They didn’t know what he was twittering on about, at President Obama’s ‘town hall’ gathering in Shanghai last month.
Specifically, the president was talking about internet freedoms. But in the process he admitted too that he had never personally used Twitter, the micro-blogging service. That might come as a bit of surprise to the 2.8 million individuals who have signed up to ‘follow’ his tweets (or Twitter messages) on a regular basis.
Few in Obama’s audience knew much about Twitter either, it turned out. Google China reported a burst of online searches seeking to find out a little more about the messaging service, which tech-trendy liberals in the West have lauded for unnerving authoritarian regimes, most recently in Iran.
Of course, Twitter is more commonly occupied by more mundane discourse, courtesy of celebrities keen to keep us updated on their latest shoe shopping or preferred Mexican restaurant. Messages must be under 140 characters in length and can be sent via mobile text, instant message or the web.
In fact, Twitter’s low profile in China is unsurprising. The government has blocked access since the summer. But Xinhua says that Western internet brands can struggle to cross the cultural divide. Even global giant Google has trailed in the wake of homegrown search engine Baidu. Analysts point to anything from local difficulties in translating the Google name through to a filtering process that does not always pick up on all the nuances of Chinese language search.
Still, with access blocked, Twitter has not had much of a chance to find out if Chinese users would have been different. Social networking site Facebook has also struggled, with the Wall Street Journal reporting recently that the site was down to a mere 14,000 registered China users (there are more than 300 million signed-up globally). YouTube has also fallen foul of the censors.
Locally inspired Twitter clones started to emerge a couple of years ago, with start-ups Jiwai and Fanfou first to claim a similar service. But they too ran into trouble, especially after frenetic online comment during the disturbances in Urumqi in July. Both remain blocked today but promise to return once “server maintenance” is completed. Another provider Zousa has survived and has been growing.
But now the more established internet firms are beginning to show an interest. Sanlian Life Weekly reported this month that Sina.com has launched its own micro-blogging service. Tencent, another huge internet portal, is also trying its luck and Baidu announced this week that it was introducing a Twitter-like service too. All three are using celebrity messagers to drum up interest.
Unlike their smaller predecessors, these companies have extensive experience in managing content, as well as the relationships with the appropriate government departments necessary to staying online. Sanlian reports that Sina’s new service will be able to “audit” user-generated content in real time, for instance. Tencent has experience of running QQ, the most popular instant messaging service, so is also familiar with content management techniques. That means that regulators are more likely to give them a little more leeway.
It also raises questions about whether a second generation of internet entrepreneurs will emerge in China.
In the US, the internet is often portrayed as an untamed frontier; the place where geeks work out of garages and end up launching billion-dollar businesses.
But in China analysts talk of a “walled garden” in which favoured local firms build dominant positions – and retain them. Why? Some reckon that, because these giants have learned to play by the government’s rules, it makes it almost impossible for a new generation of disruptive local entrepreneurs to unseat them.
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