In 2008, Facebook was banned in China. Almost exactly a year later, Twitter was banned as well. With the removal of the two biggest social networking companies from China, many imitators tried to fill the void. No single one social network was able to completely fill the void left behind by the forced departure of Facebook and Twitter. That is, until the sudden and expected meteoric rise of "China's Twitter", Sina Weibo.
"Weibo" in Chinese stands for micro-blog. But because of the success of Sina's Weibo, the term is now used primarily to identify with Sina Weibo. According to Sina, Weibo has a registered total user base of 358 million, of which roughly 36.5 million active users daily. Twitter, on the other hand, has about 100 million active monthly users and a total user base of about 500 million. Keep in mind that Twitter is available worldwide whereas Weibo still doesn't have a full English interface.
But enough with the numbers—numbers drive me crazy—as I am after all a writer and not a mathematician. So lets get to the nitty-gritty of this post; What exactly makes Weibo so great that some(1) have even come out and said that it's better than Twitter even though the two are virtually the same?
According to longtime Beijing expat and Tech industry extraordinaire Frank Yu, the two most fundamental differences between Twitter and Weibo aside (government censorship, and only Chinese interface) are the features. Perhaps because to cater to the desires of the Chinese netizen, Weibo is chock full o' features, some of which should make their way to Twitter.
The first feature that makes Weibo stand out as a better version of Twitter is Weibo's ability have inline pictures and media with posts. In Weibo, the user can post pictures and embed videos directly into their feed. Much like in Facebook, the media is thumbnailed and will expand if clicked on instead of opening up a completely new page/tab as in Twitter.
One of the biggest complaints against Twitter was its lack of threaded comments. Weibo had threaded comments from the get-go. On top of that, commenters can leave images, webpages and videos, again very much like Facebook.
Initially when uninitiated people look at Weibo for the first time and then look at Twitter, the first thing that comes to mind is how convoluted and confusing Weibo is (that's minus the language factor too). Every Weibo page has way too many links to click on creating a very messy interface.
However, despite the clutter, each of the those links lead to an interesting feature. Unlike Twitter, which has the Connect and Discovery functions, Weibo creates categories and organizes the most popular topics (hashtags).
Weibo also groups famous and verified accounts into a special page so that users can find other users with better ease. Of course part of the verified system has to do with government censorship and the like but we can talk about Big Brother another time.
Another feature seemingly stolen from Facebook and absent from Twitter is the chat function. Taking a leaf out of most social networks, Weibo has a chat function where users can chat incognito with other users without it being posted or having to go through the private message function of Twitter. In this function, users can pretty much do the same they do if they were posting messages but in private one-on-one chatting.
Putting in a gaming element (and I know how you Kotaku readers love games...I do too) Weibo has a virtual currency, called Weibi, that can be earned through posting or using real world currency. So far, the only things that use Weibi are games. Weibo, unlike Facebook, haven't exactly fully integrated games into their system but does offer a games portal with a healthy offering of mini web games, including one that looks like a bootleg Starcraft. Weibo isn't changing the way the Chinese play games and it doesn't look like it will anytime soon.
Weibo's reign in China is nearly absolute. With Facebook and Twitter banned Sina faces next to zero competition in the microblogging business. So far it's reach is only in China and that is mostly due to issues resulting from the Chinese government than anything else. Like any social network, once information is shared on Weibo it's out there for good. What the Chinese government does is that it actively monitors what users post on Weibo. If the post is deemed sensitive or damaging to the State, the post is deleted, but unfortunately nothing can really be deleted from the internet.
Weibo's relevance and China's relevance go hand in hand. As China becomes more important to business and the world more companies and people are going to head to Weibo as a means of connecting to China's netizens. Celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (neither speak or read Chinese) have their own personal verified Weibo accounts on which they use to advertise and interact with their fans.
Sina Weibo has its share of detractors and supporters, Beijing based venture capitalist Steve Bell has said on his own account that Weibo is better than just a Twitter clone, but without real competition in its home market comparing the two is basically comparing apples and oranges—or better yet, Twitter and Weibo.