By Lilian Feng
BEIJING: For years, Chinese businessmen have copied various internet ideas from the US, and modified them for the local market. They have YouTube. We have Youku. They have Facebook. We have Xiaonei…and Kaixin and 51 and Sohu Bai, and Sina Space, just to name a few.
Some launches have worked and many have failed. Today, the hot trend is to launch Twitter clones — that is, miniblog platforms for short messages.
Getting into the space seems easy: One young geek, Qu Wei, claimed on his blog that he was able to develop a miniblog platform in just 6 hours. That being said, the format is having a difficult birth in China.
Hu Yong, a media-savvy Internet pioneer, recently told the business magazine New Finance, “The strict censorship on the Internet in China is an issue that should be considered by miniblog founders…It’s like walking on a tight rope. One has to find the balance between observing the government’s regulations and satisfying the needs of a new generation of Internet users.”
A case in point is the rise and fall of Fanfou. Founded in May 2007, the Twitter clone quickly attracted more than a million users, and was on the road to attracting corporations to pay to use the platform (Hewlett Packard was its first client), before it was mysteriously shut down by government authorities on July 5th after posts appeared about the protests and riots ongoing in Xinjiang province. Apparently, the platform was too fast for the government censorship department to monitor.
Nevertheless, Fanfou was not the only option for Chinese tweeters. Dozens of other companies have tried to emulate Twitter’s platform and have accumulated their own users in China. The most recent launch is the Sina miniblog, a platform hosted by Sina.com, the oldest and most renowned portal website in China. Launched in August 2009, the platform is a close approximation of Twitter — even the messages are limited to 140 words like Twitter.
What are its prospects for success? Internet observers are being cautious in their prognostications.
As the dominant news media and BBS provider for most urban Chinese today, its product will likely prove popular. Numerous celebrities, scholars, journalists and writers have used and promoted Sina’s free blog service for years, and will likely bring their followers and readers to the service.
Like Fanfou, Sina miniblog also has to contend with those who might want to post about sensitive issues. For now it is proceeding cautiously, only allowing users to register with an invitation from existing users. What’s more, Sina — along with other established Chinese internet companies such as search engine Sohu, gaming portal Netease, and instant messaging platform QQ — is an old hand with balancing “Internet regulation” and Internet users’ needs. It has a team of highly experienced editors and technicians working on shifts, using manpower or and technology, to make sure users don’t tread the “red line” too often. And, if history it is a precedent, it won’t shy away from censoring users who cross that “red line,” as it did in June this year when it closed the blog of artist and architect Ai Weiwei because of his outspoken political positions.
So, the question remains, will portal websites — “Internet dinosaurs” — such as Sina.com be able to breathe new life into the miniblog in China? Maybe. But one thing is for sure, just as Twitter’s profit picture remains murky, the Chinese clones are doing no better. Despite attracting an impressive number of users, not one of the former existing miniblog service providers has established a feasible — i.e. profit-making — business model so far.
That said, the miniblog does change one thing in China: young people are spreading information about all things big and small in their lives and feel less isolated and more connect in daily life or when things happen around them. However, balancing government regulations, users’ needs and the profit motive will remain a heavy burden for any miniblog service provider who dares to ply the “troubled waters” of the Chinese internet.
VISIT: Sina’s English language site
READ: our previous coverage of blogger Ai Weiwei