‘Zombies’ and ‘Reincarnation’

Why It’s So Hard to Take a Census in Weibo Nation

Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, announced on February 20 that it had surpassed half a billion users—more people than live in South America, and approximately the population of North America. Thickly-settled Europe edges out Weibo by about 230,000, but the micro-blogging platform blows away Australia in this regard. In any event, we are talking about a membership on the order of continents—a remarkable fact, given that, unlike Facebook, its usership is almost exclusively Chinese.

As many readers will be aware, Facebook and Twitter are among the Western platforms inaccessible in China, thanks to the government’s so-called Great Firewall. Internet blocks create a vacuum that domestic entrepreneurs have rushed to fill. In China, chat client QQ provides a service comparable to the west’s AIM or Windows Live Messenger. Then there are the ailing Facebook imitators—Ren Ren, Pengyou, Kaixin001—which have struggled to sustain their respective user bases in recent years. Weibo, meanwhile, has steamrolled competitors to become the social networking service (SNS) of choice for China’s growing bourgeoisie. It is now, as the Death Star’s commanding officer would say, the ultimate power in the universe.

Sort of.

On the heels of Sina Weibo’s announcement comes speculation that its achievement may be a hollow one. According to TechinAsia, Sina admitted in its 2013 post-report earnings call that only 46.3 million (about 10 percent) of its virtual content of Weibo users log on every day. This lack of fervor could be forgiven if Weibo users maintained a steady pitter-patter of activity, logging on, say, a few times a week. Alas, on that same earnings call, the micro-blogging platform said that roughly the same 9 to 10 percent of its users are active over the course of a year. What’s going on?

The discrepancy between membership and active users may be due, in part, to the “zombie” phenomenon. With the rise of social media, China has seen an outbreak of cowboy enterprises that generate online accounts for money. These accounts are not tied to any real person; they post no content of their own. Rather, these “zombies” can be automatically deployed to follow a particular user, re-post that user’s comments, and generally create “buzz.” In effect, wealthy individuals or organizations can parlay financial resources into instant “popularity.”

To further explicate the gap between counted and active users—and to add another supernatural metaphor—Weibo also features an untold number of “reincarnated” users. Per government censorship policies, employees at Sina Weibo regulate users’ conversations. If a user posts something controversial, he risks having his post deleted, or, in an extreme case, losing his account altogether. This user may “give up the ghost,” only to come back as another user with a slightly different handle (often the same name with “Life2” (二世) or “Life3” (三世) appended). Reincarnation buys him a period of anonymity to speak more freely—until censors catch on again. It also means Weibo may be counting users more than once.

There are other more banal possibilities, of course. It could be that real, flesh-and-blood people join Weibo, participate for a time, then simply lose interest, deciding they have better things to do than “follow” and be followed. Maybe they reach a point of exhaustion with Sina Weibo’s interface or functionality. Users may be lured away by sexy up-and-comers like WeChat, which many believe will eventually overtake Weibo in popularity. Or maybe Chinese netizens are inherently fickle, and no amount of clever web-design can hold their attention for long. No one seems to know for certain. But, from a developer’s point of view, these possibilities are all equally discouraging.

Compare Sina Weibo’s numbers to Facebook’s user activity stats. As a truly global site, Facebook squashes its Chinese counterpart with an estimated 1.06 billion users. But, more importantly, Facebook reports, 50 percent of its users log on every day. Among the key 18-34-year-old demographic, nearly half do so within minutes of waking up, 28 percent before they even get out of bed. These mind-boggling statistics hint at a sort of addiction, which may set off alarm bells for some.  But they also constitute resounding proof that the fuss about Facebook is genuine. When Facebook went public last year, Mark Zuckerberg had money, not zombies, on the brain.

Western nations are not necessarily above e-necromancy. In early 2011, it surfaced that the U.S. government engaged private intelligence firms to create zombies on Facebook, Twitter, and anachronistically, MySpace in a covert effort to influence public opinion. Still, China is, by all indications, an environment where fakery runs especially rampant: the country has graduated from counterfeit designer goods to whole retail operations, from fake Apple and Ikea stores to a knock-off Disney World outside Beijing. As such, it is hardly surprising that the latest milestone from China’s social media giant may be more sizzle than substance.