Chinese micro-bloggers pay cash for followers

The Chinese craze for micro-blogging has reached such dizzying heights that companies are now offering to help people boost their following and stand out from the crowd - for a price.

"Why use our services?" one company called Yangcheng Media asks on its website. "Who would you follow? Somebody with 2,000 followers or 20,000 followers? The answer is easy: most people have a herd mentality."

The firm offers up 100 followers for just one yuan ($0.15), in a bid to make users of China's popular Twitter-like weibo services stand out from the pack.

Micro-blogging is hugely popular in China, where other more traditional media such as newspapers are heavily censored. As with Twitter, people with huge amounts of followers achieve a much sought-after type of cyber-standing.

The number of weibo users more than tripled from January to June this year alone, reaching nearly 195 million - roughly equal to Brazil's population - according to the semi-official China Internet Information Center.

And this number may continue to rise. By the end of June, there were a total of 485 million Chinese online users, more than half of whom are not yet sending weibo bursts of about 150 Chinese characters each.

One company called Gaodeding - which translates as "Yes We Can!" - goes a step further, offering weibo addicts a package of 20 active followers for one yuan, according to a man surnamed Liu who works at the firm.

Active followers are people who update their accounts daily, rather than so-called "corpses" who seldom post or spread information from netizens they follow.