Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong are swelling. Like many other mass protests in recently years, such as the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street, social media are an as important battlefield as the actual protester-filled streets. What’s now coined as “the Umbrella Revolution”, however it ends, may have many profound implications for both Hong Kong and mainland China for years to come. And one of them may be that the unfolding events in Hong Kong right now and its communication officially mark the death of Weibo and the rise of Wechat as China’s most popular social media platform, for both friends’ updates and breaking news.
Observers of China’s tech scene have long been discussing the end of Weibo and how Wechat is taking over its place as the country’s most popular social media – less active users, decreased overall activity and interaction among users, not as many interesting topics, etc. But in the minds of a lot of people, Weibo, a combination of Facebook and Twitter, and in a sense, China’s first true “social” media, still has its special place.
Like Facebook, Weibo allows quick upload of pictures, videos, audios and web links. Like Twitter, Weibo allows its users to follow anyone without getting reciprocal following back, which makes information flow wider and freer. In a sense, Weibo is China’s first online public place where people can discuss, and sometimes debate about, political and social issues.
Even when Wechat started to eat up Weibo’s market share, many people still believed that Weibo was a better platform for public discussion during blasts of breaking news, given its one-to-many communication model. That is to say if there is no censorship.
No one was surprised when China’s censor kicked in immediately after protests in Hong Kong broke out. Instagram, the only major foreign social media platform available in China, has been blocked for the many Hong Kong protest pictures circulating on it. Keywords in relate to the protests have been heavily censored on both Baidu and Weibo. The only window to look into what’s happening in Hong Kong on China’s ever higher Great Fire Wall seems to be Wechat, at least in the first 24 hours.
“Tonight, Weibo is for Paris, Wechat is for Hong Kong.” One prominent account on Weibo commented on Sunday night. While posting pictures of fashion shows in Paris on Weibo, she was sharing, on Wechat, pictures of tear gas filled streets in Hong Kong.
Wechat, as a messaging tool, acts more like a hybrid of Whatsapp and Facebook – one can chat with and get status updates from only those who follow back. It’s exactly such closed and personal networks that make Wechat a safe net for discussing sensitive topics in China. On one hand, such personal communications are much more difficult to censor by keywords, like on Weibo. On the other, commenting within an enclosed personal circle gives users a sense of security – someone who isn’t willing to share Hong Kong protest pictures on Weibo, a public platform, may be OK with sharing with a couple close friends on Wechat, a private network.
When experts made the case for why Facebook is for ice buckets but Twitter is for Fergunson in the US, they reasoned exact the opposite – Twitter’s openness is what makes it better for breaking news. In China where censorship is added into the equation, a private (in relative sense) social network may be the best for anything, cute cats or angry protesters.