Social media has exploded in popularity in China – HP’s launch of a Chinese-language blog two weeks ago is just one indication. Still, scientists and sociologists around the world are only beginning to turn their attention towards understanding how these services are actually being used.
Adding to this nascent body of research, a paper published today by HP Labs delivers new insights into the content-sharing preferences of users on Chinese microblogging service Sina Weibo.
The paper, titled “What Trends in Chinese Social Media,” [PDF] highlights HP’s unique approach to data analysis and follows a series of recent announcements about the company’s investments in the areas of cloud computing, R&D and social media in China.
Why study social media in China?
As the country with the largest number of Internet-connected citizens (420 million as of June 2010 [pdf]), the rise of social media in China has been particularly explosive.
For example, Sina Weibo -- a Chinese microblogging site similar to Twitter -- has already amassed over 140 million users as of May 2011, nearly all of whom are located inside China and post in the Chinese language.
One of the principal tasks of the Social Computing research group at HP Labs is to create software analytics and algorithms that can add meaningful context to the huge data sets produced by those millions of social media users.
For example, in 2010 the Social Computing team introduced an algorithm that ranks Twitter users according to their influence. This algorithm has a number of applications, from spam filtering or advertising targeting to recommending what users to follow.
Key takeaways from the research
For their experiment, HP scientists examined the topics that are most popular on Sina Weibo during a 30-day period and compared them to previous findings from research on Twitter. According to the paper’s authors, Louis Yu, Sitaram Asur, and Bernardo Huberman, there are significant differences in the content shared in China, when compared to a global social network such as Twitter:
- In China, people tend to use Sina Weibo to share entertainment-type content such as jokes, images, and videos, and a significantly large percentage of posts are “retweets” (a re-posting of another user’s tweet). The trends that are formed are almost entirely caused by retweets of this kind of content.
- In contrast, prior HP research shows that trending topics on Twitter have more to do with current events than entertainment and that the effect of retweets is not as large (although it is still substantial).
- There are more unverified accounts among the top 100 trend-setters on Sina Weibo than on Twitter, and most of the unverified accounts feature discussion forums for user-contributed videos, images, and humor.
“It is important to note that the differences in behavior between the two user bases are relative and not absolute,” says Bernardo Huberman, director of HP’s Social Computing lab. “The study doesn’t suggest that news-sharing does not occur on Sina Weibo, because it certainly does. However, our experiment does show that this type of behavior was relatively less common than on Twitter during the trial period.”
The paper also includes a brief history of social media in China and illustrates key differences in how Sina Weibo and Twitter work.
Future plans for researching Chinese social media
The HP Labs researchers responsible for this research are already planning to build on this initial work, as demand for social media analytics in China is sure to continue to grow.
“This paper is just the beginning,” adds Huberman. “It is useful and interesting for us to understand at an aggregate level the type of content being shared on services like Sina Weibo, but we believe there is even more value for HP and our customers in understanding the flow of content among specific, influential individuals on the network.”
Find HP in social media…in China and around the world
HP on Sina Weibo: www.weibo.com/hpchina
China HP blog: www.hp.com.cn/hpchinablog
Follow the author of this post: @ethanbauley
Frequently asked questions about the research
Why are posts on Sina Weibo referred to as “tweets”?
On Sina Weibo, the act of “retweeting” is called “zhuanfa,” which actually means “retweet” in Chinese. Rather than defining “zhuanfa” in the paper, the authors chose to use this translation.
What is a “trending topic”?
Trending topics reveal popular themes from current discussions on a social network. Sina Weibo offers a list of 50 keywords that appear most frequently in users’ tweets over the past hour. They are ranked according to the frequency of appearances. Similarly, Twitter provides users a list of the top ten trending topics of the moment.
What is a “verified account”?
Both Twitter and Sina Weibo authenticate certain accounts, verifying the ownership and identity of the account holder. This authenticity is communicated to other users via a badge or other visual cue.