Microblogs, epitomized by Twitter in the West and Weibo in China, have attracted considerable attention over the past few years. There have been a number of optimistic accounts about their potential to stimulate political activism and social change, juxtaposed with suggestions that their networks are too weak and that they are too easily censored for such change to occur. Yet, in this debate, little attention has been paid to the medium itself; microblogs have too often been treated as mere conduits for information, and the practical and aesthetic experience of microblogging has been marginalized.
This article addresses this imbalance in two ways. First, it argues that the microblog is a distinctive medium with special potential for political communication. It applies Rancière’s ‘politics of aesthetics’ and Baudrillard’s ‘private telematics’ to microblogs, suggesting that the particularly immersive quality of microblogs provides new and distinct opportunities for the promotion of opinions and social movements. Second, it argues that by allowing, re-modelling, monitoring and censoring the Weibo service, the Chinese party-state, acting collaboratively with the key microblog companies and the market as a whole, is consciously manipulating the medium of the microblog to reduce the risk of activism, controversial use, and network formation. Thus, the medium of Weibo differs from other microblogs – of which Twitter is the key example – in several important ways, each of which, the article argues, are intended to maximize the cacophonous spectacle of entertainment and to minimize reasoned discussion and debate. Furthermore, while pure censorship of information can be evaded in many ways, it is more difficult for dissenters to evade state control when it is applied to the medium itself.
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