A Platform Embattled: China’s Beloved, Contested Social Media Site Douban

Earlier this month, administrators of Chinese social media platform Douban were summoned by the country’s top internet regulators to receive a fine for the site’s alleged “unlawful” release of information.

In a statement issued by the Cyberspace Administration of China, the company was revealed to have incurred a 1.5-million-yuan ($235,176) penalty, bringing the total of all fines issued to the platform from January through November of this year to 9 million yuan ($1.41 million). Shortly thereafter, Douban was included in a list of 106 apps ordered to be removed from local app stores due to alleged security violations and the failure to protect users’ data privacy.

For Douban, the decisions simply mark the latest development in a drawn-out saga, taking place for years now, as authorities in China adopt a more hands-on approach to shaping the domestic digital ecosystem.

While recent shifts in Chinese tech regulation have received considerable attention from the wider world, Douban – which cannot be neatly compared to any Western alternative – remains largely unknown outside of its native country.

Fundamentally, Dòubàn (豆瓣) is a social networking site that allows users to share reviews of movies, books, music and other cultural content in a common online space. Speak to many of its nearly 200 million registered users, however, and they will tell you that it is much more than that.

Douban was launched in March of 2005 by a software entrepreneur named Yáng Bó (杨勃), who, after graduating with a degree in physics from the prestigious Tsinghua University and obtaining a PhD at UC San Diego, had returned to work in China’s burgeoning technology sector. In those heady early days of digital media – with Facebook having been founded just a year prior – Yang set his own project in motion. Working from his laptop in a local Beijing Starbucks, he decided the new site would take its name from his erstwhile address, Douban Hutong.

“Back in 2005, we had the grand mission to connect people with things they like, and things they might like,” Yang said at a 2012 event. “But along the way, actually, we happened to connect people with each other.”

Douban takes its name from a street in central Beijing where its founder Yang Bo once lived. (Source: Pandaily)

In addition to providing a digital space for reviewing cultural content, one of Douban’s most successful features has been its groups function, or xiǎozǔ (小组). This allows users to link up with others based on a common interest, from book and music genres to travel plans, fashion and personal hobbies.

“Identity is not that important on Douban. It’s the interests, and the content you create,” said Yang. “There are also groups people use to label themselves with – there are groups for people who can’t get up early and groups for procrastinators.”

The multifaceted character of Douban makes any comparison with a single Western platform tricky. It’s as if Goodreads, IMDb, Reddit, Pinterest and Twitter have all been rolled into a single platform.

Today’s users of Douban can be coarsely broken down into two juxtaposed categories, whose not-always-cordial coexistence at times seems to threaten the stability of the platform. On one hand, China’s young literati flock to Douban as a haven for unbridled discussion on various cultural topics. On the other hand, the platform also serves as a popular host for the latest entertainment gossip, along with its associated idol culture and fandom.

For several years now, commentators have been pointing out what they see as the gradual demise of Douban. While loyal holdouts still regard it as the digital bastion of China’s nonconformists and bohemians, others have given up on what they now see as just another mainstream social media platform, ridden with cheap content and a shallowed-out community spirit.

As one writer contended in a Chinese article earlier this month, “the crux of the tragedy of the commons is also here. Douban couldn’t escape its influence on the field of public opinion.”

With mainstream status comes mainstream responsibilities. Among the problems faced by Douban over the years, one of the most challenging has been how to handle the manipulation of user reviews. In 2019, trolls took to the platform in an attempt to bring down the aggregate score of the blockbuster film The Wandering Earth, with users reported having been offered cash in exchange for one-star ratings. Douban administrators rushed to moderate comments and ban offending accounts, but lasting damage to the platform’s reputation had already been inflicted.

More recently, Douban has faced greater pressure from regulatory authorities, which have sought to exert more influence within the online space.

Shortly after a sex scandal involving Chinese-Canadian performer Kris Wu broke in July 2021, various government organs began to decry what they refer to as ‘harmful fan culture’ (不良粉丝文化), announcing efforts to rectify such behavior in the digital realm. Among the resulting decisions was the temporary suspension of Douban’s reply function, providing an additional hurdle for users seeking to discuss the latest entertainment gossip.

China’s internet has undergone one transformation after another since Douban’s founding in 2005. The company’s fundamental structure and business model, however, have remained uninterrupted, causing some to declare it an essentially “slow” company.

The platform’s reluctance to adapt in an ever-changing digital environment may ultimately bring about its demise. But as some of its once most loyal users see it, that day has long since come and gone.