Yesterday, I downloaded and signed up for the Chinese social media app Weibo. I’d call it the Chinese Twitter to give some perspective, but they hate it when Americans do that. But now that I’m here, I really don’t know what to do next.
A little background: Weibo (微博), which literally means “microblog” in Mandarin Chinese, is a massive social network with more than 503 million users. On Weibo, users can post text, photos, videos, blogs and GIFs; as well as reviews of music, movies, food, books, hotels and businesses (I think)—and exchange money.
I’d heard of Weibo briefly before downloading it, but what snagged my interest was a Buzzfeed article about a man who lost his phone, discovered that someone in China had his stolen phone, connected with this person on Weibo, traveled to China and subsequently made a new best friend. I think the notion of connecting with someone on the other side of the globe so intimately appealed to me—I love that about technology. Plus, I took a year of Mandarin in college and I miss what little understanding of the language I had, so I thought, “Why not?” I downloaded the app.
Signing up for the service was a challenge in and of itself. Though the app did a decent job detecting my phone’s language and providing prompts in English, explanations throughout the process were delivered in Mandarin, and I was pretty much relegated to guessing my way through the process based on my experience signing up for other apps. When my confirmation text message wouldn’t come through, Weibo sent me an email (I think) providing me alternative validation methods…completely in Mandarin. I clicked the blue links and green buttons like a mouse in a maze, and eventually I got an exclamation point and full access to the app. So I think I signed up correctly.
Since I’ve been using the app, I’ve seen all types of content. I’ve seen GIFs of pandas mating. Videos of dance classes. Photos of a beautiful plaza. Even a collection of Martin Luther King, Jr. images and an excerpt from his “I Have a Dream” speech.
I’ve also shared a few pieces of meaningless content: a blurb about music I was listening to, photos from a dinner I cooked, my excitement about visiting my sister in May. (Funnily enough, my post with the most views is the one I wrote in English.) I’ve followed the accounts of 35 people I know nothing about; I’ve liked and commented on posts; I’ve replied to what I’m sure are automated private messages. It all functions essentially the same as any other social media app I’ve ever used—but I’m still lost.
Why do I have a gray “VIP” badge next to my name? What are these games available through the app? Who are these people with tens of millions of followers? And what is everyone saying?
I think Weibo could be a great tool for connecting cultures—maybe even for sharing and learning language. I’d love for it to be a social media pen pal system of sorts if I can manage it. But that will require me to make more connections within the app. As of the writing of this post, I’ve built a total following of 3.
I’m betting I lose interest in about a week. I tried and promptly gave up on social networks like This. and Ello, and they’re in English. Still…I could surprise myself. For now, I’ll enjoy scrolling through the feeds of a language I don’t understand and imagining what the competent users on the other end are thinking.