China’s favorite social media network, Sina Weibo, is losing followers: the microblog’s user base fell 9% to 280.8 million, from 308.6 million the year before, according to a report (pdf, p.36 link in Chinese) by the government-backed China Internet Network Information Center. While Sina Weibo’s parent company, Sina Corp, said the data don’t match its latest figures, the report is a sign that the fortunes of China’s largest microblog—and the habits of the country’s 618 million internet users—are shifting.
Young Chinese internet users, many of who are first accessing the internet via smartphones, are gravitating toward social media platforms tailored for phones—like Tencent’s messaging app WeChat, or Weixin, as it’s known in China. About 37% of users who stopped using Sina Weibo began using WeChat, according to the government report. Like WhatsApp, the messaging service popular in many other parts of the world, WeChat allows for private group chats, which to some is more appealing than broadcasting their comments on Sina Weibo. Also, an increasing number of Chinese internet users are doing financial transactions on their phones. WeChat users can use the app to order a cab or McDonald’s—or manage their investments.
Sina Weibo’s biggest problem may be that it’s just not the same open platform for discussion and speech it once was. Over the past few years, the site became such a hub for frank debate and scrutiny of politics and society that China’s latest leadership transition was commonly described as the “first in the age of Weibo.” But since Chinese officials began tightening their reins on the site—for instance, passing a law to jail anyone whose “inaccurate” messages are reposted over 500 times—it’s become more of a repository for rumors about celebrities and photos of food. Lesser-known Chinese sites like Zhihu, a Quora-like question and answer messaging board, are starting to take its place as a forum for serious discussion.
Even after losing 28 million users, Sina Weibo remains well above the 232 million active users Twitter reported just before going public last November. But Twitter’s user number was up 14 million on the previous quarter. And WeChat’s user base of 272 million monthly active users as of the end of September was double what it was the year before. For Sina Weibo to be shrinking at a time when its rivals are growing isn’t a promising sign.