WeiboScope: image search by keyword


You might have heard of WeiboScope for its display of most important images by a sample of users we selected. “So what?”, some users have asked. WeiboScope is a suite of visualisation tools for an archive of Sina Weibo posts that we collect and store on a local database, which may currently range in the 2-3 million per week.

But the power of WeiboScope is not this particular visualisation (because there are many of them), but rather the data underneath that sustains it. Rather than let Sina Weibo dictate the way the data produced by users should be displayed, we borrow a bit from the open data movement and repackage posts in ways that may be a bit more useful to users. This is how a WeiboScope search by image came to be.

Consider these current use case scenarios:

1- A non-Chinese reader would like to know what the Chinese Weibosphere is now thinking about the death of Kim Jong-il. They can decide to type the Chinese name of Kim Jong-un in the search bar on and find a list of about 25 weibos. But because they are unable to read, they rely only on images. They feel lost, and give up on Weibo (for the day).

2- A person who has a native level of Chinese is doing research on suicide. Some cases are reported to be made viral on the Internet, sometimes because of the fake attention-seeking nature of them, or sometimes because their causes provoke deep societal debates. The researcher searches on the search bar on, finding sometimes irony, and some irrelevant news. It is hard for him to assess the importance of such case with respect to others within a certain period of time.

Now, consider that we had a sample of all Weibos ever produced and that our search engine is neutral as to what gets shown and what does not.

Scenario 1: Using the image search on WeiboScope, you can now find that one of the most popular images used in posts was this one. But then, by visual elimination, you may also notice some more odd pictures such as this one speculating on the younger Kim’s Christmas activities.

Scenario 2: Using the image search on WeiboScope, the researcher searches the word “suicide”. In March 2011, we tried this with an early version of this tool. Just by curiousity, we heard of this schoolchildren suicide case in Fujian through the popular image aggregation. At this point, we only saw one post that made it to viral level. We were curious of the impact of this case on the Chinese Internet, so we searched the characters for “suicide” on the search engine. The result? About 80% of the recent posts with the characters for “suicide” were related to the Fujian case.

The WeiboScope image search demonstrates that when you are allowed to mash and mix, and remix data, it may lead to some discoveries and realizations that may not have been made possible otherwise.

(For non-Chinese writers, the engine supports some automated Google Translate translation! For people searching in Chinese characters, please use quotes around your characters.)