Tom Cruise's Weibo account, which posts in English

Tom Cruise’s Weibo account, which posts in English and has nearly 2 million followers.

Cruising In: Weibo’s Ashton Moment

A few months ago, Tom Cruise made waves in both Chinese and Western media by announcing that he had joined Sina Weibo, the popular Chinese microblogging tool used by Chinese and, now, Western celebrities. “We’re having fun talking to you and our new friend at” his Chief Information Officer announced.

Cruise is a special case, of course. But his popularity reflects something of an “Ashton Kutchor moment” in terms of the attention Chinese social media have been received lately from the West. Sina’s strategy, which was to bring prominent public figures in both entertainment and politics to the service, has paid off.

In little over two years, Sina Weibo, or Weibo for short (Sina is the company; Weibo, written 微博, means “microblog”), has attracted some 160 million users and bought, edging out other microblog competitors like Tencent Weibo and Sohu Weibo for the coveted domain. Cruise himself attracted over 1.8 million followers (though for some reason the account isn’t active at the moment), making him perhaps the first Western movie star to break the magic million number, a fact all the more remarkable because his account is almost entirely in English.

The art world, with its growing interest in Chinese art, is also joining Chinese social media. LEAP Magazine, the bilingual Chinese-English art magazine, has an online presence, as does the Beijing staple Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. But sites you might not initially expect, like Artforum and Artinfo are also present, garnering over 1,500 and 2,400 followers, respectively. Hyperallergic has even joined, and they plan to post in English.

An active comment thread from one of LEAP Magazine's posts

An active comment thread from one of LEAP Magazine’s posts. Weibo allows for threaded conversations in addition to @replies.

Artful Discussion

“Arts organizations would find a welcome home [on Weibo],” Phil Tinari explained to me over email. Tinari heads up LEAP Magazine, and he serves as the China representative for Art Basel. “We’ve just launched a feed for Art Basel, and it has found a nice following [of 450].”

Weibo offers a number of advantages over Western social media, especially when discussing art. The service ostensibly limits messages to 140 characters, but it’s a fuzzy number; English posts frequently go over that limit (spaces and punctuation don’t always add to the count). And of course, the compact Chinese language has more than enough room to breathe with 140 characters.

The use of threaded comments, which don’t face the same 140 restriction, and @replies encourages conversation and community building. And perhaps most key for arts organizations is the regular use of embedded media. Unlike Twitpics and Twitvids, Weibo media are automatically embedded in the messages. As in Tumblr, a simple click automatically displays the larger media.  All of this encourages interaction.

“Crowdsourcing is a very popular concept right now,” explained “Will”, a Shanghai-based social media consultant who asked that I use a pseudonym. “I have an experiment where I ask one question on my Ren Ren [a Facebook-like service whose humble name means ‘everyone’] and ask the same question on my Weibo. Now I get more solutions on Weibo than Ren Ren.”

Ren Ren, the popular Facebook-like service in China.

Ren Ren, the popular Facebook-like service in China. It means, literally, “everyone”.

And not all of it is in Chinese. Within China, even tech-savvy expats with existing Twitter accounts often prefer to use Chinese social media, as leaping the Great Firewall can be too much of a hassle. Shanghaiist, which caters to Shanghai’s expat community, posts messages entirely in English. Its 800-plus followers are both English speakers and native Chinese either fluent in English or eager to learn.

Regardless, almost everyone I spoke with who’s used both Weibo and Twitter say they much prefer the Weibo interface. From group chats to user tags, Weibo just offers more to work with, particularly for artists and arts organizations.

“Big Bang Theory talks a lot about Twitter, and there are a lot of Chinese people who watch this American show,” Will continued. “Maybe they see how Twitter is popular in the US, so maybe Weibo can be our Twitter.”

But not all are fans. The service, loaded with features to appeal to different audiences and needs, can be overwhelming. Animated smileys light up the pag, and advertisements appear in full color, moving banners. During a recent performance in Shanghai, I found that even native Chinese speakers had trouble navigating the system for the first time.

The selection of animated smiley faces from Weibo.

The selection of animated smiley faces from Weibo.

“Despite what a couple of the tech analysts believe, Weibo is really technically uninteresting, and makes for a rather poor user experience,” noted Robin Peckham, a Hong Kong-based writer and curator. He no longer actively updates his Weibo account, noting that “the level of discourse isn’t really something I’m interested in there — on Twitter I have a lot of critic and academic contacts and we exchange links and plan projects, but other than following announcements, Weibo is a lot of jokes, malicious gossip, and
 soft porn.”

Is it worth logging on?  What if you can’t speak Chinese? In the next installment of this three-part series, I look at these questions and the role of censorship in Chinese social media.

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AX Mina

AX Mina (aka An Xiao Mina) is an author, artist and futures thinker who follows her curiosity. She co-produces Five and Nine, a podcast about magic, work and economic justice.