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Chinese Twitter to double staff

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China's own Twitter, Sina Weibo, is planning to almost double its staff.

The microblogging service already has 100 million users, and is adding 10 million every month, but that's not enough for the company which intends to be bigger than Twitter.

Not that Twitter is the competition in China; it isn't permitted in a country which expects service operators to self-censor content. Sina Weibo is up against Tencent - which also boasts 100 million users - and an offering from Chinese search engine Sohu.

Dealing with that competition is the primary focus for Sina Weibo, which is increasing staff from 600 to 1,000 people as well as launching an aggressive marketing campaign to promote the service. That's all funded by the service's parent company Sina, a blogging and new media hub that's already making money though advertising - $300m of the company's $400m 2010 revenue came from advertising.

Sina plans to start trialling some revenue-generating projects on Weibo late in 2011, by which time it plans to have well over 150 million Chinese chirping regularly. Not on political subjects, though, as such postings have a habit of vanishing without trace.

Sina Weibo isn't just a Twitter clone; it extends the functionality by offering threaded messaging, providing group-and-event-based accounts and claims to have a better class of user than the downmarket Tencent service. But it's the self-censorship which really sets it apart from Twitter.

At the end of January that censorship went so far as to block searches on the word "Egypt", and complaints about individual chirps disappearing aren't even news. Despite such effusive support for the authorities, the US analysts Piper Jaffray recently suggested that the chances of Sina Weibo being shut down in the next month being less than 20 per cent, prompting retorts from the company that its chances of being shut down in the next 20 years were zero per cent.

Hyperbole aside it seems more likely that Sina Weibo will bend to the authorities than be banned entirely. As one rather eloquent chirper put it: "While it's online, it might create some problems; once it gets shut down, it will definitely cause problems." What's more interesting is how competition has pushed the three Twitter-like services in China to innovate and expand their offerings, while in the rest of the world Twitter's virtual monopoly has given it breathing space, for the moment at least. ®

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