China used to have something quite similar to Twitter

Wednesday, January 13th, 2021

China used to have something quite similar to Twitter, Spandrell explains:

It started as an outright clone, later evolved on its own, quite interesting way. I’m talking of Weibo.

Weibo started in 2009, and a year later already had 100 million users. Chinese people are very online, and they very much enjoy the sort of casual, easy dopamine release that comes from microblogging. The Japanese are also avid Twitter users, incidentally, while they never had much of a blogosphere. The language also helps: 150 Chinese characters amount to about triple that in English, so you can say quite a lot.

As usual in China, there’s little regulations, and little enforcement of existing regulations, so once Weibo came in it was very free and open. It was the first national forum of public opinion that the Chinese had ever seen. It became huge almost instantly, and of course the most popular part of it was political debate. Everyone and their mother had become a political pundit on Weibo, rather amusingly forgetting they lived in a Communist single-party state. For a couple years people shat on their mayors, their governors, this or that politician, this or that policy, or even the Communist party itself. The American Embassy joined the party with their famous Air Quality reports (at the time air quality in China was really awful and the government refused to release figures), which were promptly retweeted by 300 million boomers with added comments on how much better America was at everything.

Well that situation couldn’t last. China was at the moment undergoing a rather big leadership transition (Xi Jinping assumed power in late 2012), so the massive agitation going on at Weibo went on undeterred. But governments, certainly the Chinese government, might be slow, but once they get moving they’re unrelenting. In 2013 China decided to crack down on free speech on Weibo, and crack down they did. Famous accounts which had been too edgy politically got visits by police, if not outright arrested. Some were jailed, others had to make public proclamations of loyalty to Socialist values. We’re talking of people with tens of millions of followers; China is a big country.

Once the big guys were dealt with pour encourager les autres, the masses were targeted with the beginning stages of what has now become a very sophisticated apparatus of keyword censorship. In Weibo today you just can’t search what you want. If there’s a rumor that Xi Jinping has farted this morning, the word “fart”, “frt”, “f4rt” and all permutations that might come up are all promptly banned from searching at any sizable Chinese social media. That’s step 1: stop the thing from going viral. Step 2 is deleting already existing mentions of the fart. The thing. That takes time but they have an army of censors (which Weibo was forced to hire at their expense) to take care of that. Step 3 is banning you from tweeting about the fart, but that’s a last resort, as it’s the most annoying and harder to implement.

Soon enough Weibo just became unusable. Most people up there were on the platform precisely to shitpost on politics, to be edgy, to shit on the government, to be a viral pundit, retweeted by 50 million people at least once in their lives. The new regulations were so oppressive that most people just left. Not to some other similar platform. There had been some at the beginning but they all lagged off and eventually were killed, and the government wouldn’t allow a new microblogging site. When Weibo was censored people just left, period. They abandoned the public square. They mostly retreated to WeChat, the national instant messaging app. Some didn’t get the message and started being edgy on their public statuses, but most just retreated to private chat groups, where they could be safe from the prying eyes of government. The public square was killed, on purpose, and it never recovered.

Well, not quite. After politics were banned from Weibo, only the most inane stuff was allowed to remain. Mostly celebrities and PR accounts, and the odd clueless boomer. But it’s been years now, so plenty of people who need an easy internet exposure but have no intention to talk politics are still on Weibo, many producing quite decent content. A lot of aspiring intellectuals have also learned what is politically correct and what not and have managed to survive. Plenty still get banned mercilessly after some innocent mishap though, as Carl Zha (by all indications a paid propagandist for the government) who lost 10 million followers after dissing some Chinese fighter jet or something. But the platform is lively again, if in a more boring, sanitized way. Half a generation of youngsters have grown up without knowing what legal shitposting was like, and so just don’t do it. You can’t miss what you’ve never known.

Now, America isn’t China, so there’s no guarantee that the situation will evolve in the same way. Maybe Parler or Gab manage to survive the multi-pronged assault by every single part of the tech stack, and they thrive as a hotbed of right wing activism. I don’t find it very likely though. I see Twitter becoming a sanitized platform where only government-approved speech is allowed, and most people will be fine with that. I’ll stay on Twitter if only to follow a bunch of academic linguists who I find interesting. Also Japanese Twitter has its charm, as Twitter censorship is much, much weaker in exotic languages.

