Posted by Alice Xin Liu on Thursday, September 10, 2009 at 2:15 PM
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.
Danwei: Is douban for highly educted, more bookish, cultural and intellectual users?
Danwei: Is that what you wanted when you started douban?
Danwei: Is it a good business?
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?
Danwei: There was nothing that you could do?
Danwei: Do you feel that you are competing with the other social networking sites?
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.
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?
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.
China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
Front Page of the Day
A different newspaper every weekday
From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Culture and corporate propaganda in Soho Xiaobao (2007.11): Mid-2007 issues of Soho Xiaobao (SOHO小报), illustrating the complicated identity of in-house magazines run by real estate companies.
+ Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship (2010.03): Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship at an officially sanctioned meeting in Shenzhen.
+ Crowd-sourced cheating on the 2010 gaokao (2010.06): A student in Sichuan seeks help with the ancient Chinese section of this year's college entrance exam -- while the test is going on!