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In July 2009, the Chinese government banned its netizens from accessing Twitter. One month later, an alternative social networking site called Sina Weibo appeared in China. Today, Sina Weibo has more than 140 million users in China, almost as many as Twitter has in the rest of the world combined.

Despite its popularity, Sina Weibo is more or less unknown in the west. That has presented Louis Yu and buddies at the Social Computing Lab at HP Labs in Palo Alto with an opportunity.

They point out that while Twitter and other social networking sites have been extensively studied, nobody has looked at the pattern of posts on Sina Weibo.

Given the influence of the Chinese government over activities on the web, it’s possible that the behaviour of users there are entirely different to those in the west. So Yu and co decided to find out.

One problem, of course, is to collate and analyse data from Sina Weibo, which does not have a search API like Twitter’s.

However, Sina Weibo does publish a real time feed of its current most popular keywords. So the HP team monitored the list every hour for 30 days, extracting each new keyword as it appeared, some 4411 of them.

For each new keyword, they then looked for the most retweeted tweets and compiled a list of the most retweeted users. In this way, they worked out the top 20 trend setters on Sina Weibo.

They then compared this to the trend setters and the most popular keywords on Twitter.

The differences were profound. While Twitter trends are generally based on current events, Sina Weibo trends are made up almost entirely of jokes images and videos.

What’s more, the huge majority of activity on Sina Weibo is retweeting, rather than original posting. During the HP study, the top retweeted user on Sina Weibo posted 37 tweets. These were retweeted 1,194,999 times!

“The overall retweet percentage was around 62% for the trending topics. In contrast, for Twitter trends, the retweets form only 31% of the overall tweets,” say the HP team.

Just as in the west, a few users are hugely influential in all of this but it’s hard to know who they are.

Sina Weibo allows two types of tweeter. First, there are verified users whose identifies are known, such as celebrities, magazines and broadcasters. Then there are unverified users whose identifies are not known.

Only 3 of the top 20 users in China are verified, which raises the question of who these influential users really are. Yu and co plan to study the behaviour of these users in future.

So what to make of all this. The key feature that stands out is that news is essentially absent as a social networking force in China, at least on Sina Weibo.

That’s a powerful indictment.

Ref: What Trends in Chinese Social Media

Update 22 July 2011

One of the authors of this paper sends us the following quote (via a PR agency):

“”It is important to note that the differences in behavior between the two user bases are relative and not absolute,” says Bernardo Huberman, director of HP’s Social Computing lab. “The study doesn’t suggest that news-sharing does not occur on Sina Weibo, because it certainly does. However, our experiment does show that this type of behavior was relatively less common than on Twitter during the trial period.”

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