Artist and designer An Xiao looks at the intersection of the digital and analog in the 21st century.
I met An Xiao some months ago in Shanghai at Xindanwei where she presented her project to dig into the Chinese social media sphere. She has done a great job summarizing the essentials about this Chinese communication spheres.
Cruising In: Weibo’s Ashton Moment
A few months ago, Tom Cruise made waves in both Chinese and Western media by announcing that he had joined Sina Weibo, the popular Chinese microblogging tool used by Chinese and, now, Western celebrities. “We’re having fun talking to you and our new friend at http://t.sina.com.cn/” his Chief Information Officer announced.
Cruise is a special case, of course. But his popularity reflects something of an “Ashton Kutchor moment” in terms of the attention Chinese social media have been received lately from the West. Sina’s strategy, which was to bring prominent public figures in both entertainment and politics to the service, has paid off.
In little over two years, Sina Weibo, or Weibo for short (Sina is the company; Weibo, written 微博, means “microblog”), has attracted some 160 million users and bought weibo.com, edging out other microblog competitors like Tencent Weibo and Sohu Weibo for the coveted domain. Cruise himself attracted over 1.8 million followers (though for some reason the account isn’t active at the moment), making him perhaps the first Western movie star to break the magic million number, a fact all the more remarkable because his account is almost entirely in English.
The art world, with its growing interest in Chinese art, is also joining Chinese social media. LEAP Magazine, the bilingual Chinese-English art magazine, has an online presence, as does the Beijing staple Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. But sites you might not initially expect, like Artforum and Artinfo are also present, garnering over 1,500 and 2,400 followers, respectively. Hyperallergic has even joined, and they plan to post in English.
“Arts organizations would find a welcome home [on Weibo],” Phil Tinari explained to me over email. Tinari heads up LEAP Magazine, and he serves as the China representative for Art Basel. “We’ve just launched a feed for Art Basel, and it has found a nice following [of 450].”
Weibo offers a number of advantages over Western social media, especially when discussing art. The service ostensibly limits messages to 140 characters, but it’s a fuzzy number; English posts frequently go over that limit (spaces and punctuation don’t always add to the count). And of course, the compact Chinese language has more than enough room to breathe with 140 characters.
The use of threaded comments, which don’t face the same 140 restriction, and @replies encourages conversation and community building. And perhaps most key for arts organizations is the regular use of embedded media. Unlike Twitpics and Twitvids, Weibo media are automatically embedded in the messages. As in Tumblr, a simple click automatically displays the larger media. All of this encourages interaction.
“Crowdsourcing is a very popular concept right now,” explained “Will”, a Shanghai-based social media consultant who asked that I use a pseudonym. “I have an experiment where I ask one question on my Ren Ren [a Facebook-like service whose humble name means 'everyone'] and ask the same question on my Weibo. Now I get more solutions on Weibo than Ren Ren.”
And not all of it is in Chinese. Within China, even tech-savvy expats with existing Twitter accounts often prefer to use Chinese social media, as leaping the Great Firewall can be too much of a hassle. Shanghaiist, which caters to Shanghai’s expat community, posts messages entirely in English. Its 800-plus followers are both English speakers and native Chinese either fluent in English or eager to learn.
Regardless, almost everyone I spoke with who’s used both Weibo and Twitter say they much prefer the Weibo interface. From group chats to user tags, Weibo just offers more to work with, particularly for artists and arts organizations.
“Big Bang Theory talks a lot about Twitter, and there are a lot of Chinese people who watch this American show,” Will continued. “Maybe they see how Twitter is popular in the US, so maybe Weibo can be our Twitter.”
But not all are fans. The service, loaded with features to appeal to different audiences and needs, can be overwhelming. Animated smileys light up the pag, and advertisements appear in full color, moving banners. During a recent performance in Shanghai, I found that even native Chinese speakers had trouble navigating the system for the first time.
