On Monday’s edition of The Ellen Show, Chinese restaurateur Li Hongjun (now and forever known as “Brother Orange”) and BuzzFeed writer Matt Stopera appeared on the daytime talkshow to tell their heartwarming tale of a stolen-and-found iPhone, a cross-cultural friendship and an “only on social media, kids” modern-day fable.
The global phenomenon that is the “Brother Orange” story is an international triumph of a media brand. But it’s not BuzzFeed, the website that published the story, that’s responsible for the global viral sensation. It’s Sina Weibo, the so-called “Chinese Twitter” social network that played an active role in making it happen.
— BuzzFeed (@BuzzFeed) April 20, 2015
BuzzFeed’s multi-part Brother Orange story started when Stopera discovered via his iCloud account that his stolen iPhone was posting photos of a Chinese man in an orange grove. He took to Twitter and then Chinese social media users launched the nation’s infamous human flesh search engine (人肉搜索). It wasn’t long before netizens found Li Hongjun and he rocketed to fame on Sina’s Weibo platform and other social media.
While nowhere near the “Is this dress blue?” level of frenzy, BuzzFeed has since translated the story of the visit to China to meet Li, assuring it millions more page views. (The Chinese version substitute a Youku video in place of original story’s Facebook post, presumably because Facebook is blocked in China.)
On The Ellen Show, Stopera said that after much prompting from Chinese netizens he signed up for Weibo, began corresponding with Li and the rest is history. I asked Stopera about this and it turns out it’s a little more complicated than that.
“Someone from Sina Weibo told me to join Weibo when the Chinese netizens on Weibo found Bro,” Stopera told me via email. “Someone from Weibo tweeted and then DM’d me. They walked me through using Weibo and answered any questions I had. They also set up hashtags for us to use on our trips.”
During Stopera and Li’s media whirlwind trip through China, they stopped at Weibo’s headquarters, a visit Stopera said was his idea: “After all, none of this would have happened if it wasn’t for Weibo.”
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) April 21, 2015
Sina Weibo’s facilitation of some good press for Weibo is a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy landscape for the company, which was listed on the NASDAQ (WB) stock exchange almost exactly a year ago. After zapping up to $24 a share during its IPO, Weibo shares have fallen to under $15, dollars less than the April 2014 $17 offering price.
After a crackdown on prominent users, Weibo saw diminishing influence and popularity throughout 2014. While Ellen, BuzzFeed and Brother Orange may make “Chinese Twitter” look robust, it’s not the case. Brands like 163.com have recently abandoned the platform. Now the Brother Orange story is bending America’s perception of Weibo’s vitality.
As for the wildly popular tale of Brother Orange, it should be said for Weibo neophytes that the social media platform is a fickle animal, partial to short bursts of obsession followed by impartiality. Take, for instance, the tale of the Jilin street sweepers. And Stopera is hardly the first laowai to become a Weibo phenomenon; three years ago saw the rise of “American French Fry Brother.”
All of these phenomena are largely forgotten in a speedy Chinese cyberculture that makes America’s social media look like molasses. Proof that the story is already on its heels in China? BuzzFeed’s official Weibo account, which has been “all Brother Orange all the time,” has attracted fewer than 3,400 followers.
Stopera lays this bare in a short paragraph in his story noting the visit to the Sina offices:
“In China, Weibo isn’t as popular as it once was. There’s an app called WeChat, which is like WhatsApp, that’s becoming increasingly popular. This story proved the power of Weibo. The power of the Chinese internet.”
So it’s no wonder everyone involved is striking when the iron is hot. Li has changed the name of his restaurant to Brother Orange. And even though the story involves an iPhone, it’s not Apple but other brands that have leveraged it, including Chinese tech company TCL, which has shared its thoughts about how the saga is all about breaking down boundaries.
A documentary of the whole story is also in the works. Can a movie (paging Ze Frank) be far behind?
—Follow Abe Sauer on Twitter. Image at top of Sina HQ via Qingqing Chen / BuzzFeed