Twitter should have a thorough look at their Chinese Weibo competitors, says tech ethnographer Tricia Wang in an interview with FastCompany. Being picture-based is just one lesson they can learn, she argues.
The two most important apps are Renren, essentially a copycat of Facebook, and Weibo, which is like Twitter–but like Twitter on crack. We often don’t think we have a lot to learn from tech companies outside of the U.S., but Twitter should look to Weibo for inspiration for what can be done. It’s like a mashup of Tumblr, Zynga, Facebook, and Twitter. It’s very picture-based, whereas Twitter is still very text-based. In Weibo, the pictures are right under each post, so you don’t have to make an extra click to view them. And people are using this in subversive ways. Whether you’re using algorithms to search text or actual people–and China has the largest cyber police force in the world—it’s much easier to censor text than images. So people are very subversive in hiding messages in pictures. These pictures are sometimes very different than what people are texting, or will often say a lot more than the actual text itself.
A big turning point in China was the train crash last year. Everyone in China takes the train, and it’s a state-run enterprise. So after this big crash there was essentially a large government cover-up. But people were taking pictures and sending out messages on Weibo up until the last minute when the crash happened, and even though it was censored, the news got out because all these pictures were forwarded through social media. As much as the government tries to control information through censorship, there are all these user strategies to overcome it, too. There’s a new thing called “long Weibo,” which allows you to paste in a whole essay, and it converts it to a JPEG. It’s small, but you can click on it and it fills your screen so you can actually read the whole essay right there. It’s something small but critical in understanding how social media operates in China. Likewise, in the U.S., I like observing how users hack around social-media platforms, because ultimately these behaviors are rooted in culture.