What Twitter CEO Dick Costolo’s visit to China is really about

Hoisting the flag in China?
Hoisting the flag in China?
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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Twitter CEO Dick Costolo is visiting China this week, and it is tempting to view the trip as the first step in a campaign to get his company inside the world’s most populous nation.

After all, Twitter is struggling to add users, so it could stand to access a market of 600 million people connected to the internet. Just a couple of weeks ago, LinkedIn unveiled a Chinese-language site and faced little backlash despite agreeing to be censored by the government.

But there are good reasons to believe that Costolo’s visit, described as a “personal trip,” really is about fact-finding as the company claims. “Dick is visiting China because he wants to learn more about Chinese culture and the country’s thriving technology sector,” a Twitter spokesman told Reuters.

China is a highly innovative internet market. As the Wall Street Journal’s China RealTime blog points out, some of the functions on Twitter itself were actually first popularized on Sina Weibo, the Chinese social network which filed for an IPO in the United States last week. ”[Weibo] pre-dated Twitter in allowing embedded comments and replies to a post and also to giving photos a prominent presence in a users’ stream,” the Journal reported.

There are countless other examples of Chinese innovation in the internet space. Tinder, the popular dating app, was predated by China’s Beijing Momo Technology Co. And of course there is Tencent, whose WeChat messaging platform (which has about 300 million users) is arguably way ahead of anyone else in areas like mobile payments, subscription products, and online purchasing. That could be particularly interesting for Costolo to get his head around, in light of reports Twitter is considering a push into e-commerce in the near future.