“Despite what a couple of the tech analysts believe, Weibo is really technically uninteresting, and makes for a rather poor user experience,” noted Robin Peckham, a Hong Kong-based writer and curator. He no longer actively updates his Weibo account, noting that “the level of discourse isn’t really something I’m interested in there — on Twitter I have a lot of critic and academic contacts and we exchange links and plan projects, but other than following announcements, Weibo is a lot of jokes, malicious gossip, and soft porn.”
Is it worth logging on? What if you can’t speak Chinese? In the next installment of this three-part series, I look at these questions and the role of censorship in Chinese social media.
Time to Log On?
Is it time for the Western art world to join Chinese social media? That depends on your goals. “I don’t see any reason for anyone not directly involved in the Beijing/Shanghai art world to be on Weibo,” argued Robin Peckham. “It’s more about back-and-forth in-scene and doesn’t have much application in terms of PR and such, at least on the small scale of galleries and organizations.”
Indeed, Chinese sites like Weibo and Douban, even as they gain more attention from the West, remain predominantly Chinese in both language and user base. If you or your organization have no plans to reach a Chinese audience, then joining these sites won’t help much. But if you’re keen on developing an international base, and to establish yourself in China, you’ll need a site like Weibo to help you reach the hundreds of millions of Chinese using the internet each day.
And getting started is simple. “One can’t go wrong by first using the medium as a static place to announce and distribute relevant information,” advised Tinari. After getting the hang of things, it’s easy to start building up from there.
It’s All Greek to Me
Inevitably, you might ask if it makes sense to join Weibo if you can’t post in Mandarin. A new iPhone app in English makes it easier to navigate, but virtually everyone I interviewed, including Tinari and Peckham, argued that the medium is best expressed in Mandarin. The same character limit (140) in Mandarin makes for a richer conversation, and the medium is generally set up for the language.
But before you rush to find a Chinese-speaking staff member or brush up on your Chinese, I’ve found that many Chinese users are eager to follow English language accounts to practice English. (One follower from central China offered to share her phone number with me so she could practice English with a native speaker!) Some even translate posts made in English and repost them for their followers.
And the number of English speakers is steadily growing. A growing expat population in China combined with strictures on accessing Twitter means there’s a thriving English speaking community on Weibo. Many expats I know use only Chinese social media, and they interact with expat friends and English-speaking Chinese friends. This group will only grow larger. In other words, Mandarin is key but not absolutely essential.
Sensitive Vocabulary: A Sensitive Issue?
A search for Ai Weiwei’s name in Mandarin (艾未未) says that the results are forbidden and shows a blank space. However, a number of users have incorporated his name into their account names.
Censorship is a reality on the Chinese Internet. Entire sites like Fanfou, an earlier microblogging service, was completely taken down for over a year. Reports of so-called “sensitive vocabulary” like “Egypt” and “Mubarak” being blocked coupled with the recent disappeareance and mistreatment of artists like Ai Weiwei and Wu Yuren can make the art world understandably wary. Ai’s Twitter and Weibo accounts remain eerily silent over a month since his disappearance, but any messages related to his disappearance have been deleted from his Weibo account.
And yet there are many ways that users circumvent censorship. Charles Custer at China Geeks outlined some of the nuances of censorship about Egypt, a topic that wasn’t fully blocked, as many Western media reported:
Simply saying “China censors news about Egypt!” is easy, but things are not that simple. In fact, China has created a much more elaborate system to deal with the unrest in Egypt, which seems to be focused more on misdirection than direct censorship. Sina and other web portals are scrubbing Egypt-related content from their front pages, search functions, etc., which makes it less likely to become a big story. At the same time, though, people are still allowed to tweet about it, and even read news coverage about it (both foreign and domestic), which decreases frustration.
