The Transformation Of Weibo: From "Citizen Journalists" To "Internet Celebrities"

摘要: Behind the transformation of Weibo, the real question is: how Weibo, a social networking with Chinese characteristics, gradually transformed itself from a forerunning platform of “citizen journalists” to an advocate of “Wanghong economy” (which literally means “internet celebrity” economy), from a media platform to an almost pure marketing platform?

(Chinese Version)

Editor’s Note:

Neither Wang Sicong nor Papi Jiang have expected that there would be a day when they shall appear on the same occasion with the same identity. On June, 16th, they both stood on the stage of 2016 Superstar On Weibo event, held at Shanghai Expo Center, both as internet celebrity.

We can’t stop wondering: while Twitter, on which Weibo was based on at very first, is still uncertain about its future due to its ideas of freedom, Weibo seems to have already found its brand new positioning and room for development. In a sense, Weibo has been experiencing a “renaissance”, and there has been increasing calls for people to resume using Weibo again.

Behind the transformation of Weibo, what I’m trying to find out is (from the aspect of product upgrading and evolution): how Weibo, a social networking with Chinese characteristics, gradually transformed itself from a forerunner of “citizen journalists” to an advocate of “Wanghong economy” (which literally means “internet celebrity” economy), from a media platform to an almost purely marketing platform?

(Caution: This piece of article shall be very very very long.)

To answer these questions, I will have to dwell on the history of Weibo a little bit. To some degree, the history of Weibo is the history of “140 characters”. Microblog, featuring 140 characters, used to be the “fire bomb” and “stone” of every citizen and a whirring public opinion center in the era of Web 2.0. For the first time, “citizen journalists” mounted to the historical arena and almost disintegrate traditional media. This wouldn’t have become possible without Weibo.

In January, 2016, Sina Weibo officially dropped the “140-character” limit, which marked the end of “140-character” microblogging. In the mobile and fragmented era, “140-character Weibo used to be the forerunner of social networking products.

Before January, Weibo kicked open the era of mobile internet and social networking; after January, pictures, videos and other rich media contents began to pour into Weibo. Offline social networks were gradually transferred online, and today young people are no longer interested in sending messages to strangers on Weibo’s “Square” (where Weibo users can see updates of people who they didn’t follow). As a matter of fact, shortly after Weibo attempted to encourage social networking on its platform, WeChat, featuring social networking among acquaintances, soon caught up and had millions of WeChat users lowered their heads and buried in their friends circles (where WeChat users can post selfies and “Like” other users’ updates).

Ever since WeChat emerged in 2012, Weibo began to be uncertain about its positioning and gradually declined. In addition, there is a stark contrast between Weibo and Twitter’s reaction to rising challenges (I shall elaborate on this point later in this article).

While Sina Weibo is trying its best to become China’s Facebook, WeChat emerged out of nowhere and soon foiled Weibo’s attempt to become the social networking giant in China within two years. WeChat is like a social hub, or even a social black hole connecting acquaintances from Contact books, QQ, Renten, Weibo together, including all the functions of these apps in one single app, to some degree.

In a sense, WeChat completely “stole” the social network dominance from Weibo.

As the bell tolls for the demise of Weibo, it also managed to transform itself. Above all, it gradually shifted its focus from social network to social media and no longer list social events into its trending topic list. Weibo gave up competing for people born in the 70s, 80s with WeChat, since their social network has already stopped expanding. Instead, Weibo began to invite entertainment stars to open accounts on Weibo, and people born in the 90s and 95s love adding “Like” or comments to their posts. In addition, Weibo began to nurture punsters, cartoonists, cosmeticians and all other kinds of internet celebrities, who can attract hundreds of thousands of fans in a short time.

Today, Weibo has already become a platform where you could easily find a group and follow the updates of stars, or make up rumors about the possible relationship between stars, as well as find the latest gossip news together, where the grass roots can rise to fame, and where stars can be “mass-manufactured”. As Weibo’s users become younger generally, the number of monthly active users begins to rise. Its revenue performance is getting better, and its stock price also reaches a record high since listing. However, Weibo’s “renaissance” is ill-based. When over 200 live video broadcasting platforms, among which 8 are developed or invested by Tencent, Weibo is not alone to enjoy the benefit of “internet celebrity economy”.

