<There are NOT millions of Twitter users in China: Supporting @ooof’s result and refuting GWI’s conclusion>
The question of how many Chinese Twitter users there are made headlines a few months back when the market research company GlobalWebIndex published results from a survey which claimed that 35 million people in China used Twitter. Media outlets ran with the story of how there was a huge secret upswell in “free” netizens in China who climbed the Great Firewall to access blocked sites like Twitter, with the seeming implication being that revolución! was just around the corner. Social/human rights progress may still indeed take place in China in the near future, but most smart social media watchers agree it won’t be because of Twitter: Chinese folks just aren’t on the service in the same numbers that they are on other local social media sites like Sina Weibo, RenRen, and even upstart mobile apps like WeChat/Weixin. People (and even companies in advertisements) don’t pass around their Twitter handle in the same frequencies as they share their Weibo contact info.
Even if our eyes told us that Twitter seemed to have attracted an active but small group of activists in China—but not many others in the country—was there a possibility that we were all missing something? Was there really a secret group of Chinese Twitter users being overlooked? Fortunately, after this week, I hope we can finally dismiss GWI’s 35 million number once and for all. Inspired by an SCMP story detailing the findings of the Chinese Twitter user @ooof (h/t Steven Millward of Tech In Asia)—who cleverly used data on the website Twiyia.com to conclude that roughly 18,000 people who posted a tweet in Chinese selected Beijing as their home timezone—this weekend I performed a similar test using publicly available tweets on Twitter utilizing its API. According to the data I extracted, there are most likely tens of thousands of Twitter users in China, not millions as claimed by GWI, a result that confirms @ooof’s finding.[1a] The exact numbers @ooof and I come up with may differ, and only Twitter itself would be best able to reveal how many Chinese Twitter users there actually are, but our independent results are likely within an order of magnitude to the actual number of Twitter users in China, unlike GWI’s result which is about 2000 times greater than our calculations. The hard evidence backs up what our eyes are telling us.
If you’re interested in the technical information of how I performed this fairly rigorous (though certainly not at the level of an academic research paper) test, read on. (Apologies for the non-Weibo-related post; I hope it’s still of relevant to those who read this blog.)