by Michael O'Neill
May 23rd, 2013

When looking at the evolution of social media in China, the most important thing to keep in mind is how unique it is. Having evolved in relative isolation from the rest of the world, the Chinese internet is highly reflective of the singularity of modern Chinese development and culture. This is easily understood when one looks at its sheer size, the speed at which it has developed and the multiple contradictions it characterises.

Social media in China thus finds itself at the center of a constantly shifting dialectic of trust and control. One easily sees how the tremendous enthusiasm users had when the first social platforms came to China correlates to the low levels of trust they had in centrally controlled media, and to the sense of empowerment felt as they found themselves being able to discuss issues as a civil society nationwide. Similarly, the development of its own set of platforms and services, almost in a “parallel dimension” to those developed abroad, can also be attributed to the greater desire for control on behalf of the country’s regulatory institutions.

But commercial interests have also played a very important role in this ever-changing social media ecosystem. Kaixin’s desire for greater control over the monetisation of its platform and its reluctance to open its API to 3rd parties ultimately led its downfall despite then being a strong contender to become a market leader. This shows us that the key for new social networks to thrive is to achieve the right balance between empowering users to use the platform on their own terms and maintaining operator control over content and revenue.

This remains true up till today, as seen in the heated rivalry between social media giants Sina Weibo and Tencent WeChat. Of course, both platforms are used in very different ways, making their usage rather complimentary for both users and marketers, but the fact of the matter is that WeChat has taken a big cut of the time spent on Weibo in the past 18 months. This is due to users preferring WeChat for connecting and sharing moments with their real-life friends, a function that has lost a lot of ground on Weibo, arguably due to the diminished trust resulting from the growth of commercial accounts and advertising that accompanied the micro-blogging platform’s success.

However, Weibo remains the water-cooler of China, the preferred way to curate personalised feeds of news and trends, and the number one platform for businesses to achieve better branding and awareness. It remains to be seen what the recent partnership with Alibaba will now mean for the social network. With all the great opportunities this collaboration will offer brands and online retailers also comes the risk of aggressive and short-sighted monetisation attempts negatively impacting user experience and trust.

WeChat is in a similar situation. In a move to regain control over dissipating mobile revenues (China Mobile lost 4.8% of SMS revenue last year), the three big state-owned mobile operators have recently taken to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) to get WeChat to help them make up for these losses, even suggesting special bandwidth fees for WeChat data usage.

This will surely increase the pressure on Tencent to monetise its platform, and talks of mobile payment and gaming abound. This too, will us offer marketers more tools to engage consumers on the thriving CRM and direct sales platform, but if this comes at the expense of usability and privacy, we are likely to see irritated users starting to look in.

Etienne Chia is digital director, China, CMG

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