China's largest search engine Baidu reports that its new microblogging service has grabbed more than 1 million users after being launched three months ago.
Called Baidu Talk in English, the service incorporates Twitter-like features, but is being built to become a fully fledged social networking platform. Baidu Talk was launched in mid-September as a closed beta, with new users being brought in through invitation only.
Baidu Talk sets itself apart from other Chinese microblogging services by requiring all users to identify themselves with their real names. This has been the site's main draw, said Baidu spokesman Kaiser Kuo. When users register, a third-party company verifies the identification and profile photo with the Chinese government, he said.
By using the new system, the company believes Baidu Talk can offer interactions that better mirror real life. "We don't walk around in life giving out aliases or wearing masks. We shouldn't do that in all spaces online. There should be a space where people can interact with their real name," Kuo said.
The company says this has led to more "civil" discussions between users on Baidu Talk. "I think of it as a nudist colony," Kuo added. "You know the rules when you come there. No one is compelling you to join this community."
This could contrast to the sometimes messier side of microblogging. This week, Chinese users left a long stream of hateful comments on the microblog of Fang Binxing, an architect of China's Internet censorship systems. Fang has deleted all the comments and stopped posting on the microblog.
Baidu says incorporating the real-name system was the company's own choice and not enforced by the Chinese government. This year, Chinese authorities have required users to register with their real names with online gaming services and when purchasing cellphone numbers.
China currently has more than 75 million microblog users, said Dong Xu, an analyst with Beijing-based research firm Analysys International. The most dominant microblog is the one operated by Chinese Internet company Sina, which has reported attracting more than 50 million users to the service. Users are allowed to make up their own aliases when identifying themselves on the service. As for Twitter, the popular microblogging service from the U.S. is blocked in China.
With the Chinese microblogging market already filled with competitors, Baidu Talk will have to add more features in order to gain a stronger following, Dong said. But the company already benefits from its extensive user base as China's largest search engine.
Still, the obvious down side to Baidu Talk is its real name requirement, Dong said. "It constrains the way people communicate with each other on the service," she said. "The microblogging environment is usually very free and open where people will say whatever they want."