Sina Weibo of China: From a Copycat to a Local Uptake of a Global Technology Assemblage

Sina Weibo of China: From a Copycat to a Local Uptake of a Global Technology Assemblage

Huatong Sun (Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, University of Washington Tacoma, Tacoma, WA, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/ijskd.2013100103
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In this essay the author presents an expanded genre view to examine global diffusion of interactive technologies in this increasingly globalized world. Through an analysis of its generic features, the author explores how Sina Weibo, a technology considered as a copycat of a Western technology, arises as a local uptake in a discourse of global technology diffusion. In studying its struggle and resistance, the author shows how a local uptake is shaped by the implicit value and ideology of the technology it imitates from. Meanwhile, this diffusion process is also a process of enacting the emergent structure of local technology use. The dynamic and dialogical structuring process behind genre formation worldwide manifests the complex interactions of technology and culture in our contemporary conditions.
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At the night of July 23, 2011, two high-speed passenger trains had a rear-end collision in eastern Zhejiang province of China. Four cars from the front train called Harmony derailed and fell off from an elevated bridge, killing 38 people and injuring more than 200. It so happened that I was visiting my parents who lived two hours away from the site of the accident. After I heard the news from TV, my first reaction was to use VPN (Virtual Private Network) to scale “the Great Firewall of China”—a system of Internet censorship ran by the Chinese government that blocks access to the websites with sensitive political information—to assess what was happening from the overseas media. My past experiences told me that the state media of China tend to cover this type of accidents. I also opened a browser window to follow posts on Sina Weibo, a popular social media service that was perceived as a Chinese copycat of Twitter by many Western observers.

What was happening on Sina Weibo was remarkable. I saw pictures of passengers trapped inside trains at dark night, derailed car dangling off the bridge, mighty tractors crushing mangled cars on the ground to bury the wreckage on site and therefore cover up the tragedy, and so on. I witnessed personal reports from miserable passengers and their concerned relatives. I read poignant and often witty commentaries about the Railway Ministry and the government, circulated among Weibo users—thanks for the unique feature of rich media invented by Sina, Weibo users were able to post much longer posts than 140 characters in a picture format. For the first time, I did not want to scale the Great Firewall to get truthful information as the depth and authenticity of news coverage from overseas media was hard to compete with the immediacy of the first-hand information and pictures posted by common Chinese users. Indeed a Sina Weibo user in one of those two trains broke the news first on the site.

I was not alone: Many Chinese citizens devoured the information about the accident on Sina Weibo as earnestly as I did. As time passed, the informed public got more and more upset about the ways the Railway Ministry handled the accident and eschewed their responsibilities. People were agitated and furious when the spokesman used bureaucratic rhetoric to diminish the consequences of the accident at the first press conference 26 hours after the collision. Almost 10 million pieces of online criticisms were posted during the following five days (Anti, 2012), ultimately resulting in a reversed official stance and a more thorough investigation.

The above episode sounds like another Twitter-like success story after Arab Spring. However, at the time when Egyptian activists are still fighting for democracy and freedom on the Tahrir Square two years after the so-called Twitter revolution, a new policy issued by the highest court of China this fall rules that a message of online rumor and slander “forwarded more than 500 times or read more than 5,000 times could earn convicted offenders up to three years in prison” (Buckley, 2013). As a result, hundreds of “outspoken” Chinese microblogs users were detained (ibid). In both cases, the phenomenon of the social media revolution and its aftermath clearly shows the complicacy of technology diffusion and use characterized by local cultural, political, and sociotechnical conditions. A simplistic view that celebrates the instrumentality of a social media technology would be too hasty and naïve here.

With the fast development of digital networks in the age of globalization, emerging technology use practices in one locale have been diffusing rapidly across the globe. During the last two decades, we have seen the global expansion of new technology use practices such as instant messaging, text messaging, blogging, social network services, and microblogging. The emergence and arising of Sina Weibo takes place in this wide context. This essay examines the genre formation process of Sina Weibo as an answer to the call raised by Coakes (2012) to understand “the essence of technology and its impact on us.” It follows the discussion of the special issue of “What do we mean by technology?” (2012).

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