Sina boosts microblog in social network push

Sina Corp is testing a new version of its popular microblogging service in China with features of a full-blown social network, in a push to transform itself into a combination of Twitter and Facebook, which are blocked under the country’s pervasive internet censorship system.

The company started testing Weibo 4.0, the latest version of China’s dominant microblogging service, among “several hundred users” on Thursday, Sina spokesman Liu Qi told the Financial Times. However, Sina said the launch could be several months away.

Sina launched Weibo in August 2009 as a simple Twitter clone, but Charles Chao, chief executive, has said in the past that he intends to develop Weibo into a more fully fledged social network.

According to testers, the new edition features a column on the left – similar to the Facebook interface – where comments and direct or repeated messages appear. It also gives users more choice in whom they want to share their content with, offering different privacy options.

At present, individual pictures are only shown as they are uploaded, resembling Twitter, but Weibo 4.0 users can create and organise photo albums.

They can also share content by attaching files to messages. This mirrors Renren, China’s largest social networking service, which listed in New York earlier this year and could feel new pressure from Sina’s push, which highlights the fierce competition between the country’s internet companies for loyal users.

Alibaba Group, China’s largest e-commerce company, launched its own mobile operating system on Thursday, for which a phone made by local brand K-Touch will go on sale at the end of the month.

While Baidu, the country’s largest internet search engine, commands the largest traffic, it is still experimenting with social tools. It recently launched its own browser, mirroring Google.

Tencent has been successful selling services such as online games and virtual worlds to the users of its QQ instant messaging tool, but its attempts to expand this dominance into other areas such as search and e-commerce have been less smooth.

With more than 140m registered users, Weibo is believed to be neck-and-neck with Tencent’s microblog, but Weibo users are more loyal and active, making them the main trendsetters in China’s cyberspace.

However, observers believe its success in social networking is not guaranteed because existing social networks have all the features that Weibo is now adding.

“The question is, will Weibo users migrate more of their online lives to Weibo as a one-stop shop?” said Bill Bishop, a Beijing-based investor. “If Sina can achieve [that], then the stock has [a long] way to run. If not, it is probably not cheap.”

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