“Shoot pictures and help abducted children”, an activity that aroused huge public attention to Weibo in earlier days

“Shoot pictures and help abducted children”, an activity that aroused huge public attention to Weibo in earlier days

The change of trending topic list demonstrated the change of Weibo

In the US, Twitter never became the center of social networks. In comparison, Weibo is luckier. In its golden time, Weibo used to be undoubtedly the very center in the Chinese internet world, and trending topic list is one of the major functions on Weibo at that time.

During the two burgeoning years of Weibo, trending topic list could be quite powerful: it can arouse public attention of an individual case, help thought leaders win over audience, “debate” with opponents, and even launch large scale activity to crack down on corruption and human trafficking…

Today, however, the trending topic list on the side of Weibo’s homepage is full of gossips about entertainment stars and internet celebrities. Such shift might let many people who’s gone through “Micro Revolution” era down. At that time, some people used to believe they can promote social change through Weibo.

But if we look back, we might wonder: why made Weibo the center of the Chinese internet world back in 2009 and helped Weibo continue to lead public opinion in the next two or three years? At that time, social networks on Renren are mainly about college friends who still live in the ivory tower, while social networks on QQ are mainly classmates back in primary, middle and senior high school in hometowns. In this case, Weibo is the first platform for people born in the 80s to be connected to the internet as a social person, to connect to colleagues and interact with them, and to engage in public discussion on topics people are concerned about.

“At first, we wanted to make Weibo a social networking platform, and social media is only a tool for that pursuit. Conceptually, social media is about user interaction and content-producing. Such positioning, determined by the internet environment at that time, is listed as part of Weibo’s long-term strategy as early as 2005. Even when Kaixin.com was so popular in China, there isn’t a social platform for middle and high-end Chinese, especially high-end. So microblogging is our way to fill that gap,” Wang Gaofei, CEO of Sina Weibo, said when comparing Weibo with Twitter, which attaches higher importance to information circulation than interaction.

Of course, updates on Weibo are after all more attractive than silly social games on Kaixin.com and are better at maintaining high user activity. Although Weibo is not a real-name community, personal updates and reposts are certainly better at demonstrating to others character one’s characteristics and interests.

“At that time, Weibo served people’s need for social networking with both acquaintances and strangers, as well as public and private social networking. That’s why Weibo occupies most of the free time of mobile phone users: people used to update their Weibo account wherever they are and whenever it is: when they have dinner, complain, share their opinions on social and political topics, blind date for sex, find old acquaintances, fall in and out of love…” Liu Xinzheng, former head of Weibo user management division, recalled the golden time of Weibo in the comment area of the question “How Weibo gradually declined?” on Zhihu.com, a question-and-answer platform founded based on Quora.

This may also help explain why Kaifu Lee can write a book, Micro-Blogging: Changing the World, about Weibo.

After being kept the thirst for truth by mainstream media for a long time, people finally found a place where they could share their own opinions and understandings about social and political topics. People who held different opinions but can only share their “insights” with a few people around them finally found a platform to share their opinions with hundreds of thousands of fans and became opinion leaders or big Vs (Weibo accounts that have more than 500,000 fans) on Weibo.

At the same time, traditional media also began to lower their profile and sign up for an account on Weibo. For example, People’s Daily’s Weibo account gave people a far better impression than the newspaper itself. In addition, while Caixin.com’s Weibo account attracted huge number of fans, but few of them read financial news, many Weibo users might repost Goodnight updates on New Weekly magazine’s Weibo account, but never buy the magazine.

It is the lack of confidence towards traditional Chinese media that helped make Weibo the only reliable source of information for many Chinese. For a while, Weibo was the largest public discussion platform in China.

Re-positioning of Weibo: starting from “message” function

Another core product on Weibo is “message”.

Weibo used not to be quite certain of its positioning, as can be seen in its attitudes towards the “message” function.

“When we reviewed all the functions on Weibo in 2013, ‘message’ is the hardest and trickiest one for us to deal with,” Weibo’s CEO Mr. Wang admitted.

Weibo had expected to make Weibo the basic instant communication tool in the Chinese social networks, and “message” function is one of Weibo’s attempt to do so when Weibo’s structure is fundamentally one-way.

However, such attempt didn’t turn out as expected. As a matter of fact, the user frequency of “message” function on Weibo continued to drop with the rise of WeChat.

