China’s social media gurus face off in the Weibo vs. WeChat debate

China’s social media gurus face off in the Weibo vs. WeChat debate
Image: AP
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In China’s rapidly expanding social media sphere, the lion’s share of buzz is split between Tencent’s WeChat, a text and voicemail service that has grown so popular it is threatening the business of the country’s mobile phone carriers, and Sina Weibo, a microblogging service where users post unfiltered snippets of news in a cat-and-mouse game with the country’s censors.

The two services are markedly different. Much like Facebook, WeChat is used to communicate with friends, while Weibo is used to create a running conversation on news events, similar to Twitter. But WeChat’s surging popularity has many observers questioning whether Weibo can possibly prevail.

The debate played out online this week between Internet analyst Qian Hao and former Google China head Kai-fu Lee. As detailed by the news site Tech in Asia, their arguments went something like this:

Qian: Weibo is overvalued

  1. Users are leaving because of a new government law requiring them to register their real names.
  2. Social interactions have moved to WeChat.
  3. Users hate ads, which makes monitizing Weibo’s popularity difficult.

Lee: “Gloomy predictions are greatly exaggerated”

  1. “Close supervision means vitality”—the government wouldn’t pay attention if Weibo wasn’t a threat.
  2. Weibo was never the place for direct person-to-person chats anyway.
  3. The site can try non-obtrusive strategies like targeted ads and e-commerce to make money.

Regardless of Lee’s second point, it is clear that WeChat and Weibo compete directly when it comes to time spent online, and for the mindshare of China’s digerati. It’s possible that the two sites will evolve into a complementary relationship similar to Facebook and Twitter; one a lucrative  market for personalized ads, and the other an essential forum for debate and news. Perhaps most telling is the venue where Qian and Lee fought their rhetorical battle this week: on Weibo itself.