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Twitter's Chinese foe is home to social media zombies

More than half of Sina Weibo accounts inactive or unoriginal

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China’s social networks may not be as social as was first thought, after a new sample study found that over half of accounts on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo are inactive while fewer than 15 per cent of active accounts feature original posts.

Hong Kong University researchers were keen to find out the truth about weibo, arguing that non-random sampling in previous studies may have skewed results.

To compile their report - Reality Check for the Chinese Microblog Space: A Random Sampling Approach – a developer account was first granted by Sina Weibo thanks to which they could obtain user data through the site’s API.

Using a combination of programs and scripts querying the API, the team obtained data on just shy of 30,000 accounts and monitored them for seven days.

It found 57.4 per cent of account timelines were empty – pointing to either inactive or zombie accounts – and of those which could be called ‘active’, 86.9 per cent did not make an original post in the study period. Moreover, just 0.51 per cent wrote twenty or more original posts, while 0.45 per cent re-posted original updates during the seven days.

It added the following:

A small group of microbloggers created a majority of contents and drew other users’ attention. About 4.8 per cent of the 12,774 [‘active’] users contributed more than 80 per cent of the original posts and about 4.8 per cent managed to create posts that were reposted or received comments at least once.

The findings, spotted by Wall Street Journal, are certainly not watertight but represent one of the best attempts so far to assess the real popularity of such services in China.

Sina Weibo is believed to be the country’s largest microblogging platform with the company last month claiming that it had 503 million registered users at the end of 2012.

Despite being heavily censored, Sina Weibo and rival services from the likes of Tencent, Sohu and others are often lauded for their ability to effect genuine social change and for allowing – to a limited extent – the free flow of online information in one of the world’s most regulated socities.

While the report doesn’t necessarily contradict this – after all many of those ‘inactive’ users may still be observing the conversations happening on the service – it does seem to indicate that discourse flowing across the site is controlled by a very small percentage of users.

If 57.4 per cent of the entire Sina Weibo user base were not to contribute, this would only leave around 214m active users on the site as of the end of December. Ironically, that’s around the same number of actives as Twitter – which also claims to have passed 500m registered users – says it has.

As Sina Weibo and its rival microblog operators get more serious about implementing the government mandated real-name registration rules, there may be a shake-out of zombie and other inactive accounts that would make a big difference to future research of this sort. ®

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