The social media world just got a little more worldly, as China has unblocked Facebook and Twitter in Shanghai.
The Chinese government has reportedly lifted a ban on access to Facebook, Twitter and other foreign websites within the 30-square-kilometre Shanghai Free-Trade Zone. This is major news for social media users in the country who have since 2009 been prevented from directly accessing these tools, as the government considered them “politically sensitive.”
Although the ban wasn’t lifted across all of China, Shanghai is the biggest city in the world with over 23.7 million people. It is also the heart of China’s business and financial communities, both of which could benefit massively from new opportunities on Twitter and Facebook. The decision to lift the ban on these websites seems to be economically motivated, as the government is apparently looking to welcome more foreign companies and investors into China. They’re hoping having access to these popular sites will ease the transition of businesses and their employees into the country.
New Opportunities For Social Media Giants
This is good news for Facebook and Twitter for many reasons. For one Chinese netizens made an impressive $160 billion worth of online transactions last year (not as much as American netizens, but getting there).
Plus, it opens up an entire new market of individual and business clients. This is especially important for Facebook, which lost users for the first time in its nine-year history in 2012 (down a menial 1.4 million U.S. monthly active users mind you, but the loss carries some symbolic importance for the giant).
Social networks based in North America need to attract new markets if they’re going to maintain any type of expansion. Social media use in the U.S. leveled off last year, growing an estimated 6.8% in 2012. This followed several years of double-digit growth, and the trend is expected to continue downwards with fewer and fewer residents not already on social media.
China for its part is headed in the opposite direction. The country’s social media user base grew to 19.9% in 2012. Almost half of the 1.3 billion residents of China are estimated to be online and on social networks.
Local Networks Rule in China
Dozens of homegrown networks have long filled the place of American alternatives. China is one of only 10 countries where Facebook isn’t the most popular social network. QQ, an instant messaging platform started in 1999, claims some 800 million monthly active users. But a new range of popular networking sites, many controlled by parent company Tencent Holdings, are now capturing the attention of China’s socially savvy citizens.
WeChat, launched in 2011, is a mobile platform that combines instant messaging and video calls with photo sharing and status updates. In less than three years, the network has already attracted 190 million monthly active users, a base that makes it competitive with Twitter. And it’s still growing at 25 million users per month.
Tencent Weibo, with 277 million active monthly users, is another Chinese social network that can’t be ignored (especially because it fuses the functionalities of Twitter and Facebook). Then there is is Sina Weibo, a similar microblogging service with 287 million monthly active users, including 25% of Fortune 500 companies.
The rise of these local networks is significant as it represents a trend in many parts of the world outside of North America. In India, the social media user base grew by about 51.7% last year, Indonesia 51.6%, Russia 11.1% and Latin America 16.3%. Much of this, at least in the case of the latter two regions, can be attributed to networks created within the countries themselves.
But nowhere is it more true than in China, where the local giants of social media haven’t really had to compete with censorship, and therefore with the likes of Twitter and Facebook. With that on the verge of changing, it will be interesting to see whether the homegrown social networks can keep a stranglehold on Chinese users. Batten down the hatches, Facebook and Twitter are coming.