This is part one in a series exploring the impact of Weibo on China's shared cultural experience.
In August, the leading Chinese microblogging service Weibo released its second quarterly financial report. Boasting $146.9 million in net revenue and 282 million monthly active users, the company’s seventh year of operation marked its transformation from a real-time news and information platform to a social network based more on personal interest.
Weibo has found its route to success despite competition with multiple other social media apps and platforms. Crucially, the rise of China’s ubiquitous messaging app WeChat has not spelled the end for Weibo, as predicted by some a few years ago.
Weibo’s resilience and vitality can be attributed to the way it navigates user demand in the digital age. It both satisfies our desire for instant gratification via continuous information updates and plays on our anxiety that what represents the “here and now” may so easily be cast into the abyss of irrelevance. The tension that this creates, between what we should remember and what we may forget, defines our shared memories in the digital age. It is in this space that Weibo has taken root.
As a reflection of human memory, Weibo has been shaped by its earlier strategy of branding itself as a news platform. As a result, it has become a favored platform for journalists and media outlets. As their role is to document current events and, frequently, to draw attention to their historical parallels, these users’ Weibo activity grants them the authority to remind the public at large what they should remember and how they should process the present.
For example, Weibo was a key medium through which Chinese web users understood the 2011 Japanese earthquake. As the devastating effects of the disaster became apparent — first the earthquake, then the tsunami, and finally the ongoing Fukushima nuclear crisis — on-site journalists were quick both to share their personal views of events, and to broaden public knowledge of them in China, whether through comparisons with the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province or through archival footage of previous nuclear disasters at Chernobyl or Hiroshima. In doing so, they also provided Chinese society with valuable lessons on information transparency, good journalistic practice, and the wherewithal for responding to moments of crisis and emergency.
Weibo’s role is not restricted to shaping memories of our age. Since its launch in 2009, Weibo has ushered in an era of weiguan, or “spectating” — a word that carries connotations of standing around in a group and observing events as they unfold. On Weibo, users are able to “gather around,” record, and publicly express their reactions to their surroudings.
One way that the weiguan phenomenon manifests itself is through the processes of mourning and commemoration. Digital media allows people to express grief and condolence in the public sphere, and with greater convenience. Following the tragic disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in 2014, the names of those missing were circulated alongside messages of condolence and symbolic emojis. Similar behavior was observed last year following both the Tianjin explosion and the capsizing of a cruise ship on the Yangtze River.
Through online posting and circulation of such content, Weibo ensures that online commemoration becomes conventionalized and ritualistic. The loss and sorrow of individual friends and family are now publicly shared, mourned, and processed. Leaving aside questions about the authenticity of users’ reactions, we can see that their grief can quickly become the grief of a nation.
The real-time commemoration of what is happening right here, right now inevitably demands that we invoke past stories. Similarly, on Weibo we see how the meaning of the past can change over time. When the Chinese women’s volleyball team won gold at the Rio Olympics this year, Weibo was flooded with victorious messages of commemoration. Yet the athletes’ ascension to the pinnacle of their sport provided ample context to revisit a deeper theme of team spirit that had been associated with Chinese Olympians since the all-conquering volleyball team of the early 1980s.
This year, as it did over 30 years ago, party mouthpiece People’s Daily led the celebrations — this time most notably on Weibo. Back in the ’80s, the success of the women’s volleyball team was lauded as a microcosm of a China eager to reform, modernize, and compete. This time, as moments of glory and failure during the past three decades were repeatedly shared, they became an opportunity for the public to think over more specific questions in Chinese sport, such as the relationship between sport and nationalism, the professional values of individual players and coaches, and the lessons other Chinese sports teams can learn from the Olympic champions.
With Weibo connecting hundreds of millions of users daily, discussing the past is no longer solely the domain of a small circle of experts and amateur historians. As past moments are rapidly circulated across a vast, interconnected user network, the collective rewriting and repurposing of current and historical events bring greater vibrancy to discussing the present moment.
In recording the key events of the past seven years, Weibo has given us a kaleidoscopic view of China’s rapidly changing society. While the information it circulates is inherently fragmentary and dispersed, it has still manage to forge connections between our present and our past, and has thereby shaped what we choose to remember and forget. As the platform continues to evolve — incorporating live streaming, among other tools — it is likely that new mediums of shared memory will emerge. Whatever those may be, they will form the building blocks for how we perceive a country in transition.
(Header image: The Sina Weibo app icon on the home screen of a mobile phone, Hong Kong, April 22, 2014. Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images/VCG)