For part 1 of this three-part series on Chinese social media, click here.
Time to Log On?
Is it time for the Western art world to join Chinese social media? That depends on your goals. “I don’t see any reason for anyone not directly involved in the Beijing/Shanghai art world to be on Weibo,” argued Robin Peckham. “It’s more about back-and-forth in-scene and doesn’t have much application in terms of PR and such, at least on the small scale of galleries and organizations.”
Indeed, Chinese sites like Weibo and Douban, even as they gain more attention from the West, remain predominantly Chinese in both language and user base. If you or your organization have no plans to reach a Chinese audience, then joining these sites won’t help much. But if you’re keen on developing an international base, and to establish yourself in China, you’ll need a site like Weibo to help you reach the hundreds of millions of Chinese using the internet each day.
And getting started is simple. “One can’t go wrong by first using the medium as a static place to announce and distribute relevant information,” advised Tinari. After getting the hang of things, it’s easy to start building up from there.
It’s All Greek to Me
Inevitably, you might ask if it makes sense to join Weibo if you can’t post in Mandarin. A new iPhone app in English makes it easier to navigate, but virtually everyone I interviewed, including Tinari and Peckham, argued that the medium is best expressed in Mandarin. The same character limit (140) in Mandarin makes for a richer conversation, and the medium is generally set up for the language.
But before you rush to find a Chinese-speaking staff member or brush up on your Chinese, I’ve found that many Chinese users are eager to follow English language accounts to practice English. (One follower from central China offered to share her phone number with me so she could practice English with a native speaker!) Some even translate posts made in English and repost them for their followers.
And the number of English speakers is steadily growing. A growing expat population in China combined with strictures on accessing Twitter means there’s a thriving English speaking community on Weibo. Many expats I know use only Chinese social media, and they interact with expat friends and English-speaking Chinese friends. This group will only grow larger. In other words, Mandarin is key but not absolutely essential.
Sensitive Vocabulary: A Sensitive Issue?
Censorship is a reality on the Chinese Internet. Entire sites like Fanfou, an earlier microblogging service, was completely taken down for over a year. Reports of so-called “sensitive vocabulary” like “Egypt” and “Mubarak” being blocked coupled with the recent disappeareance and mistreatment of artists like Ai Weiwei and Wu Yuren can make the art world understandably wary. Ai’s Twitter and Weibo accounts remain eerily silent over a month since his disappearance, but any messages related to his disappearance have been deleted from his Weibo account.
And yet there are many ways that users circumvent censorship. Charles Custer at China Geeks outlined some of the nuances of censorship about Egypt, a topic that wasn’t fully blocked, as many Western media reported:
Simply saying “China censors news about Egypt!” is easy, but things are not that simple. In fact, China has created a much more elaborate system to deal with the unrest in Egypt, which seems to be focused more on misdirection than direct censorship. Sina and other web portals are scrubbing Egypt-related content from their front pages, search functions, etc., which makes it less likely to become a big story. At the same time, though, people are still allowed to tweet about it, and even read news coverage about it (both foreign and domestic), which decreases frustration.
The art world has more recently heard about the use of the homophonic Ai Weilai (爱未来: Love the Future) to refer to Ai Weiwei, though it was soon considered “sensitive vocabulary” and blocked. Today, Ai’s supporters use a combination of images, subtle references, wordplay and double entendre to evade censors. Indeed, “Ai Weilai” is no longer prevented from being posted, and a message in English with the phrase “Ai Weiwei” is still possible. A cursory search reveals continued posts from supporters.
“If you are going to criticize the [Chinese Communist] Party, you may be affected,” said “Jun,” a source who asked to remain anonymous. “But Weibo also is used to challenge local authorities and discuss politics and reform. We’re more free on Weibo than we have ever been on the ‘net. That includes Ren Ren and QQ [another popular social media site].”
Indeed, Western media engages in forms of censorship as well, though political censorship is difficult to find. Facebook famously fell under fire recently for deleting accounts that posted images of Gustave Corbet’s painting “The Origin of the World.” Many in the art world know someone whose page was either deleted or disabled after posting artistic nudes. Second Life hides nudity and swear words unless you pay a special fee.
And if you pay close attention, you actually start to notice holes in what initially seems like an impenetrable wall. “Weibo’s viral nature means that things circulate in an instant before anyone can intervene,” noted Tinari, “and somehow it takes longer to delete the forwards (retweets) of a given post than the original.”
Censorship is an unfortunate and complex reality on either side of the Great Firewall. It runs contrary to the free expression inherent in art, and it’s worth much more attention than I’m able to give here. However, issues around censorship need not discourage the average user looking to explore Chinese social media. (For more on this topic, I recommend reading the work of Ethan Zuckerman, who writes regularly on internet freedom).
Ready to hop on board? With 140 million users (Twitter has 200 million), Weibo’s growing influence is undeniable. In the upcoming final part of this series, I suggest how to make the best of Sina Weibo, whether or not you speak Chinese, and I also take a look at another popular Chinese social media service.