By Erik Crouch
English Weibo interface, to access click here.
Sina Weibo, the Chinese micro-blogging juggernaut, is certainly trying to expand its laowai appeal. Just days after Brad Pitt’s bizarre entrance to the platform, Weibo has begun rolling out an English-language interface. So far the English version is a bit awkward: clicking “Help” on the English homepage, for example, still links to an entirely Chinese page. It’s the same story for most of the site, with fancy new English headers and links directing users to wholly Chinese content.
Although it’s currently a bit cobbled together, an English Weibo is still a big deal. A recent study examined by Tech in Asia revealed that Twitter has a piddling 18,164 active users in China, dwarfed by Weibo’s 368 million. Unlike Twitter’s diverse multi-langage userbase, however, Weibo is a Chinese-language monolith. The development of an English site could establish Weibo as a global competitor to Twitter, and open new worlds of Xi Jinping Fanclubs, celebrity innuendo, and the generally bizarre.
Of course, censorship and perceived CPC control of the company will be a real stumbling block to any expansion plans Sina may have. Whilst this doesn’t seem to have harmed the company in Hong Kong, where it claims to have over 2 million users, Tech in Asia’s Charlie Custer argues that Sina (and other Chinese internet companies) should do its upmost to avoid censoring foreign users:
Any Chinese internet company could offer completely uncensored service outside China’s borders if it so chose. Most have them have simply decided that doing so would be bad for business.
That, of course, is a perfectly fair decision for a business to make. But I wonder at what point that decision is going to harm these companies’ aspirations of overseas growth. How much faster would Sina Weibo grow in Taiwan if it was uncensored? How big could WeChat be if it didn’t have the stigma of political censorship draped around its neck like a dead albatross? For most overseas users, censorship of China-related topics is going to be a little-noticed minor annoyance, but it is absolutely terrible for marketing and branding. That is doubly true if the companies are also not transparent about what is allowed and what isn’t, which is often the case on Chinese content platforms.