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Can Chinese microblogging sensation Weibo trump Twitter?

Chinese online media company Sina Corporation is set to launch an English version of its microblogging site Weibo (pronounced Wei-bohr), and it’s worth seeing how the site stacks up against Twitter, its Western counterpart.

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China is often berated for the facsimiles it produces of Western technological innovations. It’s no laughing matter. In fact, the Western world can only marvel at the speed and efficiency at which these products are copied, manufactured and then distributed in China &#151 although admittedly the quality is often variable.

Whether or not you agree in principle or not is irrelevant. Human progress has been built on other civilisations’ progress since the dawn of mankind. In fact, a very recent, and very Western company has made copying others’ innovations a fine art: Microsoft has created elements of its own business by copying other’s innovations.

Weibo, sporting the same “Twitter turquoise” background, is not what you’d call a typical Chinese copy though. It’s a clever combination of both Facebook’s social networking features and Twitter’s microblogging, life-streaming features. The Chinese service has similar characteristics to that of Twitter as a company too &#151 a similar sized audience (more than 100-million) and a relatively small staff running a high-profile company.

So how do the two microblogging services, at opposite ends of the globe, stack up?

Language
Twitter is neither English, French, Russian or Chinese. Twitter is the language of its users. Although Twitter’s English bias is undeniable, the service has the edge in the number of languages it speaks to. As of February, Twitter was available in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish. That list is growing all the time, thanks to Twitter’s crowdsourced translation project. The latest language to be added is Brazilian Portuguese.

As it stands, Weibo is only available in Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese with English on the way.

If Weibo intends to take on Twitter as a truly global competitor in the social networking market, it will have to add languages at a rate matching that of the Western microblogging site. Maybe Weibo should target the languages of other emerging economic powers such as India and Russia next?

Users
In terms of registered user numbers, Twitter has an edge on Weibo… for now. Twitter has close to 200-million users and, as of March this year, was averaging around 460 000 new account activations a day.

Weibo, by contrast, had more than 140-million registered users at the end of April, with the company aiming to boost this number beyond 200-million by the end of the year. Let’s not forget that Weibo came online only three years ago, and Twitter six years ago.

Then there’s the small matter of a population base of 1.3-billion Chinese, of which 420-million are online. If the rapid growth of TenCent is anything to go by &#151 now at 636.6-million active users, just pipping that other famous social network, Facebook &#151 Weibo shouldn’t have much problem surpassing Twitter. Let’s see.

Features
In the features department, Weibo may also have an edge over Twitter. The Chinese social network has the experience of Sina’s conventional blogging arm behind it, which means that user comments can be viewed below a post, much like that of Facebook. This means that user comments don’t stand any chance of getting lost in a feed like they do in Twitter. Twitter has only recently launched an automated link shortening service, something which has been a feature on Weibo for a long time.

Could a feature-packed English Weibo steal customers away from Twitter?

Censorship
This is where it all falls down for Weibo. Twitter users worldwide operate largely in a free world. Weibo faces the wrath of China’s rigid censorship laws, which aggressively block sites or snuff out Internet content on topics considered sensitive. These same laws will apply to the English-language version of the site, regardless of where users post from. Just ask the Tibetans.

Sina also reserves the right to delete any Weibo posts that it considers politically inflammatory. These same censorship laws, however, prevent Twitter from gaining access to an increasingly wealthy mainland Chinese market.

Users who don’t have family or friend connections in China might object strongly to this kind of interference, especially given ways in which Facebook and Twitter have been used as a means of political expression everywhere from North Africa to Greece and the United States.

Corporate Investment
Weibo already has the corporate backing of the Sina Corporation behind it, an entity listed on the Nasdaq. This already suggests that investors with no objection to the “Great Firewall” will flock to back the English-language version of the site when it is launched. Twitter has the backing of Silicon Valley behind it. There is no VC in the world that wouldn’t pay top dollar for Twitter.

Western advertisers may want a part of the lucrative Chinese market that Weibo can give them access to. If Weibo can deliver market access to English-language advertisers who don’t already have a presence in China, then they will flock to the site in their droves.

Will Weibo English trump Twitter? Let’s wait and see.

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