In China, the mourning period for Twitter was as brief as a tweet. Only weeks after the government blocked the microblogging service in the summer of 2009, one of China’s leading web portals, Sina, unveiled a clone to take its place.
Sina’s weibo (“microblog” in Mandarin) has become a runaway success. Sina estimates that it had 5 million weibo users by March 2010, 20 million by mid-summer and 50 million by November. It took Twitter three years to reach this number.
But the company faces a big question going into 2011—how to start making money from its microblogging service. Twitter is also grappling with this problem; four years after its launch, the world’s most popular microblog is still not profitable, despite experimenting with selling “promoted tweets” this year. Will Sina have any better luck?
CEO Charles Chao believes so. “We will be able to make a lot of profit on it,” he recently told reporters in Beijing. “It is just a matter of time.” Sina’s plan is to begin monetising its weibo service in the first half of 2011 by adding advertising displays and finance, entertainment and game applications to the site. Several weeks ago, Sina launched a $300 million fund for developers to start creating apps for the microblog.
But this being China, Sina will also have to keep a close eye on what’s being written on its weibo accounts so it doesn’t suffer the same fate as Twitter. China’s microblogs have so far managed to steer clear of government clampdowns by agreeing to closely monitor and self-censor their content. This is difficult to do given the sheer number of messages that are sent in a day. Lively debates on sensitive subjects are not uncommon.
“I’m surprised by how vibrant and how expansive the discourse is on these things,” says Bill Bishop, the co-founder of the financial news site MarketWatch who now blogs about the internet in China. “It’s been much more open than people might believe.”
Last summer, the government sent a message that it was watching. Two Chinese web portals, Sohu and NetEase, briefly suspended their microblogging services and Sina mysteriously added a beta tag to its weibo site, suggesting it was still under construction, in what experts say was a sign that the companies were under pressure to assert more control over content.
Bishop says microblogs have become so entrenched in China it would be impossible for the government to shut them down. But weibo addicts like Beijing technology blogger David Feng know they have to be careful. “I am more self-regulated on Sina because I know where I am and I don’t want to cause trouble,” he says.