At summer 2008, before I left for my backpacking trip to Southeast Asia and India, KaiXin001 was the most popular social networking site in China. I remember those days when all my old Chinese school friends were parking cars in each other’s virtual spaces.
At summer 2009, I finished my 8 months travelling and went back to China to apply for studying Sociology in the UK, the online social networking world had a dramatic change in China. Following the July 2009 XinJiang riots, Facebook was blocked in mainland China. Micro-blogging started to gain popularity since its launch in August 2009 with the most popular hosts being Sina and Tencent. The most successful so far is Sina Weibo whose overseas users account for 10% of the total members, whilst a growing number of foreign politicians and celebrities, in the areas such as sports and music industries, have started using Weibo to reach out to Chinese audience (Chen and She 2012). Celebrities and NBA starts such as Dwyane Wade and Jeremy Lin, have millions of fans on Weibo. For foreign celebrities, some used Weibo to release news and others actively interacted with fans and replied to their messages on a regular base, such as Michael Owen. When there is a language barrier, they might be use agents to manage their Weibo accounts or only communicate with followers in English.
It may surprise some people that Twitter users would pay money to buy fake followers, which are often referred to as ‘zombies’. See I Bought 27,000 Fake Twitter Followers—and Then Twitter Zapped Them Into Oblivion
On Sina Weibo, “Zombies” followers can be sold online for as little as 1 pound for 70,000 on Taobao (a Chinese version of Ebay) as I checked a month ago. It is common for some Weibo accounts to buy zombies followers to increase publicity as a marketing strategy. It is now a common knowledge for experienced Weibo users that the numbers of fans of a Weibo account may not be trusted especially if this account generates a large number of fans in a very short period. The Weibo accounts with a large amount of followers have a ‘value’ for releasing commercial information. One of the Weibo accounts I personally follow, who writes and posts pictures about travelling, often post advertisements about beauty and slimming products. A popular account would be approached to be paid in exchange of posting commercials.
Like Twitter, Sina Weibo official opposes fake accounts and denies any involvement in creating zombies. However, ‘zombies’ followers are like cockroaches and you just can’t get rid of them.
Previously I worked with Nick Pearce on UK universities’ use of Chinese social media to communicate with potential Chinese students. Nick is going to present our work at ‘Twitter and Microblogging’ conference next week.
Nick told me that Associated Press were investigate the possibility of Zombie followers of Yale university’s Sina Weibo account and asked me to comment on that issue. I did some digging at 6 Feb 2013.
Since Yale is a popular American university, I compared it with the most popular UK University on Weibo, Huddersfield University, who has the highest number of followers. I used a software to see some statistics of Yale’s Weibo account (with around 100,000 followers at the time) and compared with those of Huddersfield (with 30687 followers at the time) and the results shows that Huddersfield has 5.2% active followers (1591 active followers out of total 30687 followers) with 170 followers having verified accounts. It shows a people-rank which calculates the quality of followers and quality of exposure while Huddersfield is ranked 200807 on Weibo. Yale has triple numbers of followers comparing to Huddersfield, but its people-rank doesn’t show any results which means it is too low to be on the rank system. The analysis results showed that Yale only has 11 active followers out of the total ten thousand and none of them has verified account.
I also checked for Michigan University. They have a lot less followers than Yale, but around 25.7% fans are active and 109 fans are verified. According to the statistical analysis, it looks to me that Yale has a large portion of zombie followers.
However, it is possible that these zombies followers come to follow Yale without Yale purchasing themselves. In 2010, a famous presenter from Guangzhou closed his Weibo because he couldn’t stand the fake popularity being followed by lots of zombie fans. One explanation from Sina is that these zombies were generated when users registered by their mobile phones. Another reason for Zombie accounts to follow celebrities or big names are that zombies accounts want to look like real accounts to avoid being found out by administrators. Also there are criticisms of the micro-blogging providers that it might be a marketing strategy for providing zombie fans to newly verified accounts to attract celebrities to register with them, although we can’t verify that. Sina recommend Yale account to new users, so another possibility is that new users have clicked ‘follow’ to Yale when they first registered on Weibo, then abandoned their accounts.
You can read the Associated Press report on this story ‘Zombies’ infest Yale social network account by USA TODAY if you are interested.