A QUES­TION OF CASH

为知识付费,还是为娱乐买单?

The World of Chinese - - Contents - BY SUN JIAHUI (孙佳慧)

A slew of Q&A apps prom­ises to make knowl­edge as valu­able as a spare room or pas­sen­ger seat—just an­other part of the shar­ing econ­omy. But has an ap­petite for gos­sip and celebrity wor­ship al­ready doomed this bur­geon­ing in­dus­try?

付费问答风靡网络,知识变现成为潮流,是知识共享模式的兴起,还是网络时代的又一种社交方式?

When Wu Jing­ping quit China’s na­tional pingpong team as coach in July 2016, hav­ing helped achieve four Olympic gold medals at Rio, he imag­ined his life in the pub­lic eye was over. Six months later, Wu was back— this time as a “celebrity au­thor” on Weibo Q&A, part of a bur­geon­ing cash-for-ques­tions in­dus­try.

Since its launch in De­cem­ber, 2016, Weibo Q&A has joined Fenda (“One-minute Answers”) as one of China’s most prof­itable knowl­edge-shar­ing plat­forms. Th­ese dif­fer from sites like Quora, Zhihu, and Red­dit by charg­ing for ques­tions and answers: Users pay “ex­perts” a fee to an­swer per­son­al­ized ques­tions, ei­ther in a 60-sec­ond voice mes­sage (Fenda) or a writ­ten an­swer (Weibo). Oth­ers then pay 1 RMB to “view” the an­swer. The fees from view­ers are split be­tween the ini­tial asker and the ex­pert who answers, with the plat­form tak­ing a per­cent­age—imag­ine a celebrity AMA, in which po­ten­tially ev­ery­one stands to make a lit­tle money.

Af­ter 26 years coach­ing ping-pong play­ers like Olympians Ma Lin, Wang Hao, and Xu Xin, Wu Jing­ping was look­ing for new op­por­tu­ni­ties to share his tal­ents when Weibo Q&A came along. On Fe­bru­ary 8, Wu re­ceived a mes­sage, so­lic­it­ing his ex­per­tise on the plat­form. Wu spent over 10 days study­ing the rules be­fore fi­nally mak­ing up his mind to join. He has since an­swered around 150 ques­tions, and Weibo Q&A has be­come Wu’s pri­mary method of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with fans.

While China’s web users have long been ac­cus­tomed to free con­tent, some in­vestors are bet­ting on this “knowl­edge” as the next vi­able com­mod­ity. Oth­ers warn that the trend is merely a fad within a volatile shar­ing-econ­omy.

Trail­blazer app Fenda notched up 10 mil­lion reg­is­tered users within 42 days of go­ing live last May; one mil­lion of those were pay­ing cus­tomers, while an­other 330,000 were in­dus­try “ex­perts,” who helped gen­er­ate around 18 mil­lion RMB in trans­ac­tions. Fenda’s rapid rise helped it at­tract an ini­tial 25 mil­lion USD from in­vestors in­clud­ing Wang Si­cong, China’s rich­est son. Then in Novem­ber, it at­tracted an undis­closed amount of “se­ries A-plus” fund­ing from so­cial me­dia titan Ten­cent.

Zhihu re­cently joined the ac­tion with a pre­mium paid ser­vice, Live. In a re­cent ad­vert, a boy runs up to a girl, pauses, then jogs on; she looks wist­ful. “Why don’t guys ap­proach girls any­more?” the ad won­ders. Those seek­ing a se­ri­ous an­swer might be dis­ap­pointed. As with its mi­croblog­ging ser­vice, Weibo’s Q&A plat­form is pre­dom­i­nated by “Big Vs” (ver­i­fied users with large fol­low­ings) whose of­ten-brief but lu­cra­tive

SOME IN­VESTORS ARE BET­TING ON THIS “KNOWL­EDGE” AS THE NEXT COM­MOD­ITY

con­tri­bu­tions re­flect less their ex­per­tise than their pop­u­lar­ity.

Take Wang Si­cong: China’s most out­spo­ken fu’er­dai was paid 5,000 RMB to ex­plain, “as a so­phis­ti­cated per­son with a wealth of ex­pe­ri­ence, how can you iden­tify a ‘green tea bitch’ based on her ap­pear­ance?” Wang an­swered with a sim­ple idiom—“熟能生巧” (Prac­tice makes per­fect) 1. By April 11, 190,671 peo­ple had checked his an­swer, earn­ing Wang around 22,500 RMB per char­ac­ter. And be­fore Wang joined Weibo Q&A, he was even more ac­tive on Fenda. By an­swer­ing just 32 ques­tions, in­clud­ing “What kind of girl do you like?” Wang earned more than 240,000 RMB in less than two weeks.

