According to new Chinese regulations going into affect on March 16th, all weibo (microblog) users in China will be required to register their real identities to continue posting weibo messages. With the pace of new user signups already slowing, there are predictions that Sina and Tencent, the two major weibo services in China, will see a significant drop in the number of users once we reach the deadline and that this will severely limit what has become a relatively open platform for speech in China.
I, like many others, expect the registration requirement to significantly slow the rate of growth of new accounts on both of these services. But what does this really mean? Right now there are an untold number of “zombie users”, those created by companies or individuals to increase the number of followers they have. With the new requirements, if they are enforced, the number of “zombie users” would be significantly reduced (although, my understanding is that people will still be able to register for “read-only” accounts, so I’m not sure this will solve the “zombie” problem). So while real users may be slightly more hesitant to sign-up for these services, my guess is that, although the rate of growth in the number of accounts will slow, the rate of growth of real users will not slow significantly.
So what does this mean for startups?
Weibo, like Twitter in the US, is a great way for entrepreneurs to engage their users as they bring their idea to market and continue nurturing their business through the ups and downs of life as a startup. Weibo, for those inclined towards Social Media, keeps users engaged and brings them along for the ride. While some entrepreneurs may have used “zombie users” to bolster their follower numbers in the past, with the new regulations they won’t be able to do this as easily. So that probably means they’ll have to work a bit harder to get those first users to follow them and repost their messages. They’ll have to engage those users more and not rely on sheer numbers. But it’s not like the “zombies” were going to provide them with ad revenue, so the direct affect on the entrepreneurs should be limited.
Therefore, despite possibly having to do a little more legwork, I don’t think the affect on entrepreneurs will be significant unless we see a mass migration away from weibo in China. And the chances of that seem pretty low since there aren’t many other outlets for Chinese citizens. In my conversations with a few individuals who are heavy weibo users I have learned that, at least from my admittedly small sample of users, if everyone else registers then they will register as well. So, as long as the tipping point is reached, everyone will just register and it won’t be a big deal. However, if we don’t quite reach that tipping point, it may mean there is an opening for an entrepreneur with an interesting way to get around the registration requirement.