China's dissident artist Ai Weiwei was an avid social media user before his recent two-month detention by Chinese authorities. On Twitter, he frequently interacted with followers which now number more than 92,000 on his now-silent Twitter page.
It's been widely speculated that one of the conditions of Ai's release was a self-imposed ban on social media. So, this came as a big surprise.
That was followed by a photograph of himself, shirtless, with the caption: "Here's proof of life." (Consider it Ai's way of proving his authenticity since Google+, unlike Twitter, does not offer verified accounts.)
Ai has also a posted a gallery of black and white photographs from his time in New York as a young artist in the '80s and early '90s. Aside from a profile description of himself as a "suspected pornography enthusiast and tax evader" (a reference to the two charges against him), Ai Weiwei's Google+ page is not likely to stir controversy. For now, it seems his few updates are his way of reuniting with his online fans.
The Google+ community has quickly taken notice. As of today, more than 9,000 users have added Ai into their circles, including influential Chinese blogger Isaac Mao. Mao is also a fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, and a Google+ user in Ai Weiwei's inner G+ circle.
Mao calls the artist's digital return a "reincarnation."
"I have no idea on the details between Ai and authorities," Mao says, when asked about any social media conditions attached to the artist's release. "But I believe (Google+) is not part of the agreement. As one G+ user commented on his G+ stream, 'They don't allow Ai to speak on Twitter, but didn't expect there to be a newcomer.'"
Google+ has been mostly inaccessible from inside Mainland China since its launch. The site has been reported blocked from various locations and ISPs throughout the country. Chinese users of Google+ access the site with a variety of circumvention tools like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) or tunneling protocols.
China is home to nearly half a billion Internet users. Mao believes there are over 100,000 Chinese netizens on Google+. "It's not a big number compared to the huge internet population in China," says Mao. "However, I see that those top G+ users are influential geeks, bloggers and Twitter users."
Mao believes the number of Google+ users in China already surpasses the number of active Chinese Twitter users (less than 20,000). "There are still millions of Google fans in China," says Mao. "So they rushed to try this new service as its accessibility dimmed."
The digitally reincarnated Ai may find that Google+ is not just a convenient Twitter alternative. Given its popularity in China and growth trajectory, it may offer him a more far-reaching and thus powerful platform for his message.