Killer app

How an indie so­cial net­work con­quered China’s en­ter­tain­ment mar­ket 豆瓣:文艺青年的聚集地,网络里的乌托邦

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

Di­rec­tor-screen­writer Bi Zhifei’s de­but fea­ture Pure Hearts: Into Chi­nese Show­biz hit cinema screens on Septem­ber 22. Four days later, the film was al­ready beat­ing a mis­er­able re­treat from the box of­fice, hav­ing raked in a wretched 2.25 mil­lion RMB in rev­enues.

The lousy re­turns ap­par­ently weren’t Bi’s fault, though; in­stead, the di­rec­tor pinned the fi­asco on so­cial net­work­ing site On Douban’s pop­u­lar, Imdb-like movie-rat­ing sec­tion, earned Pure Hearts a record low score of one out of five stars. On Jan­uary 22, Bi an­nounced that he was su­ing Douban for a pub­lic apol­ogy— and one RMB in com­pen­sa­tion—for mis­lead­ing au­di­ences to “truly be­lieve this is a bad film.”

The law­suit is on­go­ing, but Bi cer­tainly had rea­son to be con­cerned. “Usu­ally, if a movie gets an ex­tremely low grade on Douban, I will tend to be­lieve it’s re­ally a bad one,” Liu Yu, a Bei­jing-based ed­i­tor and Douban user of six years, tells TWOC. “In my per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, there are far fewer shills on Douban than other sites.” User Zhao Sheng­nan, on the other hand, be­lieves, “Pub­lic­ity of­fi­cers have pen­e­trated Douban, but I think most re­views are still real, and ad­vis­able.

“Af­ter all,” Zhao says, “there is no other plat­form more re­li­able.”

Douban’s author­ity wasn’t built in a day—and ar­guably, it wasn’t some­thing that its founder, Yang Bo, ever imag­ined. In 2005, the 30-some­thing for­mer IBM re­searcher was hop­ing to start a suc­cess­ful on­line busi­ness. One of Yang’s many projects was a net­work­ing plat­form named af­ter his ad­dress, Bei­jing’s Douban Hu­tong. “At that time, I only had one thought,” Yang told Xin­hua in 2006. “I’ve read many books, but when I dis­cussed them with col­leagues or friends, I felt my knowl­edge was re­ally limited. If we read a good book, find some­thing good, how can we bet­ter share these ex­pe­ri­ences with oth­ers?”

In the be­gin­ning, Yang’s web­site sim­ply al­lowed like­minded users to form “small groups” and start dis­cus­sion threads about their fa­vorite books, movies, bands, and hob­bies. A user home­page with a jour­nal, mi­croblog, and photo al­bum was later added, as well as fan pages of in­di­vid­ual works, which users could rate, re­view, and cu­rate onto their pro­file page. Indie busi­nesses could host of­fi­cial pages on Douban Sites, while mu­si­cians could re­lease their records on Douban FM for oth­ers to stream. Sim­i­larly, one could sam­ple

e-nov­els that other users pub­lished on Douban Read, shop for quirky items on Dou­ble “Things,” and find leisure ac­tiv­i­ties listed on Douban City—lec­tures, live mu­sic, indie movie screen­ings, and DIY work­shops.

Com­bine all of this with a clean white back­ground and pas­tel in­ter­face, and a unique so­cial net­work was born. By Septem­ber 2013, most of Douban’s 75 mil­lion reg­is­tered users were from so-called first and sec­ond-tier cities—white-col­lar and cos­mopoli­tan hubs, such as Bei­jing or Shen­zhen—and unique views had reached an av­er­age 210 mil­lion per day. Tech writ­ers and users, though, still strug­gled to de­fine the web­site. Me­dia and in­vestor bul­letins have dubbed Douban as Rot­ten Toma­toes, Goodreads, Mys­pace, Pin­ter­est, and Google Han­gout—all rolled into one, yet pre­serv­ing the feel of a non-main­stream wa­ter­ing hole for small-time hob­by­ists and indie fan com­mu­ni­ties.

For the last decade, Douban kept its spot among China’s best-per­form­ing so­cial me­dia platforms—never top­ping any lists, but pulling a re­spectable sev­enth, for ex­am­ple, on this year’s Top 10 Chi­nese So­cial Me­dia Brand rank­ings by data com­pany CNPP. With the ex­cep­tion of QQ and Baidu Fo­rums, it’s also older than any other plat­form on the list. Long­time users take pride in Douban as one of the few Chi­nese so­cial me­dia tools not based on a West­ern “orig­i­nal,” and un­likely to be copied by any­one else.

This con­sis­tent, low-key ex­cel­lence was likely what at­tracted the site’s core com­mu­nity, known as wenyi qing­nian (文艺青年) or wen­qing (文青)—lit­er­ally trans­lated to “artis­tic young­sters,” young peo­ple who are in­ter­ested in lit­er­a­ture, po­etry, and art, with a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing earnest and in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic. In a re­cent es­say on Wechat, tech blog­ger Huang You­can called Douban spe­cial be­cause it “has a lot of prin­ci­ples…such as to be­ing a ‘slow’ com­pany; be­cause they be­lieve ev­ery­one is unique, they refuse to clas­sify users and never in­tro­duced any com­mu­nity-op­er­at­ing ap­proaches like an in­te­gral sys­tem or mem­ber­ship.”

