China: The Home to Facebook and Twitter?

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Sebastian Hedencrona / September 27, 2012

Being the only on-going global research on internet usage, sometimes our results are new and unfamiliar to people.

This is always the case with our data on China, particularly when researching usage of Facebook and Twitter. The official story is that nobody uses them; even Facebook’s IPO document declared that the company had no users in China. Considering China is by all measures the most active social media market on the planet and not isolated from the rest of the world, this is somewhat of a surprise.

Since Wave 1 (July 2009), we have tracked user growth for Twitter in China from 11.8m (use or contribute last month) to 35m in Q2 2012. Facebook has grown even more impressively from 7.9m to 63.52m over the same period, although we should bear in mind that due to the size of the market this only represents 8% and 15% respectively of the internet population. The sheer size of the market can turn moderate interest and adoption into a major play.

In reality, this should not be a surprise; we should, firstly, consider our methodology, which is self-completion surveys in Mandarin (Simplified Chinese for Mainland China) served to an online panel run by an internationally accredited panel company. Furthermore, we have run seven waves of research in China, covering a representative sample of the internet users from within this panel; our samples are defined by age, gender, education level to be as representative of that population as possible. For questions regarding social media usage, respondents are posed the simple question “On which of the following services have you created an account?” and are provided a list of global services and also local players . For all the selections they choose, they are then asked “On which of the following services have you used or contributed last month?” Following on from this, they then define which actions they have done on that service by PC, mobile or tablet device. It is simple, clear, and we have verified it in all markets against other forms of data.

Crucially, our methodology produces exactly the right figures for the local services that dominate (see graph below) the Chinese internet market, with 66% of Chinese internet users being active on Qzone (286m users), 61% on Sina Weibo (264m users) and 56% on Tencent Weibo (239m users).

To put the domination of local services into perspective, we should examine how low the level of engagement that Twitter and Facebook exhibit in comparison to local services in China mentioned above. For example, only 34% of active Chinese Twitter users have posted a Tweet in our latest survey while 54% of UK users did so. Clearly, they are supplementary and not core social platforms.

Another interesting point is the user base structure. Taking Facebook as an example, 65% of active users are male, 69% have a post-graduate degree and 76% are under the age of 34. It’s clear that younger, internationally engaged demographic groups are driving the adoption of foreign social media services.

How are Chinese users getting onto Facebook and Twitter?

We routinely come across the argument that these sites are blocked in China, and therefore, our figures cannot possibly be correct. However, it only takes a little bit of desk research to discover that what is called the “Great Firewall” is actually much more porous than the Chinese government would like to admit. On closer inspection, Chinese users are using VPNs (Virtual Private Networks), VCN (Virtual Cloud Networks) or connections at work that may be routed internationally. Crucially, this means that users won’t be picked up in analytics and will not register as being in a Chinese location at all!

Also Chinese users are the most active mobile internet users on the planet with 78% of internet users also accessing by mobile in the last month. This compares to the UK at 55%, Japan 49% and the US at 38%. Mobile connections and apps have also made it easier to access both Facebook and Twitter. Our Asian market experts routinely see examples of this such as the recent discovery that if someone downloads the Flipboard app they can access Twitter, as this story outlines.

In addition, there are well-known active Twitter users, such as famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei who has 120K followers and has featured in some protests (this example driving Chinese residents over to Hong Kong).

There are broader drivers that are worth considering as well. Every school child in China is learning English, and many millions now go to study abroad. In addition, hundreds of millions of Chinese have connections to family members living aboard. In other markets, these factors have been important in driving uptake of Facebook, and they will have a similar impact in China.

In short, the “Great Firewall” is not as solid as many people think and analytics and tracking data (which only track conventional connections or places Chinese users in the location of the VPN) do not tell the full story. If we actually go into the market and simply ask the people, a much more complex picture emerges, and it is this behaviour that is illuminated by GlobalWebIndex.