Photo Credit: Cai Tao
How an indie social network conquered China’s entertainment market

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 image-conscious 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 niche-market 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 five-star 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.”

Check out our round-up of Douban’s worst-rated movies and see if you feel they’re justified.

Killer App is a story from our issue, “Vital Signs.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine.


author Sun Jiahui (孙佳慧)

Sun Jiahui is a freelance writer and former editor at The World of Chinese. She writes about Chinese language, society and culture, and is especially passionate about sharing stories of China's ancient past with a wider audience. She has been writing for TWOC for over six years, and pens the Choice Chengyu column.

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