WeChat, a text messaging service from Tencent, has begun to set its sights beyond China. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)
One of the ways to think about China's Internet is as a Bizarro version of the World Wide Web. Facebook and Twitter are banned, but social networking sites like Sina Weibo and Kaixinwang operate freely. Instead of YouTube, there is Youku Tudou. And while Google does operate in China -- albeit intermittently -- the Chinese company Baidu dominates the search engine market. A foreign observer of the Chinese internet might conclude, to paraphrase Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction: "They've got the same stuff there that we do here, it's just ... a little bit different."
This so-called "Chinese intranet" though is a relatively new phenomenon; Facebook and Twitter only became firewalled following the Iranian protests of 2009, the same year that Sina launched its Twitter-like Weibo service. And while censorship is a major reason why Western social media services remain behind the Great Firewall, it isn't an accident that their absence has allowed domestic competitors to grow.
Of all the Chinese social media products to join the market in the last few years, none has had as great an effect as Sina's Weibo. Presenting a (relatively) unfettered space for speech, Weibo has intrigued foreign observers with its irreverent discussions of sensitive issues. In just four years, the site has attracted over 500 million members, more than the population of all but two countries in the world.
For all its success, though, Weibo has confined itself to China; Until this year, when Sina introduced an English-language version and allowed users to login via Facebook, Weibo made virtually no effort to expand to foreign market and focused instead on recruiting users from within China. Given the country's large population -- and still-modest level of internet penetration -- this strategy makes sense; there are still plenty of people in China who don't use Weibo.
On the other hand, new research suggests that Sina may have to re-think its strategy: Weibo seems to have peaked in popularity. A recent survey by the tracking service WeiboReach released this month revealed that user activity has dropped by more than 30 percent from its peak last October. Part of this decline is due to government policy -- Beijing has passed laws demanding real name registration on Weibo, deterring would-be users who valued the service's privacy. But another issue is the rise of a rival service, Tencent's WeChat, which first launched in late 2011.
Similar to the text messaging service WhatsApp -- with elements of Instagram and Skype tossed in -- WeChat has accumulated over 300 million users in its first two years by embracing an entirely different strategy from Weibo: going after the international market head on. Unlike Weibo, which released an English-language web version only this year, WeChat is available in 18 languages and has already produced a Spanish-language advertisement featuring the Argentinian soccer star Lionel Messi. Tencent is planning to establish an office in the United States and has already recruited Nike and Starbucks, among other major brands, to interact with customers on the service. While few outside of China use Sina Weibo, WeChat already has 70 million non-Chinese users -- almost a fourth of its overall total.
Despite its drop in user activity, it's too early to dismiss Weibo. As Beijing-based media consultant Jeremy Goldkorn told me, Weibo is "still massive, very popular, and still the most active and powerful platform for public expression in China today." It's worth noting, too, that Weibo and WeChat aren't necessarily competitors -- the two services have different functions, and given their huge subscriber bases within China, many people must use both. But it's hard to escape the sense that WeChat has, as Goldkorn says, "taken the wind out of Weibo's sails."
In the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of social media, WeChat has a long way to go before it can supplant Weibo's reputation as China's "it' service. But by focusing on the international market, WeChat has upended the industry and also challenged the stereotype that Chinese brands cannot compete abroad. It doesn't want to just be the hot new Chinese Internet fad -- it wants to be the hot new Internet fad that happens to be Chinese.
Whether or not WeChat succeeds remain to be seen. But the early returns are promising. Speaking to Network World, tech consultant Duncan Clark had this to say about it:
"If you didn't know WeChat was from China, you wouldn't be aware of that fact. It has transcended its Chinese-ness."
Other Chinese companies are surely taking notice.
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Matt Schiavenza is the senior content manager at the Asia Society and a former contributing writer for The Atlantic.