Internet culture

Ah Bei, CEO of douban.com, on the website as a "creative stage"

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Douban.com is based on users organizing events around their interests, forming discussion groups, fan pages of brands, bands, people etc. Users also have their own pages, listing books they've read, CDs they've listened to, and movies they've watched. They can write reviews and link to their blog, which appears in extracts on their page. People with similar interests therefore find one another.

The website has dominated the online cultural scene for the last four years.

Douban was started by Ah Bei (阿北), who returned from the US after studying for a PhD in Physics at the University of California. Ah Bei also worked at IBM for two years before doing a start-up in Beijing. Having a passion for books and music, Ah Bei formed a social networking-type website based on user-generated material and very little editing. Now they have a team of just under a hundred working near Dashanzi in Beijing. Ah Bei acts as product developer and CEO.

Although the engineering side is important for Ah Bei and his team, it's a passion for music, literature and movies that keeps the website going - and the reason why millions visit the site. Ah Bei gave Danwei a face-to-face interview about why the website is edgy, how groups are formed and why some disappear, as well as its status as host for independent music.


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Danwei: Is douban for highly educted, more bookish, cultural and intellectual users?
Ah Bei: Douban users are in higher education, and some are doing higher training courses (大专), and they are more educated than the average Chinese reader. Our focus is books, movies and music, and we are a lot more culture orientated.

Danwei: Is that what you wanted when you started douban?
Ah Bei: Not at all, it was more of a technical vision, but we hoped to attract a lot of book lovers, which had a huge impact on the company in China, generating more users and more interest in the community. But if you look at the make-up of the company, 70% are engineers; we don’t have editors. Our company is cultural and bookish: our core users are cultural people, and the content is user-generated; we don’t create any content.

Danwei: Is it a good business?
Ah Bei: It’s more like localization and translation - at the beginning it didn’t have movies but only books and music, actually. I haven’t seen any sites that combine books and music.

I can give you a lot of reasons about why it's successful... one of the reasons is that, when douban started rolling four years ago, dangdang.com and joyo.com had only one line commentaries about service and delivery, and our recommendation knowledge was better quality. It’s a place where creative types come together to create some space, and we never stop them using the space to create, talk or make the pages that they want to make. There is the space to do this, unlike on Xiaonei (now Renren) or Kaixin where most of the interactions are focused on one page of a particular user, or like joyo or dangdang where there is only a comments section and two out of three comments are about the technical problems of delivery, and not about the product itself. Also, the douban engineers and editors take a kind-of hands-off attitude and don't interfere with the subjects and topics, so it's freer, and a creative platform for creativity.

Douban.com was a little known website, so there are a lot of reasons [that it’s successful], douban got a lot of attention for its products, and innovation, from out of China, so it was quite different. We didn’t get a lot of attention in the US market when we tried to enter that. But although Douban.com is a Chinese site, more than 5% comes from out of China from overseas Chinese.

Danwei: Discussion groups have been shutting down over the past year - usually involving the discussion of sensitive topics. Groups such as Southern Weekly, the Chang Ping group and various other newspaper or magazine groups. What was the cause and how do you feel about this?
Ah Bei: Douban obviously focuses on culture and urban life, and has never been a political or radical site, the product itself makes it easier for users to share their interests: there are over 20,000 user groups, all about different topics. A group like Southern Weekly only holds a tiny percentage of the audience; more than 90% of the groups are about life, books and movies. And it’s very simple, we have to comply with local regulations, and we didn’t have a choice.

Danwei: There was nothing that you could do?
Ah Bei: We hate it. But the groups being shut down is only a small part of douban. People who are interested in a certain topic think that on douban others are also interested. For example a forty year-old professor will think that douban is full of people who are that age and are doing the same things that they are.

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Danwei: Do you feel that you are competing with the other social networking sites?
Ah Bei: Some people use Xiaonei (now Renren) and some people use Kaixin - but they tend to use these at the same time, and they attract totally different users, douban has never been an SNS site; it has a community or social networking community. Perhaps it’s a social network based on books, or on movies, but douban is broader than that.

Douban actually stands at 30 million unique visitors a month. Douban is more community focused than a social network, it's a public sharing site, so it's more like Tianya.cn and Mop.com. Douban users are aged between 20 - 35, and usually single, therefore they have enough time to socialize on the Internet. Mop tends to be younger and Tianya to be older, i.e. those who have started families. We don't compare to Xiaonei or Kaixin because they are connecting people who know each other offline.

When people feel attached to it, such as when they go to events and tell people they’re the leader of a certain douban group, I feel very proud. We see douban as a stage, but we never jump onto the stage and say, “Look how great I am.” We don’t have the energy or power to sponsor events but our users can organize them. Look at douban’s groups in Beijing and Shanghai: it has ten or twenty of the largest groups, but organizing events are not easy, and it has not been our target of the last two years.

Danwei: Is douban a platform for independent music groups and bands? The artists’ pages rank as some of the most popular.
Ah Bei: Actually one of the guitarists for PK14 works here as the music editor. We have more than two million books and music. They need to review everything, including the cover image… But it’s not writing or editing. They also need to review the bands to make sure it’s not a fake band or anything.

The reason there is such a platform for independent music on douban is because they have nowhere else to go. People who like Jay Chou (周杰伦) or Chris Lee (李宇春) have so many places to go. They are big pop stars who have big audiences who can go to any major website; they don’t need to come to douban but independent artists have very little place to go. For douban, its users upload musicians’ pages very quickly and frequently, and this frequency means that more independent music stays at the Douban.

Danwei: Why do you think douban is edgy?
Ah Bei: Popular books like The World Is Flat has a traditional Chinese version too, published in Hong Kong, so there are reviews of this in Chinese. Douban already has an impact on these books, inspiring collaborative translation work and blogs.

Movies are most popular now, and then books. One of the reasons the reviews are so that helpful is because it helps communication.

Our ability to innovate is why it's edgy. Douban.com is only the first step: we also have 9dian (9点), the blogging platform, and people who use it actually love it. Next time we have something great or major we might consider actually getting an international audience: launching it bilingual - there’s no reason we shouldn’t.

There are currently 3 Comments for Ah Bei, CEO of douban.com, on the website as a "creative stage" .

Comments on Ah Bei, CEO of douban.com, on the website as a "creative stage"

As hackneyed as it might seem, I'm surprised you didn't ask him about censorship. Being a major user-generated content hub and attracting a fringe of creative and saavy netizens, Douban is constantly being singled out on Twitter for having deleted this or that discussion topic. It would have been interesting to see how this engineer reconciles the back-end and front-end cultures of his site.

Sorry Micah, I completely missed your comment three days ago; forgive me for the late reply. Here is the portion of the interview in regards to what you mentioned above (it seems that we think alike, although I may not have made the 'censorship' question obvious enough):

Danwei: Discussion groups have been shutting down over the past year - usually involving the discussion of sensitive topics. Groups such as Southern Weekly, the Chang Ping group and various other newspaper or magazine groups. What was the cause and how do you feel about this?
Ah Bei: Douban obviously focuses on culture and urban life, and has never been a political or radical site, the product itself makes it easier for users to share their interests: there are over 20,000 user groups, all about different topics. A group like Southern Weekly only holds a tiny percentage of the audience; more than 90% of the groups are about life, books and movies. And it’s very simple, we have to comply with local regulations, and we didn’t have a choice.

Danwei: There was nothing that you could do?
Ah Bei: We hate it. But the groups being shut down is only a small part of douban. People who are interested in a certain topic think that on douban others are also interested. For example a forty year-old professor will think that douban is full of people who are that age and are doing the same things that they are.

douban is down?

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