It’s well known that social media runs our world and when we think of the two main platforms in charge, the names Facebook and Twitter come to mind. However, the country with the world’s largest online population has very little to do with these social media sites. Due to blocked access to Facebook and Twitter, China’s 591 million internet users are entrenched in alternatives to the two multibillion pound social networking platforms. Even though Facebook and Twitter are to soon be made available to China, there’s no guarantee that they’ll win the social media battle against the country’s established platforms.
Access to Twitter and Facebook has been blocked in China since 2009, however the Shanghai Free Trade Zone (FTZ) launch will lift this impasse. The financial potential this means for both social media platforms is immense, with China being one of the world’s most promising internet markets. The downside is that it is also one of the world’s most restrictive internet markets, and Facebook and Twitter may struggle to find a way to operate within it.
Significance of Culture
One of the great things about Facebook and Twitter is that it is essentially cross-cultural. While Twitter trends are essentially regional, as are things such as Facebook advertisements, one’s general interaction with these social media networks is the same as that of a person on the other side of the world in say, Uganda, for example. This is brilliant as it helps bring the world together and can even unite countries as happened throughout the Arab Springs.
However, China is effectively an enclosed country. Years of isolation has maintained and further developed a culture that is exclusive and extremely unique to the rest of the world. In order for Facebook and Twitter to ever achieve significant success in China, it would have to either draw the Chinese people away from their own platforms, or reinvent itself to fit in with Chinese culture.
It is important to understand that China’s social media platforms aren’t just niche networks. They are part and parcel with life in China and as influential to the Chinese as Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp are to the British.
For example, China’s popular messaging app – developed by Tencent – called WeChat, boasts 236 million active users, which is over half of China’s smartphone users. Meanwhile, Sina Weibo, a Chinese micro-blogging service had more than half a billion-registered accounts in 2012.
This is where the importance of culture comes into to play. Due to high levels of corruption, injustice and repression in China, the importance of politics and in particular, freedom of speech is more valued than it is in Britain or the United States. The Chinese people are more politically engaged and social media websites like Sina Weibo give people a voice and a means by which they can receive authentic information – which isn’t always so readily available in China.
Through being more tailored around the dissemination of political news and information than Twitter and Facebook, Sina Weibo is more in touch with the Chinese culture and atmosphere.
Unless Facebook and Twitter can adapt, they will not succeed in China.