On Nanjing Road, the home of flagship stores like Apple and Coach, it’s hard to miss the giant Nike billboard that covers the façade of an entire building.
A familiar Nike swoosh, “Air Max,” and then “Air,” are prefaced and followed by # symbols. To social media users who now comprise almost 300 million Chinese, this billboard serves as a prompt to search #Air# in Sina Weibo, which will return any results mentioning the Nike Air product.
In many ways, the prominence of #Air# in an advertisement on Shanghai’s busiest shopping street mirrors the prominence of social media in Chinese culture. China already has far more Internet users than any other country, with 564 million of its citizens hooked up to the web. Despite heavy Internet censorship, almost 300 million are using social networks and microblogs to stay in touch with one another, share information and participate in e-commerce.
Microblogs, which translates to “weibo” in Chinese, are sites where users can publish short posts that are limited by a certain number of characters, typically 140 or less. These microblogging platforms are distinct from social networks, like Ren Ren, which impose no limits on the number of available characters in a post.
“Nowadays, it seems like people can’t live without Weibo,” said Fu Yinfang, a 58-year-old Shanghai resident.
Weibo, a privately owned, uniquely Chinese site that has flourished in the face of government bans on access to Western sites like Twitter and Facebook, is still subject to government censorship.
“We have this censorship review system,” said Tracy Teng, a 26-year-old public relations specialist in Shanghai. “If you post something sensitive, it’ll be deleted and prevented from being reposted.”
In January, the Sina Weibo account @Geniune_Yu_Yang – believed to be the account of a Sina Weibo manager – publicly disclosed details about the censorship process at Sina Weibo. As explained in this post, the policy of the Sina Weibo managers is to remove certain flagged comments, with a specific warning that the only alternative to deleting a comment “is that your account will be banned.”
“People who air opinions on social networking sites are very displeased if the opinion is deleted,” said Wang Shaodi, a 38-year-old English teacher at Shanghai International Studies University. “One of my students said some words about the party and had them deleted, and he was very, very displeased.”
As Chinese students move to work or study in major cities in China or around the world, their parents are turning to microblogs and social networks as a modern way to connect with their children.
“Social media can facilitate older people connecting with their children who may be studying or working far away,” said Baohua Zhou, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai who studies media’s impact on political institutions. “It can increasingly help parents still living in rural areas to be able to connect with their children in urban areas.”
Yinfang Fu, 58, the mother of a graduate from Fudan University who moved to Singapore to study journalism, uses social media to connect with her daughter.
“In China, if you want to call someone abroad, you have to open an international account, and that’s not cheap,” Fu said.
Fu’s eyesight is poor, so she turned to Skype in order to keep in touch with her daughter. But that wasn’t her first choice.
“For us common people, the site QQ is very popular, especially among people whose kids have moved far away,” Fu said. “A lot of my friends use QQ to contact daughters or sons who have gone to study or work abroad.”
Beyond a means of keeping in touch, microblogs and social networks in China are used to share ideas.
“These are platforms where we can get diverse information, discuss things, learn from experts in other fields, and also maintain friendships,” Zhou said.
Social media in China also appears poised to capture the vast potential of advertising in a country that has established itself as an economic superpower with a rapidly expanding class of consumers.
Teng, the Shanghai public relations specialist, focuses on social media marketing at Citigate Dewe Rogerson, an international financial communications consultancy in China.
Teng uses social media platforms to coordinate advertisements and monitor what people are saying about her clients’ products.
According to a recent report by McKinsey & Co. about Chinese microblog and social media user trends, 30 percent of social media users “use social-media sites to learn about products and services that they want to purchase.”
“As e-commerce rises, a compelling opportunity for brands will be to prompt immediate purchases online by consumers searching for product information using social media,” the report says.
Given geographic trends in social media use, it makes sense that brands like Nike are employing social media terms in their ads in cities like Shanghai.
According to the same McKinsey & Co. report, which references a recent survey of 5,700 Internet users in China, 95 percent of those Internet users living in the large urban areas of Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou are registered on a social media site.
“Using social media requires time, money and computer skills, so wealthier people, particularly those living in urban areas, tend to use it more,” said Zhou, the Fudan professor studying new media.
According to a June 2012 study by University of Hong Kong professors King-wa Fu and Michael Chau, those who use microblogs or social media networks to comment on social injustices “seem to comprise a tiny portion of the overall microblog environment.”
That number could grow if censorship loosens. Until then, Chinese citizens will continue to use social media mainly to keep in touch with one another, consume and share information, and participate in e-commerce.
“In coming years, I think (Weibo) will become much more popular, although who knows?” Zhou said. “I’m sure there will be something new after Weibo.”