With over 400 million registered users and a healthy share of China’s social media market, micro-blogging platform Sina Weibo has decided to extend its influence, announcing this month that it will be launching an English language interface.
The newly redesigned, simpler homepage now has an English option in the drop down menu. However, even when selected, a large portion of the website remains in Chinese, indicating that the English interface is very much a work in progress.
Micro-blogging leader Twitter is blocked in mainland China, with only 18,000 active users in the region. By encouraging English speakers to try out Sina Weibo and essentially opening its doors to Western users, Sina Weibo is facilitating a greater level of marketing and branding activity from overseas companies.
This is a logical and proactive step for the network to take. After all, Western fashion brands and retailers are hugely popular among Chinese consumers, and up to 85% of shoppers in China use social media to discuss their purchases and where to find the best bargains. Implementing an English language interface allows Sina Weibo to foster interaction between brands and consumers on its own terms.
However, it’s not just companies that stand to benefit from the new, English-friendly Sina Weibo. Hollywood superstar Brad Pitt is the latest in a long line of American and European celebrities to sign up, ostensibly (one presumes) to cultivate his Chinese fan base.
In a Vanity Fair feature last year, journalist Rachel DeWoskin covered the warm welcome that Western film stars like Tom Cruise and Emma Watson received when they joined Sina Weibo: “Because the Chinese find Western curiosity and friendliness endearing, they celebrate posts like Cruise’s early ones for [their] ‘willingness to show vulnerability’ or ‘authenticity.’” One regular Sina Weibo user suggested that by engaging with a new audience through an unfamiliar medium, these huge celebrities are inclined to “show China their real selves.”
There is speculation that this newly inclusive approach is a rather strategic, premeditated attempt on Sina Weibo’s part to draw attention away from its recent censorship issues. A large number of Sina Weibo users have used the platform this month to express their outrage over the suppression of an editorial at Southern Weekend magazine, causing a senior Sina Weibo staffer to publish a post defending the network’s status as a “human flesh shield” between users and authorities, and requesting understanding of the complex and regularly enforced “special and sensitive barriers” that the platform is required to operate within.