At last, Weibo had no choice but give up its attempt and instead turn “message” function into a way for media and celebrities to mass-distribute contents, similar to the function of WeChat official account.

Monthly Active Users on WeChat and Weibo (2013-2015)

Monthly Active Users on WeChat and Weibo (2013-2015)

However, social networking among acquaintances and strangers, private and public social networking are fundamentally contradictory, so Weibo couldn’t afford all these functions at the same time, after all. As a matter of fact, many “accidents” on Weibo are the result of such contradiction of functions on Weibo. For example, a girl might had expected to post a picture on her Weibo account and show it to her acquaintances, but ended up being criticized by strangers on Weibo. In this case, when products that focus only on one aspect of Weibo’s functions emerged, users unavoidably turned to them: if they wanted to chat with acquaintances, they could use WeChat; if they wanted to hook up with strangers, they could just open Momo; if they wanted to share their opinions on topics they were interested in, they could just turn to Zhihu. At this point, Weibo was left in a quite embarrassing situation, as it had already been replaced by other products in terms of most of its functions.

Mr. Liu Xinzheng, former head of Weibo user management division, also admitted that he used to ask himself a lot how to regain user activity on Weibo when he looked back at the beginning of 2014.

The interface of Weibo and Facebook on PCs

The interface of Weibo and Facebook on PCs

As a matter of fact, even if Weibo did follow the step of Facebook and add functions such as a comprehensive personal page, 9,999 types of background themes, photo albums, IM, graph search, it still couldn’t integrate social networks embedded in QQ, Renren and contact books and stopped the trend towards media.

Worse still, WeChat is not only a place for acquaintances to chat with each other (social network), as Mr. Liu Xinzheng expected, but also a place where people could get the latest news and comments on various topics (social media).

As WeChat and Facebook users began to be reluctant to share their personal status on their friends circle or timeline, as is proved by a series of statistics and surveys, WeChat and Facebook started to degenerate from social networking tools to instant message tools. That’s when WeChat carried out WeChat Official Account service. WeChat users can share posts from WeChat Official Account to their friends circle to build up their social image, or they can even sign up for WeChat OAs themselves and share their opinions. Thus, the we media era began in China.

At the same time, Weibo also saw the opportunity and turn “message” function into one way for media and celebrities to mass-distribute contents to fans.

In 2016, Weibo focused most of its attention on nurturing the development of big Vs in various areas

In 2016, Weibo focused most of its attention on nurturing the development of big Vs in various areas

As a matter of fact, after Weibo is gradually transformed into social media, it has always been trying to help we media owners reach their fans more efficiently, whether through “message”, homepage stickers or preferential display, etc.

Faced with the competition from WeChat, Weibo gradually transformed the old Weibo (featuring 140 characters, timely and short message) into a we media subscription platform.

“Weibo’s homepage is similar to WeChat’s friends circle, while Weibo’s ‘message’ is similar to WeChat’s Official Account function. However, users often read posts WeChat OAs voluntarily, but treat ‘message’ on Weibo as harassment. At last, ‘message’ proved to be ineffective, and we media owners still need to pay for other functions (such as homepage sticker and preferential display) to reach a wider crowd with their various types of contents, whether it’s text, video, cartoon, joke or gif,” Liu Zhongyang, a user on Zhihu.com explained well Weibo’s situation.

“WeChat Offcial Account is against the trend of this age. Fundamentally, it’s just a mobile version of RSS, so it’s a one-way media and is lacking in social genes. The only reason why WeChat OA succeeds is that it is based on a popular instant message tool, WeChat,” Mr. Liu Xinzheng wrote when asked why Weibo completely blocked contents from WeChat OA on Weibo.

He is speaking the truth. In QQ, even a tiny function can reach a wide crowd; in WeChat, information consumption is only one of the user scenarios.

Weibo’s target users shifted to the younger generation

To win back users as social media, Weibo had to demonstrate to the public that it is different from WeChat. That’s why Weibo often tried to convey the mesage to the public that it would shift from a real-time information sharing platform to a social networking platform centered around interests.

“Weibo shouldn’t be a product about weak social networks. After some research, we find that it’s very easy for Weibo users to get in to a group via their interests. For example, gay people and super fans of a celebrity. As a matter of fact, such grouping activities are thriving on Weibo, and there’s a distinct social networking pattern out there,” Weibo’s CEO Mr. Wang Gaofei reposed this piece of update as early as 2012.