So to recap: I think we should do what the Chinese did, which is retreat to private groups. So go to Telegram, to Urbit if you’re smart.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    As long as we rely on centralized sites we can be shut down. Distributed is the only way to go.

    DNS entries and IP addresses are not the only vulnerabilities. Even onion sites need hosting, and hosting can be shut down. Distributed store, everyone. Store and forward. Share and enjoy.

    Freenet almost freed us all. Good idea, bad implementation.

  2. bruce says:

    Anyone know an easy way to get into war-driving?

  3. Lu An Li says:

    “Anyone know an easy way to get into war-driving?”

    I think you can find various tools on the Internet for wardriving.

  4. szopen says:

    well, if we talk distributed, then fediverse (mastodon, pleroma, diaspora…) is better than gab or parler.

  5. Paul from Canada says:

    It is no coincidence that the UK based libertarian group blog SAMIZDATA is so named….

  6. Sam J. says:

    I really like this. Mesh net where no matter where you go your address can be reached. Only needs a few addresses to find al the other addresses because each address is structured like a tree. Everyone knows where they are so finding others is a matter of following the tree. The present internet requires a vast table of where addresses are because they are all not referenced to any one place. I still don’t understand how addresses relate to a persons ID so that it can be moved to a different location and still be found??? Probably have to read the documentation about 100 times to understand.

    I like the idea that since the structure is artificial and a tree one can’t cut it off without taking down the whole tree or large branches of it. This means they can’t stop it without shutting down large parts of the internet itself. DNS (domain name system)can be added but is irrelevant to finding addresses.

    All communication between nodes is automatically encrypted. A guess is that fast encryption like this can be broken but it cost you so they can’t see everything at once. It would take time to track things and you would have to know what you were looking for beforehand.

    Tie this together with something like IPFS(Interplanetary File System).

    IPFS breaks up files into pieces and hashes them. It then scatters them all over. To find something you could just send hashes. This means all the replication of cat pictures a million times is not needed. A few thousand people can store them and then pass the data and addresses of others that have the data(exactly like BitTorrent) and they can combine them. You have multiple copies of the data so it doesn’t get lost and it’s downloaded from many sources sources at once so you get fantastic speed if a file is well distributed.

    The to get anonymity use I2P.

    I2P already has BitTorrent built in. Great for downloading movies,music, etc. people upload to trackers within the network. I2P is mostly an internal network of itself but does have a few people who make router off ramps to the regular internet but it’s not a always thing. I2P also has a built in server where you can place your own site and serve it anonymously.

    What we need is all of these working together. It’s getting there. I2P has a lot of it now and does have a distributed file system if you can get it to work(Tahoe-LAFS (Tahoe Least-Authority File Store) ). I tried and it was so wonky I gave up. Not saying it doesn’t work as people use it but if it’s that problematic to get to work I’m not so sure it’s worth having in the first place.

    I2P has already started setting up web sites that are downloaded as torrents and is slowly working towards distributed systems.

    Zeronet already has a most of this and uses TOR to interconnect so it’s supposedly anonymous but it uses JavaScript to make it work and I don’t trust JavaScript at all. There’s been to many screw ups with JavaScript and if at all possible I keep it off unless I have to. But zeronet has most of the functionality needed.

    Something else that needs to be added is a kind of floating multi-destination server. Just like freenet you put up a set of files and after several people have downloaded them they all serve the site to whoever.

    A good way to set this up might be that if you like a site you agree to serve it like zeronet which has a “pin it” button. I do believe that you must be able to pick what you serve unlike freenet. There’s some stuff I do not want stored on my computer or any part of. If you had forums or some sort of facebook type site the more people who liked your site the more would have it stored making it faster and faster the more people who served it.

    This stuff is all really close and a good two year push, maybe less, with some smart dedicated folks and a little cash and it could all come together. The code is all open source so getting it together is a matter of slogging away at it by bright people.

Leave a Reply