China’s most chaotic social network ever escaped Beijing’s censorship

The chaotic Chinese social network Douban has never sought fame; Designed for people with niche obsessions and the urge to talk about them. It was founded in Beijing in 2005, a year before Jack Dorsey launched a little-known microblogging service “twttr,” the same year two University of Virginia roommates heavily coded the system that would become Reddit.

Douban started as a review site for books, movies, and music: the interests of its charismatic founder, Ah Bei. It quickly became a social network with millions of users. The site’s bulletin board system has sped up into an unpredictable, ever-expanding space for gossip discussions on everything from life advice (gay dating, dealing with gassy parents). talk like ants or mushrooms. As Chinese and global competitors pursue ad-based monetization, Instead of playing for survival on the fringes of the Chinese internet, Douban shrugged off profiteering and propaganda.

“The company is run by a group of idealistic tech workers. “This is extremely rare in an age where traffic numbers mean everything,” said Oscar Zhou, lecturer in media studies at the University of Hertfordshire. Douban ensembles studied.

Against all odds, Douban survived for 17 years. But its users seem to be running out of time there. In March, a government censorship task force was established at the company’s headquarters. Over the past year some of their most popular bands have been shut down, their app has been deleted from major Chinese stores, and on April 14, Douban has a important traffic drivergossip forum Goose Group, but it’s unclear whether each of these actions were the decisions of the website or government regulators.

As China’s tech pressure infiltrates every aspect of online life, its ability to organize around something as light as common interests is curtailed by Beijing’s censors. rest of the world spoke to more than a dozen people Early Douban employees, prominent group administrators, and current users, many of whom demand anonymity, to freely discuss Chinese censorship. For them, reining in Douban signals that their creative, close-knit community is becoming an unacceptable political risk as the Chinese government becomes increasingly wary of any form of civic gathering.

“The government doesn’t want people to get together and talk about one thing, whether it’s about public policy or gossip,” Zhou said. “It’s impossible for Douban to always have this space for users. That’s the reality in China.”

The news of Douban’s death came whirlpool since at least 2019. Throughout 2021, Chinese authorities slapped the company. a total of 10.5 million yuan It was fined ($1.65 million) for insufficient censorship, and in December of that year its app was removed from major Android stores in China. And over the past year, Douban has shut down dozens of popular culture forums against the backdrop of the government’s national campaign against the so-called “fan circle chaos,” a vague term that encompasses almost all fan-driven discussion.

In March, China’s Cyberspace Administration sent a special task force to Douban’s office in Beijing to oversee “fix”, the common term for aligning a group. Douban declined to comment on whether the Goose Group shutdown was permanent and the government’s internet. The watchdog did not disclose whether the task force had left Douban’s office.

This edition is new to Douban. Douban with nude website didn’t have to chase after profits or visitors to finance expensive operating costs and afford to ignore brash advertisements and propaganda. Like other social networks try to prove They can help the state reach a mass audience, Douban is a rare corner where the Young Communist League is located, People’s Dailyand Ministry of Foreign Affairs still does not keep propaganda accounts. Today, Douban’s revenue is mostly from ads lives in less controversial forums and the widely trusted movie and book review section.

Some of Douban’s unique demeanor can be traced back to the free internet idealism of its founder, Ah Bei. The platform needed to be simple to use, thereby attracting an inclusive and diverse audience. One early employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: rest of the world By the mid-2010s, Douban was making enough money to pay equipment and staff salaries. The person who left the company in 2014 said the company opposes the trajectory of the entire Chinese internet industry and refuses to join other companies in their pursuit of higher traffic numbers for increased ad revenue. “Ah Bei is obsessed with how clean things are,” they observed. “He doesn’t just want to do business, he also wants to make sure the business reflects his values.”


https://www.douban.com/

“Douban wanted to make money, but people were not willing to compromise his ideals,” said Qingfeng, another early employee who wanted to use his screen name because of privacy concerns. “The money was seen as very dirty.” Qingfeng said that the management intends to hire more realistic employees, but those who passed the interviews were book lovers with lofty dreams. Douban declined to comment rest of the world about government control and finances.

