Sina Weibo and other domestic microblogging services are more than a match for the United States company, Lin Shujuan reports
Huang Jianxiang, 42, was once China's best-known sports commentators.
He came to international attention during a World Cup commentary on June 26, 2006. Five months after his passionate outburst against Australia, while describing the final goal of the match between Australia and Italy, he resigned from China Central Television. Many thought that was the end of his career as a soccer commentator.
But Huang is back in business, commenting on each team and game of the ongoing FIFA World Cup in South Africa - in any tone he likes. Quite to his delight, he is not running short of an audience.
Huang is now a star in the world of Sina Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter, closely followed by more than 1 million fans who forward his comments to many more within minutes.
His made this comment on Wednesday's early morning, right after China's socialist neighbor North Korea played against Brazil:
"I plan to go to sleep immediately. Forget about any dream related to Chinese soccer. The idea of having a dream about Chinese soccer is itself ultimately stupid. Chinese soccer and soccer are in fact two different sports."
Despite the early hours, this post was viewed nearly 2,000 times, forwarded by 140 people and commented on by 92 followers.
Weibo (which translates as microblog) has become a phenomenon since Sina started beta testing of its microblogging service, Sina Weibo, in August.
Over the past 10 months Sina Weibo has established itself as China's leading microblogging service, raising the country's microblogging population from less than 1 million to an estimated 10 million.
In early March 2010, Sina's CEO Cao Guowei revealed there were 5 million registered users of the service. Then, in mid-May, Cao added the "number of registered members has doubled over the past quarter".
In comparison, it took Twitter nearly 30 months to attract the same number of users.
"Twitter brought the concept of the microblog to China, but it is Sina Weibo that has popularized this kind of Internet service here," says Hu Yong, an expert on new media from the School of Journalism and Communication of Peking University.
The service is much the same as Twitter in that it allows users to post messages of 140 Chinese characters or less via the Web, SMS or MMS.
But 140 Chinese characters can say a lot more, according to tech expert and Beijing resident Kaiser Kuo.
Before Sina Weibo, a few Twitter-like services had emerged in China, such as Fanfou, Jiwai and Digu.
Like Twitter, however, they were banned in July last year after deadly ethnic unrest in Xinjiang was blamed, in part, on agitators spreading their messages on the Web through Twitter.
Ironically, this turned into an opportunity for Sina Weibo to fill the gap.
Hu says Sina, as one of the top 20 websites in the world according to the Web-traffic monitoring agency Alexa.com, had a huge advantage building the massive user base needed to create a truly Twitter-like experience.
Moreover, the company's decade of experience in content monitoring allowed it to avoid the potential pitfalls of its predecessors.
Within months Sina Weibo had become a hit with mainstream Chinese Internet users, thanks in part to a solid base of over 400 million netizens.
Many have attributed Sina Weibo's success to Sina's strong marketing, but Cao Zenghui, Sina Weibo's project manager, doesn't entirely agree.
He says celebrity sign-ups for the service did help drive up registrations but Sina Weibo also scored because it is easy to use.
"Weibo, unlike Twitter, is tailored to Chinese users," Cao says. "That means Sina is able to create a more user-friendly microblogging experience for them than Twitter does."
Cao says those who have used both services tend to agree that Sina Weibo is also more expressive, with its embedded emotions, photos, video and lyrics.
Duan Hongbin, an IT analyst at Anbound, reckons that even if Twitter was available in China, it still could not compete with Sina Weibo and other Chinese micro-blogging services.
"It's like Baidu and Google in China. Generally, Google is better in terms of technology and branding, but most Chinese still prefer Baidu," Duan says.
While Google's global share is over 90 percent, its best performance in China was 31.1 percent against Baidu's 63.9 percent of China's Internet search market share in the third quarter of 2009, according to data from Analysys International, a leading advisor on technology, media and the telecom industry in China.
"It's not because of nationalism, the language barrier is one reason. It is normal for Chinese users to use a Chinese-language interface. There are not many Web users in China who prefer an English interface," Duan says.