Half a year layer, he was still pondering on this issue: whether interests or social closeness should be attached to higher importance by the recommendation algorithm? How should a sea of contents be selected based on these two factors?

“Young people are still one the way to discover a larger world, so the need to meet new people based on interests outweighs the need to maintain existing social networks,” Mr. Wang commented when reposting an article titled “Social Networking of Young People: Why Is Instagram Most Popular, Twitter Less Popular, and Facebook Abandoned?”.

His way of thinking was quite clear and obvious: on the one hand, Weibo should gradually nurture big Vs in various areas and become a media distribution platform; on the other hand, Weibo should target people born in the 90s or 95s, whose need to make new acquaintances based on interest outweighed the need to maintain existing ones as well as young people living in third and fourth-tier cities, because they hadn’t been ‘captured’ by WeChat friends circle, their social networks were far from complete, and their interests were still growing. In addition, they suffered “context collapse” the most and were reluctant to update their personal status on WeChat friends circle, fearing that their parents and teachers may peep into their personal life and their right of privacy be compromised.

Zhihu.com user Professor T divided Weibo’s users into two categories: ordinary users who don’t have any special interest and those social network on Weibo is similar to the real world; other users who have specific interests (comic culture, film, music, sports and other hobbies held by a minority of people) and whose social network on Weibo is entirely different from that in the real world. Most ordinary users have turned to WeChat, but other users, bounded by specific interest, stayed.

The number of monthly active users on Weibo continued to grow from 2014 to 2016

The number of monthly active users on Weibo continued to grow from 2014 to 2016

Among all the interests, entertainment news and celebrities are certainly most eye-catching for young people, as can be seen in a series of internet extravaganza on Weibo. Popular Chinese singer Lu Han broke the Guinness record by receiving over 100 million comments under one update, Wang Junkai, one of the three TFBoys, also broke the Guinness record by an update that was reposed for over 4 million times, while popular Chinese actor and actress Deng Chao and Sun Li made a bet on the entertainment program Happy Headquarters and showed their affection for each in public by sending a series of updates on Weibo, which even broke down the Like function system on Weibo. Now you can see the power of fans when they get together, and understand why half of trend topics on Weibo today are about celebrities and gossips.

Many people might attribute to the rise of entertainment topics and the ebbing away of political discussion on Weibo to tightening public opinion control and Weibo’s own “guidance” through functions such as trend topics list, most search topic lists and interest recommendation. However, the real reason might be that people concerned about civil topics and public interests had already left Weibo, leaving large number of young people who still had no experience of life.

If we compare the Sina Weibo User Development Report from 2012 5o 2015, we might easily find out that the number of young users on Weibo from 2012 to 2015 was steadily growing. In 2012, users born after the 90s took up only 37% of all the Weibo users, yet by the end of 2015, the number of Weibo users at the age of 17 to 33 already took up 83%. In the 2015 Sina Weibo User Development Report, entertainment and celebrity, humor and jokes are the top two interest tags on Weibo, while politics only ranked the third.

Top 10 interest tags on Weibo in 2015

Top 10 interest tags on Weibo in 2015

However, celebrity don’t necessarily mean traditional stars, but rather internet celebrity who are masters of self-depreciation, complaining, or who are good at “flirting” and know well what stuff circulate the most on the internet. They shall adopt all kinds of “weapons” (text, picture, short video and even live video) and interact with fans through all kinds of functions (Like, comment, or message). Coupled with the open internet environment, Weibo was able to nurture all types of internet celebrities. As a matter of fact, fresh meat such as Lu Han and TFBoys are only one type of the varieties of internet celebrities nurtured on Weibo.

Internet celebrity economy is a natural result of Weibo’s transformation

When Weibo gradually become a platform for fans to get into groups and follow their common celebrities, it’s natural that they shall gradually bring to fame other types of internet celebrities.

According to Sanlian Life Week magazine, the number of internet celebrities in fashion has already reached 100,000, and the view times of Papi Jiang’s videos on Weibo is close to that of all other platforms.

