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Social Networks - China vs The World

Posted in Business on June 12th 2014
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COO and Co-Founder

If you have ever heard of Weibo or WeChat, you will know that the social networking landscape in China is vastly different to what we are used to on the Western side of the world. It's also no secret that this difference is mainly the result of the biggest global platforms—namely Facebook, YouTube and Twitter—being banned within the Mainland since 2009.

Now, before you start feeling sorry for Chinese netizens being unable to enjoy the billion funny cat videos currently streaming on Youtube, there are tons of social media options available for them to keep themselves busy.

Chinese Alternatives

Even though you might dismiss some of these as mere copies of their Western versions, their strength lies in the number—all of them boast of millions of monthly active users. Not all that surprising considering China has the largest Internet user base in the entire world with over 618 million users. Let's start from the biggest platform:

Sina Weibo = Twitter !

Just like Twitter, Sina Weibo is a microblogging service where people can discuss almost any topic they can think of—this is still China after all—be it their favorite celebrities, latest scandals, best restaurants, and even politics. Fun fact: Weibo literally means “microblogging”.

  • There’s a 140-character limit too (which is a lot less limiting when you are using Chinese characters), and the usual format of # and @username.
  • Sina Weibo’s many features were actually well ahead of Twitter: embedding pictures, music and video; anonymous chatting, threaded comments and separate pages for famous and verified accounts so users know they’re following the real deal.
  • By December 2013, Weibo had 129 million monthly active users, although the Wall Street Journal points out that half of those could be _zombie accounts created by marketing firms to manipulate follower numbers for real accounts.

Renren = Facebook

“Ren” means person in Chinese. Double that into “Renren” and it becomes "everyone", which is what Renren is all about. Just like Facebook, it began as a SNS catering to college students, then gradually opened its doors to everyone. The features are generally the same as on Facebook—user profiles, adding friends, messaging, photo sharing, notes, tagging, etc., with some gaming and e-commerce functionality too. Even Renren’s UI’s palette based on blue is reminiscent of Facebook.

  • Renren has a real-name policy for its users, which it enforces by allowing only one specific IP address from specified colleges per person.
  • Last June 2013, it had 54M monthly active users, which fell back to 45M last December—a significant popularity drop caused by failure to adapt to mobile users.

WeChat = WhatsApp !

Just like Facebook’s prized acquisition WhatsApp, Tencent's WeChat is a text & voice messaging app, but layered with some pretty nice features such as a social networking platform. It's original name is actually Weixin but Tencent made the smart move of rebranding it to WeChat to facilitate their expansion into a broader international market.

  • WeChat has been called the Swiss Army Knife of apps and with good reason! At the point of writing, WeChat was capable of photo and article sharing, voice messaging, mobile wallet, RSS feed, Finding People Nearby, QR codes reading, eCommerce buying and selling, gifts provider, among others.

I personally love WeChat! It's become my ultimate communication center for everything from organizing group trips and dinners (you can have up to 100 people in a group chat! - you can turn notifications off, don't worry!) to booking yoga classes and finding the exact location of a friend through a magical "send location" option. I've even used it to arrange meetings with our Chinese clients! ...WhatsApp who?

Youku Tudou= YouTube

It’s been five years since China banned YouTube, and in its place arose Youku Tudou, now the largest video hosting site in the country. Its content is mostly TV shows and films licensed from copyright holders, although user-generated videos are also gaining popularity.

The selection of shows and films is actually pretty good! You can watch all the latest big hit TV shows, such as Orange is the new black and Pretty Little Liars, which is something you can't really do on Youtube due to copyright issues. This is a life saver when your VPN isn't working and you can't access Netflix and such!

LinkedIn = [none]

So far, the few LinkedIn Chinese clones that have popped up here and there have not managed to successfully replace the original, despite the lack of localization of the platform for the Chinese market. In February, however, LinkedIn set up operations in the country and launched Chinese language profiles, hoping to reach a wider range of Chinese professionals.

  • Currently, it has over 277 million users worldwide and hopes to connect with another 140 million Chinese professionals.
  • Breaking news according to an email sent to me by LinkedIn 20 minutes ago, they now have Weibo and WeChat pages you can follow as well.

Homegrown Successes

Not every social media platform in China has a Western equivalent. Despite the reputation for copying rather than innovating, Douban, launched in 2005, is a big exception and may be the only truly original homegrown social networking site in the country. Started as a site for recording travel diaries, Douban gradually expanded into a multi-portal social networking site where users create and share content on their favorite stuff—films, books, music, etc.

Other Alternative Websites

  • Dangdang (Amazon-like retailer)
  • Jiepang (a FourSquare-like app)
  • Momo (a dating app)
  • Diandian (Tumblr style website where users can share personal interests)
  • P1 (a social networking site for upper-class Chinese citizens)

Mobile At All Times

As the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In the case of these Chinese alternative platforms, they didn’t just copy and rested on their laurels. Instead they tweaked, innovated, and improved on the shortcomings of their predecessors. By doing so, they’ve successfully catered to the needs of a very demanding and diverse audience.

Most of the features they’ve implemented are specifically tailored to fit Chinese users.

  • Focus on mobile, since as much as 81% of Chinese users access the web via their smartphones thanks to a lot of big, powerful, and ultra-affordable smartphones.
  • Push-to-talk, which easily lets users communicate instead of relying on the QWERTY keyboard which could do with some improvements to make it easier to input the Chinese language.

Conclusion

Despite not having direct access to some of the social media platforms that most of the rest of the world gets to enjoy, there is nothing lacking when it comes to China's social networks. If anything, they get to be part of a rather exclusive social media network, reserved almost 100% for Chinese users—there are of course foreign celebrities with profiles on these sites too (although they probably barely even know of their existence), as well as the fluent-in-Chinese Laowai trying to immerse themselves in Chinese culture as much as their character knowledge will allow them to.

Are you an active user of any of the platforms we mentioned? If you are, we love to hear about your opinions and experiences on the comments below. If you are not, then we welcome any question you might have!