Much of Fenda’s traf­fic is gen­er­ated by this celebrity gos­sip, though the rates tend to vary wildly. Re­sponses from Zhang Ziyi, a star of Crouch­ing Tiger, Hid­den Dragon, to a fan’s plea for ad­vice at­tracted less than 100 lis­ten­ers. But when some­one paid 6,666 RMB to ask ac­tress-singer Zheng Shuang how she feels about her ex, Zheng’s two-char­ac­ter an­swer “尴尬”, em­bar­rass­ment at­tracted more than 10,000 views. Both Wang and Zheng now charge 10,000 RMB per ques­tion, the high­est al­lowed by Weibo.

Gen­uine ex­per­tise, though, does not seem to com­mand such a price. Economist and so­cial critic Mao Yushi charges 100 RMB per ques­tion. Ping-pong coach Wu charges 66 RMB, and his answers have gar­nered around 170,000 views in to­tal. He said he chooses his ques­tions care­fully: “I an­swer four types—train­ing, ba­sic ping-pong knowl­edge, ad­vice for young learn­ers, and any other ques­tions I might find mean­ing­ful.” Most at­tract around 1,000 views from his 59,000 fol­low­ers, mean­ing the askers usu­ally make back their in­vest­ment af­ter 150 pay-per-views.

The first ques­tion Wu tack­led was sim­ple: “Could you give some prac­ti­cal ad­vice for im­prov­ing my game?” Wu’s 361-char­ac­ter an­swer at­tracted 282 views (which meant his first Weibo stu­dent made 60.9 RMB in profit). But Wu’s most pop­u­lar an­swer con­cerned his thoughts on a pair of celebrity play­ers, Ma Long and Zhang Jike.

Wu told TWOC that users’ ap­petite for gos­sip has made him cau­tious about the con­cept of cash-forques­tions. “It’s an ef­fec­tive way for me to pro­mote ping-pong, but I know that some peo­ple ask ques­tions just to make money,” he said. “I have to con­trol it care­fully. I only an­swer

three or four ques­tions a day, and the ques­tion has to be re­lated to pingpong; if not, I won’t an­swer it.”

Ac­cord­ing to economist Guo Cheng, vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at Zhong­shan Univer­sity, the at­trac­tion of knowl­edge-shar­ing apps has lit­tle to do with ac­tual knowl­edge. “For those who re­ally want it, knowl­edge is ev­ery­where,” Guo told TWOC. “Open cour­ses from Har­vard or Yale are all high-end re­sources that peo­ple can ac­cess for free. In fact, most peo­ple [on Q&A plat­forms] spend money just get to close to peo­ple they are in­ter­ested in.”

As a Weibo user with over 3 mil­lion fol­low­ers, Guo, who goes by the han­dle Mr. Think (Zuomo Xian­sheng), is him­self a “Big V” who has an­swered more than 160 ques­tions and earned over 100,000 RMB in less than a month since join­ing Q&A. But Guo said the most pop­u­lar ques­tions are mostly con­cerned with nov­elty (“anec­dotes about celebri­ties or some in­ter­est­ing way to in­ter­pret his­tory”) and money—“peo­ple al­ways care about their wal­let.” Suc­cess is de­pen­dent on recog­ni­tion, said Guo: “It only works for those Big Vs; or­di­nary ac­counts without enough fol­low­ers can’t make it big.”

De­spite the widely touted in­vest­ment rounds, Guo doesn’t see much fu­ture in th­ese plat­forms. “Their pros­per­ity is prob­a­bly a flash in the pan,” he said. “One’s knowl­edge is lim­ited. Maybe it’s fine to an­swer hun­dreds of ques­tions. But when it comes to thou­sands—how can they keep pro­duc­ing new ideas? And the gen­eral pub­lic is still more ac­cus­tomed to free in­for­ma­tion on the in­ter­net.” Mean­while, there are sim­pler ways to make money: “If Big Vs can eas­ily make tens of thou­sands kuai post­ing ads, why keep an­swer­ing ques­tions?”

Big Vs may also be wary of cen­sor­ship. In Au­gust, Fenda sus­pended its ser­vice, and claimed to be un­der­go­ing a “ser­vice up­grade.” The move was widely in­ter­preted a crack­down by au­thor­i­ties; sure enough, when Fenda re­turned af­ter a 47-day si­lence, only three of its cat­e­gories re­mained—work, health and sci­ence.

An­other is­sue is qual­ity con­trol: On most Q&A plat­forms, any­one can call him­self an ex­pert, and there’s no guar­an­tee of ei­ther their iden­tity or the ve­rac­ity of answers. But while the medium may seem new and dif­fer­ent, Guo said it fol­lows a fa­mil­iar pat­tern: “The form is al­ways chang­ing, from rise to de­cline, but the root is a mod­ern anx­i­ety for knowl­edge,” he said. “If peo­ple like it, I will con­tinue; if they get bored, I will stop.”

“IF BIG VS CAN EAS­ILY MAKE TENS OF THOU­SANDS KUAI POST­ING ADS, WHY KEEP AN­SWER­ING QUES­TIONS?”

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