WHAT do you get for the pampered western celebrity who thinks they have everything? A weibo, of course. A what? A weibo, stupid! Pronounced way-bore, weibo is Chinese for "microblog", and is often referred to as the Twitter of the East. In China, the most popular of the many weibos available to the country’s 500 million internet users is Sina Weibo, a social networking phenomenon that had 368 million registered users at the last count, between them posting an impressive 100 million messages a day.
And celebrities, ever keen to capitalise on new markets that their own Twitter feeds can’t reach (the site, along with Facebook, is banned by the Great Firewall of China), have taken to it like ducks to water. The latest to “weibo” is Brad Pitt, who signed up on Monday and posted a message that read: “It is the truth. Yup, I’m coming.” This was surprising on a couple of levels: first, Pitt is said to have been prohibited from entering China after he starred in the 1997 film Seven Years in Tibet. Second, and perhaps most importantly, Pitt has got a Sina Weibo account before he’s even opened a Twitter one.
The importance of a weibo cannot be underestimated. The most populated country in the world has always been a tough nut to crack, what with language constraints, cultural differences and the small matter of state-controlled media. But the introduction of weibos in 2009 – allowed by the government as an alternative to Twitter – has changed all of that. What the state could not have foreseen is that the weibo would one day become even more powerful than Twitter. Though the US website has just over 500 million users, the astonishing growth of Sina Weibo means that it is expected to overtake.
Today, everyone from Justin Bieber to Harry Potter actress Emma Watson has a weibo. Radiohead, previously critical of China’s human rights record, have a Sina account. Tom Cruise has more than five million followers on the site. Even Paris Hilton is a user, posting such inane messages as: “Just finished getting my hair cut. I haven’t had my hair short in such a long time! Loves it.”
It isn’t only celebrities. Bill Gates has 3.27 million followers on Sina, while Coca-Cola, Unilever and Louis Vuitton are all using the social networking site to reach new customers. “If you want to be big in China,” says Jon Hoel, of social media agency We Are Social, “then you have to be on Sina Weibo. Every major western company knows that it is the place to be right now if they want to build their brands overseas.”
It isn’t just the potential to reach oodles of new people that appeals to brands. Sina Weibo is also thought to be a better version of Twitter – “like Twitter on steroids,” as Hoel describes it. Each message allows you 140 characters, but because Chinese characters have more meaning than English ones, a weibo post tends to be the equivalent of three and a half tweets. “You can open up more of a conversation on it,” adds Hoel. “It is like a mixture of Twitter and Facebook.”
And Sina Weibo tends to be one step ahead of the government, with China’s “netizens” – citizens of the net – using it to circumvent censorship. They deploy cunning puns to get around banned words, and last year exposed a corrupt local government official who was photographed grinning at the scene of a traffic accident that had killed 36 people. Political commentator Li Datong told a British newspaper that: “Weibo has reduced the authorities’ credibility to the point that, whatever they say, people will say they are lying.”
How do you get on to Sina Weibo? With a very good grasp of Mandarin.
Of course, most celebrities don’t have that, so they turn to companies like FansTang, co-founded by Adam Roseman, a Los Angeles businessman who provides fame-hungry celebs with the chance to cast their nets ever further. FansTang posts in Mandarin on behalf of stars such as Disney sensation Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber. The rest of us will just have to wait for the English-language version of the site, which is thought to be in the pipeline. You have been warned.
Bryony Gordon, Telegraph.co.uk