The art world has more recently heard about the use of the homophonic Ai Weilai (爱未来: Love the Future) to refer to Ai Weiwei, though it was soon considered “sensitive vocabulary” and blocked. Today, Ai’s supporters use a combination of images, subtle references, wordplay and double entendre to evade censors. Indeed, “Ai Weilai” is no longer prevented from being posted, and a message in English with the phrase “Ai Weiwei” is still possible. A cursory search reveals continued posts from supporters.
“If you are going to criticize the [Chinese Communist] Party, you may be affected,” said “Jun,” a source who asked to remain anonymous. “But Weibo also is used to challenge local authorities and discuss politics and reform. We’re more free on Weibo than we have ever been on the ‘net. That includes Ren Ren and QQ [another popular social media site].”
Indeed, Western media engages in forms of censorship as well, though political censorship is difficult to find. Facebook famously fell under fire recently for deleting accounts that posted images of Gustave Corbet’s painting “The Origin of the World.” Many in the art world know someone whose page was either deleted or disabled after posting artistic nudes. Second Life hides nudity and swear words unless you pay a special fee.
And if you pay close attention, you actually start to notice holes in what initially seems like an impenetrable wall. “Weibo’s viral nature means that things circulate in an instant before anyone can intervene,” noted Tinari, “and somehow it takes longer to delete the forwards (retweets) of a given post than the original.”
Censorship is an unfortunate and complex reality on either side of the Great Firewall. It runs contrary to the free expression inherent in art, and it’s worth much more attention than I’m able to give here. However, issues around censorship need not discourage the average user looking to explore Chinese social media. (For more on this topic, I recommend reading the work of Ethan Zuckerman, who writes regularly on internet freedom).
Ready to hop on board? With 140 million users (Twitter has 200 million), Weibo’s growing influence is undeniable. In the upcoming final part of this series, I suggest how to make the best of Sina Weibo, whether or not you speak Chinese, and I also take a look at another popular Chinese social media service.
What Next? Taking Advantage of Weibo
Just how do you tap into this interface? Like Twitter, it takes a little while to get used to, regardless of what language you’re speaking. But once you get the hang of it, it soars.
English speakers should first download Weibo’s iPhone app, which now features an English language option. Though the translations are awkward, they get the point across, and they’ll hopefully improve over time. You can also install a client like FaWave, which lets you update Weibo and Twitter at the same time. If you don’t have an iPhone, you can use a combination of Chrome, which offers automatic translation, and this useful guide for English speakers by Digicha.
As I mentioned earlier, I found that even native Chinese speakers had some trouble navigating the system for the first time. But for the most part, the layout is familiar, and once your account is set up, you mainly need to focus on posts. One hint is to hover your mouse over links and see the URL they point to. Most of the URLs are in English, even if the overall interface is in Chinese.
Once you’re set up, be sure to get together useful tags. Tags can be in any language; choose English if you want to reach the expat community, and Chinese if you want to reach Chinese nationals. And be sure to check out the trending topics translated and contextualized on The World of Chinese; you might even join a meme or two (Weibo hashtags use the # sign at both the front and back of the link, like #上海#).
Those intent on truly connecting with a broad Chinese audience should hire a native Chinese speaker to manage messaging; barring that, someone adept at basic Chinese can suffice. Machine translation between Chinese and English is as yet unreliable. Unless you’re a global brand, don’t expect too many followers at the outset. English-language or bilingual Weibo users like myself hover generally under the 100-follower range, while Chinese-language arts organizations shoot to the 1,000 range and above.
I’m Online. Now Who Should I Follow?
Start following a few English-language accounts. Tom Cruise and Bill Gates are obvious ones. Loretta Chao at the Wall St. Journal has grown a sizable following. Hrag Vartanian, editor of this publication, just signed up, and he brought Hyperallergic with him. I post in both English and Chinese, as does sinologist and technologist William Bishop. The Shanghaiist account, Beijinger and Time Out Beijing offer useful models for English-language posts that successfully reach the expat community. And tell your friends; the more English-language accounts that emerge, the more interactive it will be for English speakers.
