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How does the Chinese version of Twitter help community engagement in Alhambra?

By Chi Zhang 

With Twitter and Facebook blocked in China, indigenous social media platforms have thrived to fill the void. Weibo, the equivalent of Twitter, now has 600 million users, while WeChat, the mobile chat app that also integrates news content and channel broadcast features, is growing at a staggering rate. For overseas Chinese, even when other social media are now accessible, the network of friends and information already established on Weibo and WeChat tend to make them stay, especially when these platforms are also capable of connecting them with local information and social networks. Many traditional ethnic media serving the Chinese community, such as the World Journal, have Weibo accounts. New media outlets, such as WaCowLA and the LA-based foodie website Chihuo.org, feed restaurant reviews, local events, and local news through Weibo and WeChat. 


The Alhambra Police Department connects to Weibo

Local organizations have tapped into these new platforms for outreach. In September 2013, the Alhambra Police Department launched an account on Weibo, becoming the first police department in the US to use foreign language social media to engage residents. The idea for the Weibo account was developed after the city’s police chief read an article in Alhambra Source, a multilingual community news website established by the Metamorphosis Project in 2009, on engagement techniques to reach the Chinese community. 



Since then, the police department Weibo has accrued close to 800 posts, averaging 2 posts per day. Managed by a team of volunteers, the account features announcements, alerts and crime reports mirroring those on its Facebook page, as well as an added emphasis on knowledge about law and policing. In response, residents have sent in crime tips and suggestions, and posed questions ranging from how old a child must be to be left home alone, to what to do with a dead cat sighted on the street. Offline, Mandarin calls to the department requiring translation increased 64 percent two months after launching. 


A resident ‘tweets’ to the Alhambra Police Department and the mayor (who joined Weibo two months after the police department), requesting a stop sign at an accident-prone intersection


As a promising example of engagement with hard-to-reach populations, this initiative has sparked interest from other police departments. The Bay Area city of San Leandro opened its own Weibo page this past October. Monterey Park, as well as Alhambra, are thinking about adopting a WeChat account.


Imagining a "local" Weibo-sphere for Chinese immigrants

Of course, managing any social media account requires a lot of organizational capacity, let alone in multiple languages. But one may think of these online entities and spaces as digital equivalents of churches and parks. Rather than starting a church, it is about building ties with those that are already connected with immigrant communities and finding out where they congregate. The Chinese-speaking mayor of Alhambra, Stephen Sham, as well as the local Sichuan restaurant Chengdu Taste, both have a presence on Weibo. All these locally oriented Weibo accounts, including the ethnic media, follow and sometimes “retweet” from each other, making it possible to imagine a Weibo-sphere drawing together a subset of the local Chinese community. The fact that Chinese immigrants may connect with local issues by way of its mayor, police department and restaurants on Weibo suggests new possibilities for outreach and engagement. 



Read more about the Alhambra Police Weibo initiative here.


WeChat is available in English. Download here (for iPhone) or here (for Android) if you want to explore its features!



Do you work with an immigrant community? What has your work shown about their social media practice and what online networks they are part of? What other avenues of outreach do you want to explore? We would love to hear from you!

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