Digital Journalism Review
PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 January, 2013, 3:47pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 January, 2013, 4:02pm

The myth of Chinese social media user numbers


Ivan Zhai is the Social Media Editor at the South China Morning Post. Prior to his current position, Ivan spent 10 years working for the Guangzhou-based 21st Century World Herald and in the Post's Guangzhou bureau, covering Chinese politics, macroeconomics and online communities. In 2008, Ivan won an Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship. He shares his findings and thoughts on digital media, cognitive neuroscience and China on Twitter and Chinese microblogs as @ivanzhai.

The China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC) released its 31st statistical report on country’s Internet development, which is the most important report by mainland authorities that huge number of investors, companies, research institutions and media outlets worldwide will have to rely on.

However, you might start doubting the reliability of the report by comparing just two simple figures published by CNNIC.

1. “By the end of 2012, China had 309 million Weibo users” -- Weibo refers Chinese Twitter-style social media site.

2. “By the end of 2012, China had 275 million social media users.”

So please clarify CNNIC that, does these numbers mean that you does not regard Weibo as “social media site”?

The second question is a bit complicated but also requires just basic math skills: according to the press releases by Sina and Tencent, top two Weibo service providers in China, the number of their Weibo user reached 300 million and 373 million by last March and May, respectively.

Given the numbers above, you might want to ask that, if there were only 309 million Weibo users in China by the end of last year and Tencent Weibo claimed it had 373 million users by May, Does that mean that Tencent Weibo users sharply dropped by 64 million in seven months?

And, obviously, each Tencent Weibo user must have an account on Sina Weibo as well, otherwise the total Weibo user number of two giants will be much bigger than CNNIC’s 309 million.

The result of such mess in calculating the number of “Weibo user”, or “social media user”, or whatever they like to call it, is that, more people outside China could be fooled unconsciously, while some others are joining the game of “Show-me-the-huge-number”.

For example, We Are Social, a global conversation agency, published stunning infographics on Thursday, in which it said “there are at least 597 million active Social Media users in China” and, as the infographics below show, “597 million” is in fact the number of Tencent’s Qzone active users.

(Wait a minute, Qzone has more users than the whole China internet users? This could only be possible if many Qzone users hold foreign passports but like to play on a Chinese social media site, or, many of Qzone users have more than one accounts.)

The post here is not about to accomplish the task that should be done by the best investigative reporters. It is just to raise a simple question that many Internet users might have: who should we believe? CNNIC? We Are Social? Sina and Tencent? Or none of them?




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