Huang writes that Douban has “never been an oper­a­tions-driven com­pany. They never suc­cumbed to com­mer­cial pres­sure, never gave up car­ing about user ex­pe­ri­ence and the feel­ing of a com­mu­nity, even if it means hav­ing to turn down many ad­ver­tis­ers with con­sid­er­able cap­i­tal.” The site has few ads, no celebrity ac­counts, and most users con­tinue to be known by just their on­line han­dles; its most pop­u­lar func­tions—such as movie and book re­views—can be read by the gen­eral pub­lic as well as reg­is­tered users.

These fea­tures have shaped the im­age of Douban as a classy in­ter­net com­mu­nity that’s both niche and broadly ac­ces­si­ble. “Re­view­ers on Douban are mostly se­ri­ous and cred­i­ble,” says Liu. “They are prone to re­gard movies as cul­tural prod­ucts, not just en­ter­tain­ment. I of­ten read the site’s long-form re­views and find that most come from ex­pe­ri­enced, ma­ture re­view­ers.”

On the other hand, though founder Yang in­sists that Douban doesn’t rep­re­sent elite cul­ture, its pen­chant for the earnest and “taste­ful” make some users feel shut out. “Peo­ple on Douban are too con­de­scend­ing,” says user Hu Qipeng from Liaon­ing prov­ince, who claims never to have taken any of the site’s re­views into con­sid­er­a­tion. “I think many re­view­ers just crit­i­cize to show off their ‘taste.’ Some films with ter­ri­ble rat­ing aren’t nec­es­sar­ily that bad,” ar­gues Hu. Asked whether he would go to see a one-star film, though, Hu’s an­swer was no: “That’s too low.”

Ac­cord­ing to Bei­jing News, Douban’s “cau­tious” busi­ness style is an un­likely

suc­cess story in China’s in­ter­net mar­ket be­cause it tal­lied ex­actly with the “artis­tic youth” iden­tity, which nobody had thought to turn into a con­sumer base at the time. Since then, the mar­ket been dis­cov­ered by in­ter­na­tional brands like Mole­sk­ine or Kin­dle, as well as phys­i­cal book­stores and cafés, all bank­ing on what Chi­nese me­dia dub “classy con­sump­tion”— unique to an im­age­con­scious so­ci­ety with rel­a­tively new his­tory of con­sumerism. “[ Wen­qing] may be rather dis­dain­ful of com­merce, but will not hes­i­tate to spend on their in­ter­ests,” mar­ket­ing firm Dig­i­tal­ing wrote. As the econ­omy de­vel­ops, claims the firm, the next level of as­pi­ra­tion (or pre­ten­sion) for China’s young peo­ple is their “spir­i­tual life.”

By now, though, Douban’s ap­peal had gone be­yond mere wen­qing. In ad­di­tion to dis­cussing a gallery show or the new­est neigh­bor­hood cafe, Douban’s fo­rums now cater to sell­ing one’s sec­ond­hand clothes or look­ing for room­mates. As when any nichemar­ket prod­uct be­comes pop­u­lar, orig­i­nal users felt edged out.

“Now, Douban has been frag­mented,” one for­mer Douban user posted delet­ing his ac­count. “Peo­ple no longer ex­press them­selves and com­mu­ni­cate sin­cerely, so I don’t want to waste time on it any­more.” Many movie­go­ers be­gan to ques­tion the qual­ity of re­views. “Some­times, re­view­ers give a low rat­ing just be­cause the movie stars an ac­tor they don’t like, or just the op­po­site—a fives­tar rat­ing comes from a star’s loyal fans,” com­plains Zhao.

The fast-chang­ing on­line en­vi­ron­ment has also pro­vided chal­lenges for the “slow” com­pany. Douban’s in­ter­face ini­tially strug­gled to cope with the pop­u­lar­iza­tion of smart phones-brows­ing and apps. From 2012, the com­pany re­leased a se­ries of apps, in­clud­ing Douban Broad­cast­ing, Douban Read­ing, Douban Movie, Douban FM, and Douban Group. “I don’t even know how many they’ve launched,” says Zhao. “It was quite an­noy­ing.” Un­able to of­fer the site’s com­pre­hen­sive ser­vice, none of these in­di­vid­ual apps caught on.

It was only in 2014 that a proper Douban app was launched. By 2016, its reg­is­tered users have reached 150 mil­lion, with 300 mil­lion monthly ac­tive users, ac­cord­ing to Caixin. How­ever, Douban’s users seem to be less “sticky” than some other platforms: A re­port is­sued by China In­ter­net Net­work In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter (CNNIC) shows that Douban’s us­age rate—the per­cent­age who used the app in the last six months—in 2017 is only 8.6 per­cent, com­pared to Weibo’s 38.7 per­cent and Wechat’s re­mark­able 84.3 per­cent.

The ques­tion is whether Douban’s dom­i­nance is a help or hin­drance to its qual­ity. Yang is quite con­fi­dent that the model he built can with­stand change while re­main­ing loyal to its base. As early as 2008, when the orig­i­nal users protested the ad­di­tion of the jour­nal and photo al­bum sec­tions, Yang wrote, “This will only bring in more peo­ple and en­rich your ex­pe­ri­ence. You will have more choices, but in Douban’s world, it’s still up to you to choose.” He once at­tempted his own def­i­ni­tion of Douban: “It is a so­cial net­work, but for dis­cov­er­ing in­ter­est­ing things in life, rather than meet­ing friends,” he told Ten­cent Tech News.

Per­haps as long as the site con­tin­ues to defy ex­pec­ta­tion, it will stick around. “I like Douban far more than other re­view­ing web­sites, though I like it less than in the past,” Zhao con­cludes. “Then again, we only have one Douban.”

Like its name­sake, Bei­jing's Douban Hu­tong has evolved from an al­ley­way to com­mer­cial district

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