Facebook and Twitter have been blocked in China since July 2009 after a riot in the Xinjiang province to prevent coordination among protesters. Government officials didn’t say when the service would be restored, but it has not been restored yet. With the absence of the global social network giants, the China social network space is still highly competitive among domestic players, with no clear winner yet.
A recent UBS report issued in Oct 2011 said that “given China’s demographic diversity and low population mobility, no ‘winner takes all’ will happen soon. SinaWeibo will remain popular in top tier cities among white collars, Tencent’s platform will continue to dominate lower tier cities, and Renren will continue to attract students.”
Below is a brief introduction of each of these social websites.
There is more freedom of speech on Weibo than most westerners imagine. When a major train collision happened in Wenzhou China in July 2011, a flood of outraged criticism appeared on Weibo. Some Weibo users wrote sentences such as “When a country is corrupt to the point that a single lightning strike can cause a train crash, the passing of a truck can collapse a bridge, and drinking a few bags of milk powder can cause kidney stones, none of us are exempted.”
Another poem posted on Weibo made it to the front page of New York Times on July 24th, 2011. The poem said “China, please stop your flying pace, wait for your people, wait for your soul, wait for your morality, wait for your conscience! Don’t let the train run out off track, don’t let the bridges collapse, don’t let the roads become traps, don’t let houses become ruins. Walk slowly, allowing every life to have freedom and dignity. No one should be left behind by our era.”
An Economist article in July 2011 gave a good analysis of Chinese government’s intention behind allowing Weibo to exist. It said “Weibo allows citizens to vent their grievances and give prompt warning if, say, corruption in a provincial city is getting out of hand.” Not surprisingly, despite the freedom given on Weibo, Sina still works closely with the regulators. Sina is capable of quickly stopping certain users from logging on and blocking posts containing certain terms.
TencentBuddies is a social network product from Tencent, the largest Internet company in China by number of active registered users. Tencent is the third-largest social network worldwide by number of active users, just after Facebook and Skype. TencentBuddies quickly grabbed 100 million users in 100 days after it was launched in January 2011. The quick ramp up was due to the 670 million registered users it had on its existing instant messenger called QQ.
Renren, the largest real name registered social networking site in China in 2010, went public on NASDAQ in May 2011. The company was the successor of a site named Xiaonei (translates to “on campus”, established in 2005). Like Facebook, users share self-made content or content from external links, albums, music and videos. Renren’s revenue is diversified, and includes display advertising, revenue share from 3rd party game developers, and commission from group purchasing and sales of virtual goods. 56 percent of revenue comes from online advertising, and 34 percentcomes from online gaming.
As the name “Xiaonei” suggests, Renren’s target customers are students on campus. However, Renren loses users when they start working. As the competition in social network intensifies, Renren is losing on-campus users to both Weibo and Tencent.