The Chinese-language accounts are obviously more diverse. Popular Chinese-language accounts by Westerners include China researcher Jeremy Goldkorn; ars technica curator Ingrid Fischer; and frog design creative director Jan Chipchase. I also recommend coworking space Xindanwei, headed up by Liu Yan and Aaajiao, at the forefront of the new media scene in Shanghai, as well as Tricia Wang, an American who researches technology in China. The Creator’s Project and VICE China’s Madi Ju are online. The arts organizations I mentioned in this article should also be followed, including Artforum, Artinfo, Art Basel, the Ullens Center, LEAP Magazine and Tang Contemporary Art, amongst others. Phil Tinari can be found at @philiptinari, and Robin Peckham at @rpeckham.
Where the art world most stands to shine, however, is through image, video and audio integration. Weibo is a multimedia-heavy medium, and in that regard it resembles Tumblr more than Twitter. Popular design feeds like Design360 and angsschool show compelling designs that can be appreciated even without Chinese. Jewelry site A Moveable Feast is almost entirely in English but has 2,000 followers. And feeds like Chinese street photography site Zaijietou (在街头: on the street) and supermen (全球时尚街拍: global street fashion photos) show that you don’t even need words to gather a strong following. (Even Beijing’s special police force feed has a habit of posting photos.)
Don’t Forget Douban
The more adventurous amongst you, armed with either basic Mandarin skills or an automated translator like Chrome, should also be sure to visit douban.com. Douban doesn’t quite have an equivalent in the West; it’s something of a mix between MySpace, Amazon books, last.fm and Flickr. It’s popular amongst hip, techno-savvy, urban Chinese and serves up music, books, movies, photos and long form blogging, along with events promotion.
In terms of niche popularity, it’s closest, I think, to Tumblr. Numbering around 10 million, users of Douban are often seen as influencers amongst urban Chinese, and reaching this audience means reaching the tastemakers. Welcome to ENTER, which I participated in, managed its presence through Douban and got the attention it sought amongst the expat and English-speaking Chinese community in Shanghai.
Organizations can create dedicated pages, and individuals can sign up as well. China staples like Xindanwei, Beijing music production group Pangbianr and performance artist Xiao He have highly customizable xiaozhan (小站: minisites) to promote their work. My personal page is still forming, but I focus on Chinese media and music. Robin Peckham, whom I mentioned earlier, is online. Other art world folk include Shanghai-based curator Samantha Culp, the JUE Festival and even Ai Weiwei (well, his book at least).
A useful overview to Douban can be found here, though instructions for English-speaking users are still lacking. As with Weibo, Google translate can help immensely, and hovering your mouse over links will generally reveal an English-language URL. And be sure to visit douban.fm, which functions similarly to last.fm, for an amazing selection of contemporary Chinese music, from poppity pop to hipster rock.
Time for the Western Art World to Join Weibo? Survey Says …
“[Weibo] is a much more dialogic form than Twitter,” said Tinari, whose LEAP Magazine Weibo account has attracted some 10,000 followers. “The economies of interaction are different. It’s overall more generous than Twitter, which wants to keep you focused on people you already know. We should also note that you can say so much more in 140 Chinese characters than English letters, so the whole nature of the conversations that happen is different.”
Indeed, even though I post largely in English and just joined, I’ve already been drawn into a number of interesting conversations about art, technology and China. Both by design and usage, Weibo is a substantially more social medium, one that encourages discussion and regularly suggests people I should considering following.
Today, rather than a continental East-West divide, we have a digital one. The divide is driven not just by firewalls but by language and cultural barriers; what trends on Weibo is often a world away from what’s trending in the US and on global Twitter. But there is overlap, and it’s this possibility of bridging that makes the medium so interesting. Artists and arts organizations that make the leap into Chinese microblogs stand to benefit from a new audience, making new exchanges and creative collaborations possible.