Microblog competition shrinks

Three fallen microblog providers

Update (2009.07.22): Jiwai is now down. Its homepage is now showing a Fail Whale, a Douglas MacArthur quote, and a question: "Jiwai has hidden itself away. Can you still find it?"

Twitter is blocked in mainland China. Fanfou (饭否), a local microblog platform, was taken offline in the week after the Urumqi riots.

Now two other microblogs have become inaccessible. Digu (嘀咕), where many Fanfou users migrated, is currently "upgrading its servers," as is Zuosa (做啥), after a morning of being completely unreachable.

That leaves Jiwai (叽歪), whose users are chatting about the latest developments and wondering when the axe will fall.

There's also Tencent's Taotao (滔滔), part of the company's slate of QQ-related online products. Taotao's user base is rather different from the rabble rousers and activists that may have contributed to the troubles of other platforms, but its lack of a convenient search function may keep it insulated as well.

Ironically, microblogs only hit the mainstream in the last month. At the end of June, The Beijing News ran a feature on Twitter, and Southern Weekly printed a report on Twitter and other microblogs the same week that Fanfou was taken down. Southern Metropolis Daily ran a similar story mid-month, and other media outlets reported on microblogs throughout July.

Just yesterday, the 21st Century Business Herald described the makeup of the microblogging marketplace, focusing on potential profit models without mentioning the recent access problems.

The Internet is an immature sector, and momentary leaders may not ultimately succeed. Although domestic Twitter-like sites range from large ones like Tongxue and Tencent's Taotao to smaller ones like Fanfou and Digu, no one can predict which one will be victorious.

After Fanfou's demise, Chinese bloggers and microbloggers have been predicting that other platforms would soon follow.

In a blog post earlier this month, Bumian (Xu Caixing) discussed why microblogs were destined to be marginalized on the mainland:

Twitter being blocked was inevitable. As a website whose content was entirely user-created with no possilibity for oversight, you could predict that it would get dammed. And it's inevitable that domestic microblogs will be taken under control.

But I say that domestic microblogs in China are hopeless not because of policy problems but because of the attitude toward openness of their operators and developers. Currently, very few domestic companies and individuals are truly equipped with that attitude.

Twitter succeeded for two reasons. First, opinion leaders used it, so it was actually able to produce content. Second, openness. A twitter update contains just 140 characters, the website is very simple, but it has a 100% open API. There are ten thousand websites and fuctions based on twitter now, and 52,000 on facebook.

There's actually a third element, but it's not so readily apparent. Foreign media has a natural inclination to support new things, and they all like to chase after trends and inflate them quite a bit. Additionally, companies enjoy trying out new things. Lots of foreign media like to cite Twitter news, but does anyone think that CCTV would possibly cite a Fanfou update?

Look at the three elements within China. Lots of people who claim to be opinion leaders use microblogs. It seems like if you're using something and it gets blocked, and you have to leap the firewall in order to view it, then you feel like you're some kind of badass. It's not easy for this kind of person to come up with anything good apart from angry youth-type stuff. And although domestic media is fairly tolerant of new things and reports on them fairly often, print media and other major media outlets aren't as willing to do so. They're more about present circumstances as opposed to future prospects.

The post goes on to discuss the reluctance of Chinese IT developers to share their userbase as a contributing reason behind the lack of openness he mentions up top, and ultimately concludes that Chinese microblogs have cloned the form of Twitter without reproducing its spirit.

Of course, the analysis breaks down when "policy problems" turn out to be a bigger factor than the marketplace itself.

Digu, the microblog currently closed for upgrades, still has its image server online. Will it return? Will Fanfou and Zuosa be back? Or will Jiwai get itself harmonized first? There are lots of questions, but very little concrete information to go on.

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Right now (24th 10pm China time):
Jiwai is "down for maintenance" and is back working... at least outside China where I am.

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