Local Chinese Social Networks Outstripping Facebook, Twitter

Repeated censorship of foreign-owned social networks like Twitter and Facebook by the Chinese government may be a large part of the reason that local Chinese networks are gaining in popularity among the millions of internet users in the country. Along with the recent threat by Google to pull its search from China altogether, there are indicators that Chinese internet users will be isolated from the networks and websites that European and North American users access most.

The demand for online connections in China is apparent: social video site Youku, Facebook-like site Kaixin, and instant messaging service QQ have seen a surge in popularity over the past year alone, with Youku experiencing a five-fold growth in its revenue over last year, bringing in the equivalent of 29 million dollars in 2009. Twitter, Facebook, and Google are not doing as well in this massive market, however.

Chinese web surfers appear to prefer their home-grown fare, as exemplified by search-giant Google’s failure to gain significant market share in China. At the end of last year, Google had only made inroads of about 17% of the search engine market share, dwarfed by the local Baidu’s 77%, according to CNNMoney.com.

The reason for the lack of popularity of Google, Facebook, and Twitter could be government censorship. There have been several reports of spotty access or complete disconnection from these social networks from within China, a noted case being the July 2009 censorship of Twitter, Flikr and other online sharing websites to prevent citizens from discussing the Tiananmen killings on the 20th anniversary of the events. This censorship could be part of a government effort to suppress dissent and combat the power of the free exchange of information that these websites offer, while at the same time make local social networks, which would be easier to control, more appealing.

The social, political, and financial implications of a closed-off China are huge. Aside from questionable government policies of censorship and restricting citizens’ rights, the Chinese method of isolating its market from foreign access could prove to restrict the growth of social networking giants in the West. There have been complaints of inadequate translations and interface barriers cited as possible reasons for the lack of widespread Chinese use of Twitter, Facebook and other social networks, but it is not clear if even a website tailored for the Chinese experience created by a foreign company could achieve success in an economy so dominated by state-run and -supported industry.