Weibo is a social media site named after the Chinese translation of microblog. It is one of the most influential websites in China. This article focuses on what factors contribute to the construction of the dynamic self-renewal platform and profitability of Weibo, as well as some problems existing in the Weibo model.
The establishment and development of Sina Weibo
Sina, the predecessor of Weibo, was founded in 1998 and listed on NASDAQ in 2000. It had become the first group of private websites to publish news and operate Internet information service businesses approved by the Chinese government. Sina began to make a profit in 2003, launched its blogging business in 2005, and Sina Weibo in 2009. Sina Weibo’s user base grew rapidly, topping 100 million in 2011, and it has received investment from other Internet giants such as Alibaba. Today, Sina Weibo has 229 million daily active users. It is the largest microblog site and one of the largest social media platforms in China.
The creation of data-intensive digital platforms
Weibo is be referenced as China’s Twitter in many studies of Chinese platforms. However, there are many differences between Weibo and Twitter, functions like message threading and the ability to comment directly on other users’ posts were added (Sullivan, 2013). This satisfies the quarrelsome characteristics of netizens, which is why disputes caused by different opinions often occur under popular microblogs. The 140 Character limit simplifies the length of a single microblog, ensuring that users can browse a variety of content in a short time while making sure that the message is long enough to convey the ideas of the creator and provoke discussion. There are also long videos, short videos, articles, questionnaires, and other forms in Weibo to share information. Mature platforms need to continuously improve user engagement to generate Network effects, thus creating economic value and improving market position to create a self-reinforcing feedback loop (Mansell & Steinmueller, 2020). Through these methods, Weibo has built a considerable network ecological community to shape the self-reinforcing platform. Commodification strategies create platform dynamics that enable to shape of economic exchanges while concurrently defining the active participation of a wide variety of users (Van, 2018). New dependencies and hierarchies are thus formed, enhancing user experiences and fostering economic for relevant accounts through the combination of user data and evolving Internet technologies. A complete economic chain has been constructed among Weibo’s general users, the influencers, and official accounts. Content creators contribute to gain economic benefits or fans’ benefits, while ordinary users contribute to traffic spikes and discussion to cultivate hot topics or celebrity users. And the platform takes a cut of that and keeps the community in order through regulation and censorship, so Sina itself only needs to play a small role in Weibo’s content as most of the daily creation is completed by Weibo users and constantly updated. The platform also gets a share of the revenue generated by the popular microblogs.
How does Weibo gain profit?
The profit of Weibo mainly comes from three aspects: advertising income, value-added services, and blogger’s share. Weibo’s advertising revenue in the second quarter of 2021 was $502.3 million as the main resource of Weibo’s revenue. Weibo regularly recommends promotional content on users’ homepages, including Weibo users who pay for advertising, other commercial platforms that Weibo collaborates with as well as other Sina-owned software such as Sina News. The login interface of Weibo is usually a certain star and the products he or she endorses. All of these recommendations are mandatory. Users can only turn on or off algorithms that associate ads with their preferences, but not reduce the number of ads. In addition to these public promotion methods, Weibo also has an invisible way to profit from promotion. For example, the popularity of a hot search and the number of followers on Weibo can be artificially increased or decreased by paying a fee to Weibo or a third-party company. For stars, it is a means to promote their films or songs, while for ordinary people who want to protect their rights, they can pay for the followers and the popularity of related social topics to attract more people’s attention to their problems.
Weibo VIP is a paid privilege service that belonged to Weibo’s value-added service. When becoming the VIP, the users can unlock several functions such block certain users’ content and restore deleted microblogs. The number of users that can follow and block also increases. Most of the Weibo influencers tend to register members to better manage their accounts. There is also income when users apply for commercial promotion. Users need to purchase advertising coupons before they can publish commercial ads, otherwise, the platform will consider it as a violation.
The Chinese government is shaping the role of Weibo
The Chinese government and Communist Party have strict policies on social media platforms, so state interference is a significant part of Weibo. The state is in the process of platformization that serves its interests as the Chinese propaganda authorities are clearly aware of the potential of the Weibo platform (de Kloet et al., 2019). By understanding the value of a venue in which a large proportion of the population is kept entertained, the Chinese government actively setting the agenda (Sullivan, 2013), trying to establish them as a public platform for conveying government messages and propagating official ideology. As of December 2020, 140,837 government Weibo accounts had been approved by the platform (China Internet Network Information Center, 2021). It’s a sign that Weibo is being used as a significant propaganda front by the Chinese government. Major policy announcements and responses to hot social issues are often made on Weibo in the first place to show, take advantage of Weibo’s huge user groups and the convenience of information update to convey information.
These interventions and cultivation are crucial for Weibo. The presence of government agencies and official media can maintain the number of daily questions and the source of conversation materials for users. Weibo is also be used as an effective propaganda machine. During major celebrations or special events in China, such as the National Day or the launching of the spaceship, the Weibo hot search, and relevant sections are filled with all kinds of information related to them. The government treated Weibo as a kind of “cyber-poster” to ensure that dominant ideology occupies the main position in social media.
Lack of platform responsibilities?
Weibo still faces a variety of technical and platform policy issues. For a social media platform with a large user base, its regulatory measures and response speed are very backward. When it comes to news screening, Weibo doesn’t seem to check whether a piece of news is true or false or the possible harm when it is put on the top search list. In 2018, a bus plunged into a river in Chongqing. The media misidentified a female driver as responsible and spread the news widely on Weibo which cause verbal abuse and human flesh searches for the female driver. Weibo took advantage of the rapid spreading of news to gain profit without taking any moderation measures to limit the spread of fake news and protect users’ privacy, even after the rumor was refuted.
In addition, Weibo’s censorship mechanism is also the focus of netizens’ criticism. The Chinese government reinforced by multiple forms of propaganda and censorship on social media platforms to maintain their claims to legitimacy (Sullivan, 2013). The exact scale and tactics of censorship are often determined by the platform. Weibo adopted a combination of artificial intelligence and human auditing. Content posted by users is reviewed by A.I. algorithms that automatically block content deemed sensitive or violating censorship. User complaints and appeals are sometimes reviewed manually. This decision mechanism brings uncertainty and accidental damage to normal content. For example, some microblogs contain money-related characters and are judged to be illegal commercial promotions. Some topics deemed unsuitable for dissemination by the platform will be curbed, and posts containing related words will be individually identified and blocked. The Chinese netizens mocked Weibo censorship by comparing Sina’s logo to the eyes of Sauron from The Lord of the Rings. Defining a boundary between illegal and permissible content or the extent of harm created by legal content requires careful consideration and a reasonable algorithm mechanism (Mansell & Steinmueller, 2020). Sina’s careless censorship policies and high-intensity blocking affect the experience of ordinary users and protect the rights of influencers and big media accounts in order to gain traffic spikes and save audit costs, which is extremely irresponsible.
Weibo’s huge user base, diversified creators, and government support are the main reasons for its success. These factors ensure that Weibo users are active and content is updated in real-time while enabling Weibo to function as an online propaganda arm of the Chinese government. As a social media platform, Weibo still needs to update its censorship mechanism and advertising push to ensure public interests and reflect its social value.
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