This is a guest post by Dragonwell. She is the co-founder of, and a contributor to, Tea Leaf Nation, a new e-magazine that focuses on understanding China through social media.

The reign of the Sina Dynasty may be on the wane in the realm of Chinese microblogs. Regional warlords have risen rapidly to take advantage of weaknesses on the fringes of Sina’s empire. To add to Sina’s troubles, upstarts are recruiting confused citizenry in guerrilla warfare and sleeping Titans may be starting to stir.

Which microblog do you use?

An Early Winner

In 2011, a well-circulated joke captured the competitive landscape in Chinese microblog-land in an imaginary conversation:

Sina: We have an early start; Tencent: I have 600 million QQ users.

Sina: We have more celebrities; Tencent: I have 600 million QQ users.

Sina: We have better quality; Tencent: I have 600 million QQ users.

Sina: We lead public opinion; Tencent: I have 600 million QQ users.

Sina: ….

Sohu: You guys keep talking, I am leaving now.

Tencent’s QQ user base made it a credible me-too player, but Sina was the undisputed champion who spent 2011 pumping its muscles and building on a strong lead. Last year, the tech world tripped over itself to heap accolades on Sina Weibo. “The dominant winner,” declared TechCrunch. “The most powerful social media channel in China,” decided Tech Node. A “serious threat to Twitter,” warned Digital Due Diligence. Some netizens, like @烽火戏猪, concluded that the microblog war was over, “After Sina and Tencent, all other portals that want to develop microblogs are just throwing money in the water.”

 

The Rise of Sohu

Indeed, as recently as December 30, 2011, Sina’s director of Weibo operations, Mr. Chen Tong (@老沉), was so cozy on his throne that he was completely unconcerned when told about Sohu’s ambitions with its own microblog platform. “That’s great, would be good to give Tencent a little pressure,” he tweeted.

Mr. Chen probably would not say the same thing today. Within the first two weeks of 2012, Sina suffered the exodus of three major opinion leaders after they publicly complained about censorship and the way Sina interacted with users. Sohu managed to poach several key opinion leaders from Sina, or at least convinced them to become active on Sohu as well as on Sina and Tencent.

The strategy seems to be working. Some users have followed the opinion leaders to Sohu to form a community of like-minded people. @ 沧海醉舟 tweets, “All the scholars that have the biggest influence on me are now all at Sohu.” Economist Han Zhiguo, an avid Sina Weibo user who had become active on Sohu only in January 2012, tweets, “I find Sohu’s activity level has continued to increase. It has less stringent controls on public opinion and fewer people who resort to vulgar language in the comments section.” @包月阳的清水斋agreed with Mr. Han, “I feel the same way. Sohu Weibo has shown clear improvement. I really value the sense of ‘home’ and ‘circle; that I find here.” @抹茶365 registered for Sohu Weibo “because I heard it’s more like Facebook…Sina Weibo focuses on hot social news, but [Sohu] is for networking, communicating, learning and writing about my thoughts.”

Of course, Sina’s diehard fans are not impressed. @刘柔纤 tweets “I only get on Sohu Weibo when I’m bored and see netizens mention it on Sina.” @愚巷 agrees, “No matter what Sohu does, the interactivity level is not as good as on Sina; same for Tencent.”

Mr. Han Zhiguo, the economist and a master of spiffy summaries, tweets:

  1. Sina Weibo has all the markings of a media platform, with superior sensitivity to and focus on major events. Economics is its weakness, and censorship is its bottleneck.
  1. Sohu Weibo pays most attention to economics, but there is a clear lag in popularity, as well as software and hardware. Sensitivity to and focus on major events are really bad.
  1. Tencent Weibo has the best chance to compete with Sina, but the participants are young, and content is weak. Can’t form a major threat [to Sina] in the short term.

 

Waiting on the Sidelines

Users often complain about the protectionism found at the microblog platforms, especially as more users become active on multiple platforms. @吕随启 tweets on Tencent, “I spent all afternoon uploading pictures from my trip to southern Fujian on Sina Weibo. It would be easier if these networks can share [content].” Such frustration would certainly benefit upstart aggregation platforms, such as Wbto and Masar, that allow users to view, tweet and search multiple microblog platforms at once. The official microblog accounts of Wall Street Journal in Chinese have started using Wbto to tweet all their contents simultaneously.

One can be sure, however, that the microblog operators (we are looking at you, Sina) would not take kindly to the aggregators. It is unclear whether these upstarts will suffer the same fate as Follow 5, the former leader of microblog aggregators that died a tragic death in November 2011. @香港ABC tweets, “Wbto and Tencent can synch quite well, but still lots of problems with Sina Weibo. Probably has something to do with protectionism at Sina. Too petty!”

What about the other big name in China’s tech space? Netizen @fujizi theorizes “It’s not that Baidu has not woken up to [enter the microblog market]; I think Baidu is waiting to enter once the market is large enough.”

As for the key question of how to make money from microblogs, only one player seems to have it truly figured out; and it is a 800-pound gorilla. China Mobile’s Feixin service now allows users to simultaneously tweet on all the major microblogging platforms, including Sohu, Tencent, Sina, by sending a SMS. Naturally, the usual rate applies.

 

Bonus Section: What Types of Girls Do You Find on Different Social Media Platforms?

@南景浩 offers up caricatures of women on Chinese social media:

  • QQ Space: she is either an innocent young girl or a cougar;
  • Douban or Sina Weibo: she is either a bourgeoisie/artsy/hipster/celeb, or a homebody who likes to look up racy stuff online;
  • Sohu or Facebook: she is either a democracy and freedom advocate or a fashionista;
  • All of the above: either she works in IT or she is in a pyramid scheme.
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