The media have been talking about the death of Weibo, China’s (still) leading web-based social media platform, for well more than a year, ever since the government crackdown on online opinion leaders last year. What now?
Yesterday, popular playwright Ning Caishen sold his Weibo account, which has 7.39 million followers, for a total of 50 yuan. That’s about $8.
“Hi everybody, effective from this moment, the Weibo account was traded by me for 50 yuan to He Caitou. From now on, I have nothing to do with content posted on this account. He Caitou, good luck, have fun.”
What’s the big deal? Well…Ning belongs to Weibo’s well-known troops of “verified accounts,” which is some sort of a badge granted only to stars, celebrities, well-known public figures, and occasionally people in the middle of hot national news, etc. Many of the verified accounts later became China’s online “opinion leaders,” given their reach and influence among millions of Chinese netizens. Since last year, they became major targets of government crackdown to tighten control over public opinion.
The use of “verified accounts” was a killer strategy in Weibo’s early days to attract a vast amount of users, and has since been its backbone of success. The lure that everybody can connect and interact with the ones that they admire was what initially drew and kept people to the site. There were days when marketers would pay thousands to buy followers on Weibo – the so called “zombie followers.” Now an account with more than 7 million followers for about what it costs to take a short taxi ride?
This is not to say that all of Ning’s 7 million followers are authentic. Even if we make the bold assumption that half of them are “zombies,” the rest is still a very big number, by the measure of any social network site.
He Caitou, whom the account was sold to, is also a popular web celebrity of some sort, with 410,000 followers on Weibo. He “unplugged” himself from Weibo at the end of last year because he thought Weibo has taken over his life and changed his way of thinking…in a not very desirable way. He has since opened a public account on Wechat, China’s leading messaging/mobile social networking app, and attracted quite some followers there.
According to He, the trade has more to do with Ning’s change in personal life. This past summer, Ning was detained for drug abuse, and was among the very first to make a televised confession on national TV.
Nevertheless, the trade, the price tag, and many netizens’ negative reactions to it speak volumes of the changing dynamics of the social media industry in China.
“Weibo’s killer feature is worth no more than a pack of cigarettes.”