World of Weibo

No free lunch

The country’s largest social media platform under fire for making user pay

Twitter’s feed is largely chronological. Facebook relies more on algorithms, which means that well-liked content or posts from friends tend to show up on top.

In China, however, a few people have noticed that their Sina Weibo posts were not appearing online. A few weeks ago, the famous 52 year-old singer Lao Lang (pictured above) wrote a post of his own on the microblogging platform, complaining that it was restricting his usage after he put up information about a book club gathering.

“Sina Weibo is limiting the traffic for online performances and now even the tweet about a book club meeting is restricted. I now need to pay for the post to be seen as if I’m buying headlines. Are you [i.e. Sina Weibo] so money-hungry you have gone crazy?” the frustrated rocker lamented.

Other singers such as Zhou Yunpeng and Su Yang voiced their support, saying they have experienced a similar situation on their weibo accounts. Wild Children­, an indie rock band, revealed that when it tried to promote a concert tour back in October, Sina Weibo had restricted the visibility of its posts (which means that the post cannot be reposted, commented on or ‘liked’).

“It is our exquisite content that has kept this platform alive. I don’t have to go on Weibo. Sina Weibo stop being so shortsighted or dig your own grave,” Zhou threatened.

Another music band Hedgehog also complained about a similar situation that saw the platform interfering with its posts.

When it tried to publish information about upcoming performances – even without external links or QR codes – the post was still withheld by the platform.

The social media platform explained that it has been restricting postings with external links and QR codes, which are often used by scammers to bring traffic to pornography and gambling sites (Tencent’s WeChat regulates external links as well).

Earlier this year it began to ban users who shared links to e-commerce sites like Taobao and too, trying to channel them through a marketplace management tool called Weibo Xiaodian instead. However, in recent months there has been a greater number of complaints that the platform is preventing a wider number of posts with links as a means of charging users a fee.

“It appears that Sina’s logic is this: in the face of money, everyone is equal: no matter what you post, you all need to pay,” a netizen joked.

“Shouldn’t such a major matter be on the ‘hot searches’ list,” another mocked, referencing the ranking of the most frequently searched topics on the platform.

Clearly Sina Weibo is looking for ways to boost its revenue generation. But the danger is that it alienates many users who don’t have direct commercial motives. “Sina Weibo has its own advertising platform, and it won’t allow users to do advertising and marketing for free. But from a technical point of view, Sina Weibo’s problem is that it hasn’t been able to accurately distinguish between content sharing and commercial advertising,” pointed out China Youth Daily.

Industry insiders have also complained about a lack of transparency when it comes to Sina’s algorithms. “While the commercialisation of Sina Weibo is logical, the implementation of the charges is very confusing. How they are implemented is not open enough,” Southern Weekend was told by one verified customer (users that are ‘verified’ can use the paid advertising functions on the platform).

Still, with few options for alternative microblogging options at scale – Tencent dropped its own weibo platform in September – Sina now enjoys more of a captive market.

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