Twitter’s website doesn’t work in China. It’s been placed outside of China’s great fire wall along with Facebook, Youtube, numerous blogging platforms, and potentially Google. But, Twitter’s founders, Jack Doresy and Evan Williams, are optimistic. They see a Twitter.cn in the near future. In fact, they promised one.
Doresy, in a recent ReadWriteWeb panel discussion in New York, stated that he hopes to start a Chinese Twitter once the company can iron out design and legal questions after being pressured by Chinese artist and social activist, Ai Weiwei. Ai was rightly skeptical throughout the conversation. Ai argued that social media, while akin to “air and water” in the West, is restricted, limited, or banned in China. He hoped that Twitter could get around China’s firewall and also offer a translating service that would allow Chinese users to read tweets from around the world.
Ai stated that 140 characters, Twitters maximum tweet length, might give Chinese officials pause, because it would allow China’s netizens more room to talk and express themselves. 140 Chinese characters can say more than 10 or so English words paired with a shortened link.
Did Twitter’s Leadership Promise the Impossible?
Even when Myspace, Facebook, and the rest were easily accessible in China they weren’t even near competing with China’s own social networks like TenCent, the parents of China’s popular QQ sites. In fact, TenCent is the most valuable social network worldwide, with over a $1 billion dollars in revenue. Compare that with Twitter’s small band of 25 million users.
China’s 384 million netizens don’t need Twitter in the same way you don’t need another social media site to update. They already have their favorite social networking sites bookmarked and backlogged. While Twitter’s worldwide scope and real time news might appeal to social activists like Ai Weiwei it certainly won’t have the same draw to users in China who already use similar platforms.
If Twitter does get its foot in China, it would be pressed to limit search results much like Yahoo and Google do now. Twitter’s international scope would have to be pared down and filtered, giving the platform no real edge over its Chinese competitors. Having a Twitter account in China would be like having a really fast car without having a license.
Earlier this month at SXSW Twitter Co-founder Evan Williams said, “The Internet is a tidal wave that is going to be impossible for anyone to keep out.” He went on to say, “In places like China it is hard to say how long those firewalls will be able to hold up.”
Like his partner Doresy, Williams seems to share the same misconceptions about jumping into China. It’s not just a question of ironing out legal problems and making a new website. China’s firewall isn’t a joke that will inevitably fall and crumble in the face of web services that can be easily copied. While mainly acting as a large censor, China’s firewall is also a tool that protects Chinese businesses and encourages Chinese web development. It’s not simply a censorship device–it’s a form of protectionism. China is helping its internet businesses and services compete with Silicon Valley. China’s firewall isn’t necessarily viewed as a bad thing or an annoying road block by Chinese netizens.
Promising The Impossible
Twitter’s promise to enter the Chinese market is well intentioned, but it will require a lot of work and a lot of compromises. Not only will they have to juggle legal and governmental negotiations, but they’ll be forced to compete with a huge network of established social media companies. Even if Twitter does launch in China, there’s a chance that it will be severely white-washed or limited. Twitter might have promised the impossible.