned that Facebook messages will take over from email. In China, the same can be said for Sina Weibo’s DMs, especially with the latest iPhone Weibo App update which adds a SMS interface to DM’s.”

    Urmmmmm that’s kind of a stretch. Zuck came out and said, “we love email, we don’t want to replace email’ . what they’re doing is using Friend lists as whitelists, and using conversation threads as opposed to ‘entitled emails’. 

    Weibo’s problem is that fundamentally you’re constained in expression when you’re locked into the 140 character thing. Now, Weibo may drop that limitation, but then they lose the charm. Then it’s just a RSS stream of your friends blog posts.

    It looks like they’re trying to mash MySpace and Twitter together. Ugh. Looks ugly.

    • SL Ye

      Sorry I didn’t mention some of the cool features they have on Sina Weibo mobile, especially weibo.cn, where users can forward DM messages like emails and in iPhone App the DM interface resembles completely to the SMS in iPhone, so Sina is exploring the possibilities of users adapting more to the idea of Weibo as the main channel of online communications.

      In Chinese 140 characters can contain roughly 3-5 times more contents in English and not sure it Sina will drop that limit, Sohu Weibo actually has no limit on the number of inputs and they are not doing so well.

      When Sina Weibo came out with friends invites and friends management system I’m expecting them to further upgade user profiles so they are heading in roughly the right direction. And they are being more creative at it than other social networks in China (except Douban.com).

      • http://twitter.com/21tigermike Michael A. Robson

        Right, like I said, it sounds like they’re not trying to replicate Twitter at all, but do a Mashup between Twitter and MySpace. Facebook definitely has a clean aesthetic (you’re not allowed to customize the color of your profile), and many people like that (and point to the ghastly Myspace pages as the alternative). As Weibo starts to adopt all these things, Weibo will have less and less to do with Twitter. Which means, later on another company can come along and say, “Sina Weibo is for kids, we’re the real Chinese Twitter”

        I mean.. can you imagine Twitter with a chat client? Eh….

        • shwuming

          As we discuss about all these, we should remember that Weibo is currently growing only in China. At this stage, I don’t think anyone’s really concerned about whether Sina or Sohu or Tencent’s versions of Weibo still look like Twitter.

          And the growth that we see in Weibo, on all of the platforms, is an acknowledgement that Chinese consumers are different vs the world that FB and Twitter dominates. I wish the innovation continues, irregardless of whatever comparison westerners might make of with Myspaces, Facebooks, Twitters, Quoras, Linkedins, etc of the world.

  • Tim

    I would disagree on this matter: Sina weibo will never become another facebook because they are fundamentally different. Weibo is an anonymous(even they do have V verification for celebrities) platform. And the reason for this inevitable anonymity is that Weibo is a follower-model(one-way) SNS instead of friend-model(mutual) like facebook and renren(OK, add kaixin001 as well). 

    To look at how facebook gain its dominating share, we have to realize that what facebook is doing is to rebuild (NOT create) one’s real world social connections online. Once a certain number of your friend circle has log on facebook, you’ll have to join the club as well —— that’s the very stickiness of facebook.

    Now if we are talking about an anonymous SNS platform like Weibo, I would prefer to believe that its stickiness goes mainly between those real-name celebrities and their millions of followers. Beside that, nicknames could only generate loose connections, and that is the problem.

    Sina Weibo’s real dilemma is: it has to run fast to keep its lead over all chinese microblog competitors, but it should sit down, keep calm, and try not to add to much. Being a full-fledged SNS is not always a good idea, and it’s nasty for me to picture a myspace with anonymous and one-way social system.

    • SL Ye

      Sina Weibo has offered China’s first self-verification portal, users can now choose to be verified like the celebrities, so it’s clear indication that they are attempting to build a real name social network. And on the topic of friends that’s getting restructured already, in my account over 60% I knew and people are around me are using their Weibo to follow friends more than strangers. So how long will Sina Weibo stay anonymous?

      For Sina Weibo the whole project started back in 2007, so Sina had over 3 years to develop this one single product that’s going to change social networking in China, which so far they are doing a pretty good job.

      Let’s jump out of the Twitter or Facebook boxfor a moment and think what Sina Weibo is doing here through the pure social networking perspective, they has taught users to create contents now they are moving on teaching users to consolidate user relations within the Weibo platform. It’s only in metaphorically speaking that they are becoming the Facebook of China, instead the more accurate way to describe it is they now have the best chance to unite as much of the Chinese internet population as possible in one social network. Not sure where MySpace came in the picture though :)

    • Charles Lo

      Hi Tim. In the first paragraph, the author clearly states how Sina Weibo
      will differentiate itself as an SNS and not be an exact replica
      Facebook:

      “In a sense, Sina Weibo is not trying to recreate the SNS model
      established by Facebook and cloned by Renren in China, but instead the
      technical team at Sina headquarters in Beijing are experimenting with
      completely new ideas and educating users in the Weibo-style of social
      networking.”

      I think the author’s point is thoroughly valid that Sina has a chance to
      become firstly a high-stickiness SNS and secondly like a Facebook by
      market share, scale and being the de facto SNS of choice. 

      While it’s true a large % of weibo users are anonymous, 1) there still
      exists a large  % of users who choose to use their real identity and 2)
      “anonymous” social activities still represent a large portion of a
      person’s daily “sticky” social graph (for example: social gaming).  You
      can engage in anonymous activities that are solid, long-lasting
      relationships, again like social gaming, of which the author states Sina
      Weibo is already doing.  Therefore, I’m not sure how much weight
      “structurally anonymous” holds. 

      Likewise I would just like to comment that I think it is natural for
      Sina to go “full-fledged SNS” and not just remain a Twitter-like
      microblog.  Tencent and competitors are fully committed to pervading
      every single category of SNS in existence and the nature of social
      traffic is that it can be easily redirected from platform to platform. 
      It is therefore only natural to capture the stickiest forms of social
      engagement to remain competitive…

  • Ricardo

    You all have some great insight into Weibo and all the possibilites…Please come over to the Yahoo message board and shed some light on anything you’d like…We welcome you!

  • http://twitter.com/woodwoodtable WoodWoodTable

    sina weibo take to much self-censorship now 。tencent did much better。(玩到到最后估计又都迁回twitter了 )

  • Djyde

    Will never. Facebook is a World’s social network.Weibo just China.

  • Mailsue

    I think china must be on other planet .. no google no facebook n no twitter …only their own dominance and their own universe …

  • 907048856

    yeah,I don’t know why chinese people can’t use facebook or twitter,even the rest of people use that.It’s so funny.