October 19, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Sina Weibo logo

Social media has become more than a hobby for much of the western world, with many users updating and sharing information so openly as to get in trouble with neighbours, partners, friends, and even employers. This phenomenon has spread to the east, where Twitter-rivalling microblogging networking site Sina Weibo captivates users in China.

Relatively unknown to western users, Sina Weibo was born following a Chinese government ruling in July 2009 that banned the use of Twitter throughout the country. Since then it has amassed 140 million users.

China is a preserved pocket of media ignorance – whether this is voluntary or not is an entirely different, and highly controversial, debate – in an otherwise overly-informed world. This has made it the perfect place for scientists to research social networking and the spread of viral media; recent research conducted into the usage and site statistics on Sina Weibo has revealed startling differences between social networking habits in the east and west.

Louis Yu and colleagues at the Social Computing Lab at HP Labs in Palo Alto were intrigued by the potential differences in site usage and trend-setting that may be revealed from dramatically different cultures. They compared the trends, keywords and usage patterns on Sina Weibo within China to similar statistics from Twitter users outside of the country. This posed more of a difficulty than initially thought – strict laws on the sharing of data and lack of search API functionality on Sina Weibo meant that collating the information was a manual task. However, the website does publish a real-time feed of its most popular keywords; the team carefully monitored this list on an hourly basis over a period of 30 days. From this, they gathered statistics on the most-used keywords (all 4411 of them!).

Yu and team’s Sina Weibo findings

For each of these keywords, the team analysed the most retweeted posts and from this the most popular users. This enabled them to analyse the most influential and trend-setting Sina Weibo microbloggers, and compare the site’s usage to the more familiar social networking used in Britain, the US and the majority of the west.

The research unearthed significant differences – unlike the largely news-dominated subject matter tweeted by western users, Sina Weibo was flooded with tweets composed purely of jokes, images and videos – news topics were noticeably absent. Also, retweeting was a considerable activity; the top retweeted user on Sina Weibo through the duration of the study posted 37 tweets, which were subsequently retweeted some 1,194,999 times!

“The overall retweet percentage was around 62% for the trending topics. In contrast, for Twitter trends, the retweets form only 31% of the overall tweets,” say the HP team.

On Sina Weibo it is possible to be either a verified or unverified user – verified users mainly being made up of celebrities or known figures. Then, there are unverified users such as you and me. Of the top 20 users identified by Yu and team only 3 were verified, leaving 17 unknown figures wielding a considerable social networking presence! Yu plans to study the behaviour of these anonymous users further in future work.

The most surprising – and scary – conclusion from Yu’s research is that news is essentially absent from social networking in China. On Sina Weibo, there is mass sharing of a single opinion via retweeting as the influence and power lies in the hands of a select few users – a spooky reflection of the dynamics present in its host country.

The full paper can be found here (‘What Trends in Chinese Social Media‘).