Douban’s management had a principle of non-interference: it both allowed their unusual, passionate group to flourish, and created a laissez-faire environment that eventually caught the censor’s attention, former employees said. Ah Bei decided early on that the rights to these forums belong to their moderators, and according to a former product manager who spoke on condition of anonymity, Douban’s job was to match users with communities that shared their interests.

“Douban wanted to make money, but people were not willing to compromise their ideals. The money was seen very dirty.”

The Goose Group are among the bands that accidentally rose to fame in the free-wheeling environment of Douban. Liuwuma, a former ruler rest of the world To use his screen name due to privacy concerns, he was a freelance writer in his 20s when he co-founded the band’s predecessor “Gossip iscoming” in 2010. The first members of the forum, mostly fans of a viral Taiwanese talk show, started polluting celebrities around the world, from Faye Wong to Justin Bieber. “There was no room for gossip in Douban, so a few of my friends and I set up one,” he said. “We wanted people to come here and have some fun.”

As the group grew, it attracted a new generation of Gen Z pop fans and took on a life of its own. Mostly female members Celebrities who are embarrassed accused of sexual abuse and launched boycott campaigns against companies they see as misogynistic. Sometimes members published veiled criticisms of the government. Liuwuma would remove the politically affected Posts unrelated to gossip, but things often got beyond his control. “It all happened by itself,” he explained.

Goose Group hasn’t exactly escaped the nationalist voices plaguing the Chinese internet. Around 2020, its members confuse feminism with extreme patriotism, trying to silence those who disagree. Goose Group in 2021 shipments Criticizes Western companies’ refusal to supply cotton from Xinjiang fueled A massive consumer boycott movement against Nike, Adidas and H&M.

Patriotic demonstrations were not enough to prevent its closure. Even if a fandom group is largely nationalist, it can find government resources, mobilize“Potentially threatening,” said Chenchen Zhang, a political science lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast. “The closure of these groups means further narrowing of the public space to discuss anything beyond the cultural agenda set by party officials,” he added.


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Goose Group is not alone; other Douban groups are losing their way after years of escaping censorship. Qingfeng, Douban’s 36th employee, managed one of the network’s earliest boards: a tech-sister gathering that has grown into a sprawling link group of around 450,000 members with the harmless name “Eat, Drink, Play and Have Fun in Beijing.” During its summit, the members featured artistically crafted dating profiles, reviews of their lovers’ skills, and tall stories. “After talking about Haruki Murakami, you’d like to hang out with someone who can tell you what their favorite book is,” Qingfeng said. rest of the world. “The person asking ‘Who is Haruki Murakami?’ You don’t want him to say.”

In 2019, Douban restricted viewing to members only, after regulators found the group’s discussions vulgar. It was abruptly shut down on April 18, like the Goose Group.

The future looks sinister for other underground groups, which include everything from Douban’s largest lesbian forum to a space where kids can complain about their parents lighting the kerosene lamp, which went privatized after it closed in 2017. attacked by the party for violating respect for parents. “The entire cyberspace is under tighter control,” Shangchen said. A 43-year-old lesbian user in eastern Jiangsu province. “No one is naive enough to think that the Douban can always only accommodate minorities.”

Members of the Goose Group are trying to reunite on other Douban forums. Outside of China’s censored internet, Goose now has spin-offs reddit, Telegram and Discord all carry the autographed white goose profile picture. (Members, mostly hardcore feminists, call themselves “travelling geese.”) China’s biggest tech companies. Ali Dad, ByteDanceand Weibo are creating their own self-interested communities, but users aren’t sure they will have the same tolerance.

“I never left groups that were closed,” said Melody Cheng, a 23-year-old user who visits Goose Group every day in the eastern province of Shandong. “I always feel that Ah Bei can reopen them one day when restrictions are lifted. Without Douban, we would have lost a place for equal and free discussion.”

Ah Bei’s ghost hangs above Douban. As someone who created the social network in his own image, his ideals are still chattering on the boards. Users mourning the death of their community are leaving pleading messages on their profile.

“Oh Bei, can’t you pull some rope?” “If you run out of money, we donate.” “Bei, promise me, don’t give up on Douban.” His profile has been inactive since 2019.

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