Kaiser Kuo says that if Twitter became available again in China, it wouldn't take Chinese netizens by storm because of the popularity of the services that have developed.
While Twitter would have Chinese users, he says, Sina Weibo and other similar services have gained too much momentum.
Some of Sina Weibo's Top 10 celebrities
Huang Jianxiang: No 7
Football is arguably the most popular sport on the planet. Huang Jianxiang, 42, a former sports commentator with China Central Television and anchorman at the Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television, agrees. But that's not what makes him one of China's most popular football commentators.
Cai Kangyong: No 5
Also known as Kevin Tsai, Cai is a writer and TV host in Taiwan. He is best known for his role in hosting the TV program Kanagxi Lai Le, which airs on Chuang Tien Television with fellow hostess Xu Xidi or Dee Hsu. Soon after Sina's Weibo became accessible on iPhone across the world, Cai joined Weibo. Popular for his witty comments on various themes, one typical post reads:
"Yes, many people do bad things for money. It is the way they choose to get their money you should hate, not money. It doesn't make you sound nobler if you hate money. Money is like kung fu in a kung fu novel. You could use your kung fu to do bad, or you could also use it to do a lot of wonderful things. Resisting making money is like resisting improving your kung fu, which is OK but you'd better be prepared. One day if a bad guy armed with strong kung fu bullies you, how will you react? - Kangyong, Short messages for the cruel world."
Yao Cheng: No 1
Yao, a rising actress from the Chinese mainland known as "Queen of Weibo", provides updates a couple of times each day no matter where she is. And she talks about almost everything.
"I am flying to the North. In fact, I have been flying everywhere this month. I am like Batwoman."
Pan Shiyi: No 10
The presence of SOHO China's Pan Shiyi on Sina Weibo's top ten reflects the fact that the new social networking platform has become the pulse of Chinese society.
As one of China's best known real estate developers, Pan has become a public figure for his willingness to talk to the media and his frequent blogging on Sina Weibo.
He has brought onboard many other real estate developers to join Weibo and hence formed an exchange platform on probably the country's most discussed issue - the red-hot real estate market.
One recent typical Weibo from him was related to the government's possible postponing of the introduction of a property tax to further cool the real estate market. He warned investors to avoid too much renewed optimism, writing on his Sina Weibo: "It is like a drowning person seeing a piece of wood floating on the sea. But don't be optimistic, make plans for the worst."
Li Kaifu: No 4
Li Kaifu, former president of Google China, is among the first popular celebrities to have joined Sina Weibo. He is the only Internet entrepreneur who has stayed in the top five.
He announced his leaving Google China on September 4, 2009 with the words "Goodbye, Google!"
As founder and CEO of Innovation Works, a new venture dedicated to serving young start-ups, he reviews the Internet scene, media trends and electronic products, updates on the company's development and occasionally remarks on his daily routines especially those related to his two daughters.
Playing the fame game
Since Sina launched Weibo, comparisons between this Chinese microblog service and its international counterpart Twitter have never stopped.
Among them is the following comparison of their top ten users, based on a previous version compiled and analyzed by iReseach.cn blogger Liu Xingliang. Liu's observations:
1. TV/film/pop stars are the most popular users on both platforms.
Twitter has eight celebrity performers in its top ten; Weibo has seven.
2. Weibo is used far less as a political platform. Unlike Twitter, says Liu, there are hardly any politicians in Weibo's top hundred users, let alone the top ten.
3. Business people on Weibo are as popular as TV/film/pop stars. While there is no business person in Twitter's top ten list, there are two on Weibo - former Google China president Li Kaifu and real estate developer Pan Shiyi. Because China's economy is developing rapidly, says Liu, successful business people are viewed more like celebrities.
4. Latecomers have advantages over first movers. Twitter, which has been running for 50 months, has a total of 39.4 million people following its top ten users; Weibo, which has been running for just ten months, already has around 10.8 million people following its top ten.