Why Weibo Needs to Win the War with WeChat

At Tech in Asia, Charles Custer surveys the stakes in the brewing battle between between Sina Weibo and Tencent’s Weixin (or WeChat). Weibo, he argues, has repeatedly helped local social and environmental issues coalesce into nationwide movements, a trend that the rise of Weixin threatens to unravel.

Five years ago, for example, you might think that the pollution of a local river was just a problem with a nearby factory, but thanks to Deng Fei’s weibo campaign and others, it’s easy to see on Weibo that many rivers nationwide have similar problems. So, what you previously considered a local problem is now a national one, and when that happens, you’re more likely to try to push for national changes instead of just complaining about your local authorities.

[…] That’s why Weibo’s fight with WeChat is so crucial. WeChat is a totally different service with a very different focus, but the more time users spend on WeChat, the less they’re spending on Weibo. And while chatting with your friends and following celebrities is fun, the service just isn’t designed for the swift passing-along of information the way that weibo is. WeChat’s focus is your circle of friends and your local area, Weibo’s focus is far wider. To return to our polluted river analogy, on Weibo you share your photos of the river with your followers all over the country, and they pass it on to theirs; quickly, it can go national. But on WeChat, you bitch with your friends and coworkers about the river and it stays in your (mostly) local social circles. Even if it does spread, that spread isn’t easily visible or trackable, which makes it seem like fewer people are talking about it and thus reduces its impact.

While Sina Weibo currently has 500 million registered users to Weixin’s 300 million, its lead may be less substantial than it appears. Also at Tech in Asia, Steven Millward suggested last week that as many as 95% of all Sina Weibo accounts may be either “zombies” or spammers, and Weixin is likely to reach the half-billion mark within the next twelve months. Whether or not Weixin encourages a narrowly local focus among users, Tencent has global ambitions for the service. Its largest user bases abroad are currently in Malaysia and India, but the company appears intent on conquering America as a springboard to world domination. From Fang Yunyu at Global Times:

“We are planning to set up our WeChat office in the US, in a bid to explore opportunities in the US market,” Tencent Holdings said in a statement e-mailed to the Global Times.

[…] “If a foreign product can succeed in the US market, where many excellent IT products and companies were born, it will be relatively easy for the product to go into other markets,” Tencent noted.

[…] Tencent announced last month that the total number of WeChat users had reached 300 million, including over 10 million overseas users, about two years after the Shenzhen-based company launched the mobile application.

“The figure may exceed 500 million by the end of this year, which will be equivalent to the number of Internet users in the country. In other words, it means the domestic WeChat market will very soon be saturated,” Fang Xingdong, founder of the Beijing-based industry consultancy Internet Laboratory, told the Global Times Monday.

International users may be deterred, however, by reports of Weixin actively assisting Chinese authorities with surveillance of political dissidents and censorship even of users outside China.