On the heels of new census data showing Chinese languages top all immigrant tongues in Metro Vancouver, tech-savvy Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has signed up for what has been called a "Chinese Twitter" account.
Sina Weibo (pronounced "way-bwah") is a wildly popular Chinese-language micro-blogging site with nearly 400 million users worldwide. Opened on Wednesday morning, Mr. Robertson's account had nearly 16,000 followers by late Thursday afternoon.
"It's one of the biggest and most influential social media platforms in the world right now," said Mr. Robertson, who is also an active Twitter and Facebook user. "I see it as a vital channel to connect with people in Vancouver and globally, who would be interested in our city. It's [about] always looking for new ways to reach out."
With the assistance of a Chinese staffer, Mr. Robertson has so far posted about topics such as Vancouver's stricter recycling rules and the city's "Hollywood North" nickname: "Did you know Twilight was shot in Vancouver?"
He anticipates using it to post more general city news, as well as time-sensitive emergency preparedness bulletins, but is hopeful it will allow him to hear from members of the Chinese community who might not otherwise speak up due to language barriers.
"People often talk about social media on the transmit side, when in fact its bigger importance is on the receiving," he said. "I expect that will be a real gift from being on Weibo, getting that much more feedback from people who, up until now, haven't had a way to communicate with me."
According to 2011 Census data released last week, nearly 300,000 Metro Vancouver residents speak primarily a Chinese language at home.
Of those, 113,610 reported speaking Cantonese; 83,825 Mandarin; and 86,850 an unspecified "Chinese."
In China, where state-run media and heavy censorship among even "independent" news organizations hinders the open exchange of information, messages posted to the social networking platform can serve as a smoke signal of sorts: What the media can't draw attention to, civilians can, through social media.
Of course, Sina Weibo is not without restrictions. The micro-blogging site has an extensive list of banned words – mostly references to sex, drugs and certain government agencies – and employees actively delete more controversial postings, often those of a political nature.
Within hours of The New York Times posting a story alleging the family of China's Prime Minister Wen Jaibao amassed a $2.5-billion fortune, for example, the site banned the terms "New York Times," "NYT" and "$2.5-billion," among others, from its search function.
Still, critical postings are abundant and they have helped sparked discussions with a swiftness that simply didn't exist just years ago.
"It will be fascinating to watch the rise of social media in China given the politics and culture that have constrained freedom of expression," Mr. Robertson said. "Social media might be a great vehicle for helping China embrace freedom of expression. By next year, almost a third of Internet users will be on Weibo, at this rate … It's transforming how people in China communicate and there's no question that means big change for the country as a whole."