“Weibo didn’t ‘’make” internet celebrities on itself. As a matter of fact, the rise of internet celebrities is actually the result of competition between Tencent and Alibaba’s e-commerce business and the spread of mobile e-commerce and e-payment tools in first, second, third and even fourth-tier cities. To some degree, Weibo is a beneficiary of the trend, and contribute to the rise of the trend as a gateway for traffic.

This is also the reason why Alibaba decided to invest in Weibo in 2013 and entered into strategic cooperation with it. Alibaba’s decision turned out to be wise, because statistics suggest that 1 out of 7 female clothes sold on Taobao were from shops of internet celebrities during the Double 11 shopping festival in 2015. Alibaba’s cooperation model is similar to that between YouTube and MCN: Alibaba cooperated with less than 10 agent companies instead of individual internet celebrity. As a matter of fact, market evaluation of some of these 10 agent companies has already reached over $304 million to $456 million.

Sino Weibo is creating a festival exclusively for internet celebrities

Sino Weibo is creating a festival exclusively for internet celebrities

In fact, Weibo has already developed a “production line” to nurture internet celebrities, expand their influence and make profit out of it. In comparison, owners of popular WeChat Official Accounts tend to appeal to the mainstream interests more and lack enough personality. For example, internet celebrities on Weibo, such as Aikelili, definitely belong to the non-mainstream and attracted public attention with freaky contents, while internet celebrities on WeChat, such as Mimeng, still appeal to mainstream interest.

As a matter of fact, as popular media platforms change, internet celebrities are also transforming.

While internet celebrities in 2015, such as Uncle Tongdao and Wind Chaser, still hid themselves behind their contents, internet celebrities in 2016, such as Papi Jiang, delivered contents based on her life experience.

In addition, the contract price of popular broadcasters on game live video broadcasting platforms such as Douyu TV has already reached over RMB 10 million. It is highly probable that the next super popular internet celebrity will emerge from live video broadcasting platforms.

A late entrant in the Chinese live video broadcasting market

The rank of Yi TV in App Store since its launch

The rank of Yi TV in App Store since its launch

While MiaoPai and Xiaokaxiu nipped short video platforms in the bud, Twitter also managed to defeat short video platform Vine. For Instagram, it didn’t even leave much room of development for independent short video apps. What about Weibo? It is only until this May that Weibo teamed up with Yixia Technology and launched its own live video broadcasting service. However, there are already over 200 middle and small-sized live video broadcasting apps in China, and all of them are eager to stand out at last. On June, 3rd, Mr. Wang Gaofei reposed a piece of article titled “Wars of Hundreds of Live Video Broadcasting Apps: Internet Giants Will Stand Out At Last”, but will things turn out as he expected?

After launching live video broadcasting service, Weibo almost spend all its efforts promoting it. Up till now, Weibo has already launched a series of activities to attract users to its live video broadcasting service. For example, it aimed to repeat the success of “ice bucket challenge” by launching the “A bowl of rice” activity and encouraging celebrities to take up the challenge, live broadcast videos and donate part of their revenue to poor people. In addition, it started the Super Star Festival and invited over 100 internet celebrities to live broadcast videos at the same time, which aroused huge attention on Weibo.

However, short videos from MiaoPai can be seamlessly added to Weibo’s homepage, live videos couldn’t. Weibo users have to click links and go to the live video broadcasting platform in order to watch the live video and get involved by double clicking or sending gifts to broadcasters. Whatever, live videos actually shifted people’s attention away from Weibo a little bit.

That’s why Weibo ended up becoming the platform where users can find when a broadcaster will live broadcast videos or get a glimpse of his or her personal life, and the most direct interaction happens outside of Weibo. However, if Weibo followed the path of Facebook and added the button for live video broadcasting to the bottom bar, Weibo might risk ultimately changing the ecosystem on Weibo and divided people’s attention to texts and short videos to live videos. So Weibo will have to be very cautious before making the decision.

At the same time, different live video broadcasting platforms are nurturing their own internet celebrities in different fields, and Weibo is already a late entrant in this competition. If Weibo failed to make the right decision in time, it might also bear the risk that internet celebrities nurtured on Weibo might one day be poached by other platforms. The rise of Fenda, a Q&A voice sharing platform, on WeChat already set up a lesson for Weibo.

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[The article is published and edited with authorization from the author @Zhang Yuan, please note source and hyperlink when reproduce.]

Translated by Levin Feng (Senior Translator at PAGE TO PAGE), working for TMTpost.

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