The reach of Weibo, the popular microblogging service majority owned by Chinese internet giant Sina, could be significantly smaller than the company has stated in the past, new research has found .
The Twitter-like microblogging platform has radically changed the way news is spread in China’s tightly censored media environment over the last half a decade, with photos of protests, star appearances and transgressions by officials often circulating within minutes among its millions of users.
Figuring out how many people actually use Weibo is a mammoth task: marketing companies have set up millions of zombie accounts to create fictional followings for celebrities or brands and millions of spam accounts generate automated messages.
About ten million users generated 94 per cent of all messages on Sina Weibo, according to one study by Fu King-wa, assistant professor at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, while some two hundred million other users mostly just “re-tweeted” those posts.
Fu set out to measure Weibo’s real usage by first establishing how many of its users actually post messages. He created an automated program that skimmed through tens of thousands of Weibo accounts to find out whether they had ever been used.
In 58.8 per cent of the accounts he surveyed, Fu found that no post existed as of January 3 this year.
If that ratio were true for all accounts, it would mean that roughly 300 million of a total of about 500 million Weibo accounts were empty. These skeleton accounts have either never been used to post messages or have had their posts deleted.
Fu then looked at the 208.7 million accounts which had posts. He found that almost all the posts, 93.8 per cent, originated from five per cent, or 10.4 million, of these accounts. The remaining 198.3 million users mostly re-shared these core users’ posts.
When Weibo, formerly known as Sina Weibo, filed for a listing on the Nasdaq stock exchange last week, it sparked a debate about the company’s user figures.
Finding a way to accurately estimate the number of Weibo users has become tantamount to an exercise in assessing the value of the soon-to-be stock.
The service, which once dominated microblogging in China, had to face competition for the first time from WeChat last year, a widely popular platform run by Tencent. Weibo aimed for a valuation of US$3.9 billion, according to its filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission last week.
In its filing, Weibo claimed that user figures were growing fast. The platform had 129.1 million monthly active users as of December last year, 33.5 per cent more than a year earlier, it said. The number of daily active users increased 36.1 per cent to 61.4 million, exceeding the population of Italy, according to the filing.
Fu noted that Weibo’s definition of active users was, however, questionable.
“They look at how many people are logged into their accounts once a month,” he said. “Being logged in, say on your phone, doesn’t mean you are actually using the service.”
According to state-run China Internet Information Centre, the number of microbloggers in China is decreasing. At the end of last year, microblog platforms had 281 million users, 9 per cent less than a year earlier. The group didn’t say how it arrived at this figure.
The company said in its filing that its value hinges on its continued popularity among internet users. “Our future revenue growth will depend on, among other factors, the popularity of social media as well as our ability to attract new users,” the filing read.
Twitter used a similar definition in its IPO filing in October last year and sparked a comparable debate about how many of its then 200 million monthly users – roughly the same as Brazil’s population – were actually active on the platform.
Other observers have pointed to a crackdown on marketing companies that created fictional Weibo accounts and followings to explain a fall in users.
In September last year, the Supreme People’s Court issued new guidelines for criminal prosecution over controversial posts. Anyone whose Weibo post was shared or re-shared by 500 people or viewed at least 5,000 times could face prosecution, China’s top judges ruled.
Some of the most outspoken commentators on Weibo with tens of millions of followers, such as venture capitalist Wang Gongquan and football commentator Li Chengpeng, have since been silenced as a result.
But some analysts say Weibo is undervalued. Henry Guo, an analyst with JG Capital Global Investment Research, expected the company to be valued at US$5 billion, according to an e-mail to clients. “Weibo is not replaceable by other social platforms like WeChat, which is based on strong relationship between users,” Guo wrote.
Sina’s investor relations office could not be reached for comment by phone on Tuesday and did not reply to an e-mailed request for comment.