At first glance, Twitter would appear to have everything a hot Internet company needs to take advantage of the frothy tech market right now – near-universal name-recognition amongst Internet users, close to 200 million users worldwide, and a “halo effect” earned by helping to launch democratic revolutions around the world. What the company still doesn’t have, however, is a way to make money. Five years after launching, Twitter is still searching for a business model: the latest idea is inserting “promoted tweets” (in other words, annoying advertisements) into your Twitter stream – a move that’s all but certain to get pushback from its most rabid followers.
Contrast that with what’s happening in China, where China’s Twitter equivalent – Sina Weibo, seems to have figured things out. Weibo is by far the most popular micro-blogging service in China, with nearly 90% of the market. Young Internet users (the type of user that Twitter has trouble attracting) and celebrities alike embrace the service. Perhaps more importantly, at a time when the Chinese government cracks down on Twitter usage, it condones Weibo. As a result, by the end of the year, the total user base of Weibo may surpass the total number of Twitter users – and that’s despite the fact that Weibo launched in 2009, well after Twitter.
Far from being a Twitter copycat, Weibo has emerged as a force to be reckoned with, continually innovating according to the needs of its users. Chinese Web enthusiasts claim Weibo is now a superior Twitter alternative – with functionality like being able to embed multimedia content like videos within tweets; create and follow threaded conversations; and interact with mini-groups – that combines elements of blogging and Facebook. As a result, the user base of Weibo (including both celebrities and the youngest Internet users) has skyrocketed in size and its parent company (something Twitter lacks), the Chinese portal Sina.com, is rumored to be close to an IPO for Weibo – the type of market exit strategy that has thus far eluded the Twitter team.
All of this raises the inevitable question: Is it possible that the “Chinese Internet copycats” have actually caught up with their Western competitors and out-innovated them? Should we really be referring to Twitter as “the Weibo of America?” Most likely, we’re close to reaching a tipping point in the history of the Internet. The Twitter fail whale - the cute little image that pops up whenever Twitter is over-capacity - may become a symbol for something else: the failure of Western Internet firms to vanquish the Chinese dragon.