For part one and two of this three-part series on Chinese social media, visit here and here.
What Next? Taking Advantage of Weibo
Just how do you tap into this interface? Like Twitter, it takes a little while to get used to, regardless of what language you’re speaking. But once you get the hang of it, it soars.
English speakers should first download Weibo’s iPhone app, which now features an English language option. Though the translations are awkward, they get the point across, and they’ll hopefully improve over time. You can also install a client like FaWave, which lets you update Weibo and Twitter at the same time. If you don’t have an iPhone, you can use a combination of Chrome, which offers automatic translation, and this useful guide for English speakers by Digicha.
As I mentioned earlier, I found that even native Chinese speakers had some trouble navigating the system for the first time. But for the most part, the layout is familiar, and once your account is set up, you mainly need to focus on posts. One hint is to hover your mouse over links and see the URL they point to. Most of the URLs are in English, even if the overall interface is in Chinese.
Once you’re set up, be sure to get together useful tags. Tags can be in any language; choose English if you want to reach the expat community, and Chinese if you want to reach Chinese nationals. And be sure to check out the trending topics translated and contextualized on The World of Chinese; you might even join a meme or two (Weibo hashtags use the # sign at both the front and back of the link, like #上海#).
Those intent on truly connecting with a broad Chinese audience should hire a native Chinese speaker to manage messaging; barring that, someone adept at basic Chinese can suffice. Machine translation between Chinese and English is as yet unreliable. Unless you’re a global brand, don’t expect too many followers at the outset. English-language or bilingual Weibo users like myself hover generally under the 100-follower range, while Chinese-language arts organizations shoot to the 1,000 range and above.
I’m Online. Now Who Should I Follow?
Start following a few English-language accounts. Tom Cruise and Bill Gates are obvious ones. Loretta Chao at the Wall St. Journal has grown a sizable following. Hrag Vartanian, editor of this publication, just signed up, and he brought Hyperallergic with him. I post in both English and Chinese, as does sinologist and technologist William Bishop. The Shanghaiist account, Beijinger and Time Out Beijing offer useful models for English-language posts that successfully reach the expat community. And tell your friends; the more English-language accounts that emerge, the more interactive it will be for English speakers.
The Chinese-language accounts are obviously more diverse. Popular Chinese-language accounts by Westerners include China researcher Jeremy Goldkorn; ars technica curator Ingrid Fischer; and frog design creative director Jan Chipchase. I also recommend coworking space Xindanwei, headed up by Liu Yan and Aaajiao, at the forefront of the new media scene in Shanghai, as well as Tricia Wang, an American who researches technology in China. The Creator’s Project and VICE China’s Madi Ju are online. The arts organizations I mentioned in this article should also be followed, including Artforum, Artinfo, Art Basel, the Ullens Center, LEAP Magazine and Tang Contemporary Art, amongst others. Phil Tinari can be found at @philiptinari, and Robin Peckham at @rpeckham.
Where the art world most stands to shine, however, is through image, video and audio integration. Weibo is a multimedia-heavy medium, and in that regard it resembles Tumblr more than Twitter. Popular design feeds like Design360 and angsschool show compelling designs that can be appreciated even without Chinese. Jewelry site A Moveable Feast is almost entirely in English but has 2,000 followers. And feeds like Chinese street photography site Zaijietou (在街头: on the street) and supermen (全球时尚街拍: global street fashion photos) show that you don’t even need words to gather a strong following. (Even Beijing’s special police force feed has a habit of posting photos.)
Don’t Forget Douban
The more adventurous amongst you, armed with either basic Mandarin skills or an automated translator like Chrome, should also be sure to visit douban.com. Douban doesn’t quite have an equivalent in the West; it’s something of a mix between MySpace, Amazon books, last.fm and Flickr. It’s popular amongst hip, techno-savvy, urban Chinese and serves up music, books, movies, photos and long form blogging, along with events promotion.
In terms of niche popularity, it’s closest, I think, to Tumblr. Numbering around 10 million, users of Douban are often seen as influencers amongst urban Chinese, and reaching this audience means reaching the tastemakers. Welcome to ENTER, which I participated in, managed its presence through Douban and got the attention it sought amongst the expat and English-speaking Chinese community in Shanghai.
Organizations can create dedicated pages, and individuals can sign up as well. China staples like Xindanwei, Beijing music production group Pangbianr and performance artist Xiao He have highly customizable xiaozhan (小站: minisites) to promote their work. My personal page is still forming, but I focus on Chinese media and music. Robin Peckham, whom I mentioned earlier, is online. Other art world folk include Shanghai-based curator Samantha Culp, the JUE Festival and even Ai Weiwei (well, his book at least).
A useful overview to Douban can be found here, though instructions for English-speaking users are still lacking. As with Weibo, Google translate can help immensely, and hovering your mouse over links will generally reveal an English-language URL. And be sure to visit douban.fm, which functions similarly to last.fm, for an amazing selection of contemporary Chinese music, from poppity pop to hipster rock.
Time for the Western Art World to Join Weibo? Survey Says …
“[Weibo] is a much more dialogic form than Twitter,” said Tinari, whose LEAP Magazine Weibo account has attracted some 10,000 followers. “The economies of interaction are different. It’s overall more generous than Twitter, which wants to keep you focused on people you already know. We should also note that you can say so much more in 140 Chinese characters than English letters, so the whole nature of the conversations that happen is different.”
Indeed, even though I post largely in English and just joined, I’ve already been drawn into a number of interesting conversations about art, technology and China. Both by design and usage, Weibo is a substantially more social medium, one that encourages discussion and regularly suggests people I should considering following.
Today, rather than a continental East-West divide, we have a digital one. The divide is driven not just by firewalls but by language and cultural barriers; what trends on Weibo is often a world away from what’s trending in the US and on global Twitter. But there is overlap, and it’s this possibility of bridging that makes the medium so interesting. Artists and arts organizations that make the leap into Chinese microblogs stand to benefit from a new audience, making new exchanges and creative collaborations possible.
I’m grateful to my Weibo followers who responded to my call-out and contributed to my research for this piece, filling in the gaps for my limited experience and rudimentary Mandarin. In addition to those mentioned above, I’m thankful to Yushi Wang, David Grajal and Tricia Wang and a few who’ve asked to remain anonymous.