Twitter VS. Weibo: Can Weibo Potentially Beat Twitter?

Will Twitter be a huge success in China if it is not blocked? Not necessarily.

Among my friends who have free access to Twitter, there is a general reluctance to use it, and I’m not a fan either. It’s not because we don’t like social media. On the contrary, we all love Sina Weibo, the Chinese Twitter-like microblog. Admittedly, its language and communication patterns are more familiar to us than Twitter, but what finally makes Weibo superior, as far as we’re concerned, is its better microblogging functionality and more user-friendly design.

For this post, however, I won’t go deep into Weibo’s various cool features, but rather focus on a comparison of usability design between the two platforms, which proves that Weibo is not simply a copycat of Twitter, but something that provides users a more pleasant social experience.

The overall interface of Twitter and Weibo appear similar, but they differentiate from each other in tweet creation, display and comment.

Twitter Interface

Weibo Interface

1. Versatile tweet media

Weibo allows users to add various media type: text, photos, audio, videos, emotions, or topics and polls, while Twitter only allows 140 characters per post. An image feature has been added to Twitter lately, but it still appears as a link to a URL in the timeline page.

Twitter tweet window

Weibo tweet window

2. Timeline display

Even though you can add pretty much everything in a single tweet on Weibo, the best part is it all can be viewed live in the timeline page. You can enlarge the photo and stream the audio/video with one click without reloading the page, just like Facebook.

Weibo timeline

With Twitter, however, all you can basically view in the timeline is pure text with the images interpreted into URLs. Users have no idea what that image is unless they click on that tweet, which then is displayed in the right sidebar. It’s very inconvenient if someone needs to do a quick skim over the tweet timeline only, but he or she can’t see the image or video thumbnails.

Another thing that bothers users a lot is that Twitter’s timeline feels disarrayed due to its weird comment and retweet design, which will be discussed soon. It truly took me quite a while to figure out how everything could be tracked in the system.

3. Comment & Retweet features

We all know that sometimes the comments matter more than the tweet itself. We’d like to read the comments below a tweet, or directly communicate with other commenters. We may also want to add our own opinons when retweeting others’ posts.

Weibo fits all these needs quite well.

Under each tweet, there are comment and retweet buttons, with numbers beside which show how many comments and retweets have been done. When commenting, one can choose whether to post the comment to his or her own timeline or not. All comments to the same tweet can be shown as a thread, like in a traditional blog.

Weibo comment

Both Twitter and Weibo have the retweet button, but Weibo leaves space for comments.  Even better, users can choose to spontaneously post the comment either to the last person who retweeted or to the original author of the tweet.

Weibo retweet

Weibo retweet 2

The threaded structure of Weibo makes a clearer timeline, logically conforming to users’ mental modes. Yet for Twitter, you can only retweet without adding anything. Consequently, the way to view your follower’s retweet turns out differently. You’ll see the profile avatars that don’t belong to your followers show up in your timeline because their tweets are retweeted by your followers. How do you know? A tiny note tells you, which isn’t very straightforward.

Twitter retweet

On Twitter, a comment to a tweet will be displayed as your own tweet in the timeline even if you don’t expect it to be there and there is no hint below each tweet showing how many comments and retweets have been made.

Summary

So far, the above comparison demonstrates that Twitter and Weibo do have the same basic functions; but Weibo’s design adds a whole new dimension of interactivity and engagement to microblogging. It’s more compliant to our intuitive behaviors, and nearly all of my acquaintances who have been using both tools prefer Weibo to Twitter.

So, is the analysis indicating that Weibo is superior to Twitter? Though my answer would be positive since Weibo has become so sticky to me, let’s hear some dissenting voices.

Some users believe the limited options of Twitter achieve a lightness of reading. When there is no image and comment showing in the timeline, the efficiency of reading will be improved which identifies the main purpose of social media: high-speed information sharing. That’s how Twitter distinguishes itself from Facebook.

On Twitter, retweets and tweets are parallel, while Weibo’s retweet function is hierarchical. Supporters for Twitter insist that information sharing shouldn’t adopt a hierarchical structure.

Sounds reasonable.

Eventually it all depends on what you anticipate from a microblogging service. I would say Weibo’s usability design definitely better serves, to most Chinese users, a successful localization case. But will it overwhelm Twitter in western countries? Perhaps it’s still too early to give a definite answer, although there might be one in the near future. Sina Weibo has made an ambitious move to launch an English version targeting overseas users very soon. There’s no doubt that it will compete with Twitter at that time and it will be interesting to see how Twitter will react to this and speak better for consumers.

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