Douban: The Ten-year Legacy

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(Chinese Version)


Editor’s Note:

 Douban is already ten years old up to this year. To everybody’s surprise, Douban not only survived despite fierce competition but also is constantly challenging some fundamental assumptions in the Internet industry, such as “Internet thinking” and piracy, etc. Xie Wenzeng, a columnist of TMTpost and one of the pioneers of China’s Internet, once praised Douban as the only Internet company that’s really “Made in China”. At the 2014 annual meeting of Douban, Bo Yang, founder and CEO of Douban, acknowledged that Douban failed to face up to the challenges of the Mobile Internet era in the past three years. Fundamentally, Douban is the combination of an encyclopedia and a networking community. Is Doubana little bit outdated in this mobile Internet era? That’s what this article attempts to answer.

TMTpost has always been looking for real innovation and the real value of any products. We never flatter or slander, instead, we dive deeper and seek for understanding. That’s also exactly what this weekend’s feature report on Douban tries to achieve. To fully understand Douban, its history, struggle and future, I invite all of my readers to think about the following five questions before jumping to any hasty conclusion. 1. How should Douban be so minimalistic in its interface yet so complicated in its structure? 2. Is Douban’s model outdated? 3. Is Douban a social networking site? 4. Why is Douban’s homepage always changing? 5. Will Douban be acquired one day?

The past decade witnessed the emergence of numerous Internet companies in China, among which few survived and even thrived, such as the three Internet giants BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent), while the majority quickly died out, like a flash in the pan., is one of those few survivors. Whether Douban will continue to survive or not, it will definitely be remembered in the Chinese Internet history. This report aims to provide you an insight into Douban and help you better understand its development and struggle:

1. How should Douban be so minimalistic in its interface yet so complicated in its structure?

“Less is more”, Bo Yang’s personal Douban signature reads. This seems to be the motto of Douban, as well.

In an era when websites are judged primarily on their interfaces, Douban is quite an anomaly. Douban’s interface, compared with the large crowd of dazzling interfaces in China, is quite simple and even plain a little bit, featuring fresh color, simple lines, large bunks of blanks and well-organized modules.

However, underneath such simplistic interface lies a highly complex Douban’s product structure, as can be seen in its “all-encompassing” secondary navigation bar.

Throughout the past decade, Douban is constantly expanding its product lines and plugging in more entrances and modules, similar to the ongoing “constructing cities campaign” in China.

In earlier years, Douban only focused on books, films and music. Nowadays, however, Douban has shifted its focus, as can be seen in its slogan: Besides books, films and music, we also provide interesting information on food, travelling, fashion and household, etc. Even Douban itself cannot list all the areas it has covered, then how can Douban’s users have an idea and define Douban in one sentence?

That’s a perfect showcase of Douban’s dilemma.

“If Douban aims to help our users develop their interests, then household and traveling information should also become a part of our services and be included in the navigation bar. At the same time, however, we will go extremes if we have more than twenty items on our navigation bar.”

Said Bo Yang in an interview recently. Indeed, if Douban aims to be the best platform for users “to develop their interests”, then it has to refrain from including more and more items on its platform. Otherwise, it will end up like and, whose homepages are both full of portals.

Were it not for the fact that mobile phones are too small to display too much items, Douban would continue to include more and more items on its home page, because Bo Yang can’t resist the temptation to expand Douban’s influence and attract new users by expanding its interest spectrums.

Mr. Yang once said in Innovation Works, “It is difficult to be only a vertical SNS, since people interested in one particular topic are not enough to support a platform. Only if we connect people of different interests can Douban survive forever.”

Douban serves as a platform for people of different interests to get together and interact with each other. Without it, philosophy fans, classic music fans and science fiction fans will be separated in their own post bars and forums forever.

The synergy between Douban Book, Film, Music, Group and Location combines isolated literature and arts fans together and help them fight against the influence of plebeians. Douban has not only broadened the horizon of literature and arts fans and turned literature and arts into popular pursuits of life, but also created enormous demand for literature and art products. It is fair to say that Douban has become the bellwether of pop culture in China.

However, users are also getting confused as Douban expands. A user is only interested in a few channels, and too much portals and recommendations on the home page will become information burden and even disruption for him/her. Douban’s ambition is to provide interesting information of not only books, films and music, but also food, travelling, fashion and household, all on one single site.

Yet in nature, Douban is not a social networking site like Facebook or WeChat. There isn’t much social networking on Douban and the over-expanding channels will separate Douban users, since most of them are only interested in a limited number of channels.

Douban Alpha City, which is about to be closed on March 24, proved to be a failure. Bo Yang is so attracted to urban planning and has expected to establish a “Utopia for Literature and Arts Fans” through mapping users’ interests on Google maps, so that users will not be distracted by the overwhelming portals on Douban’s homepage. Instead, users interested in limited number of channels are encouraged to explore a few more channels and encounter different people of different interests on a huge “Map of Interests”. As Peter Morville said in his book Ambient Findability, “Most attempt to visualize information on Web-based maps turned out to be futile, since there is no such a world where information is visual. Google can only search for the specific text or hypertext, but can never figure out metaphors.” Without navigation bar and search bar, users in the Alpha City are, as if, thrown into a foreign city and cannot figure out the direction.

Alpha City not only fails to solve the problem, but instead complicates the problem even more.

Yet, on mobile phones, Douban chose to separate all of its functions into several apps, which disrupts the synergy between PCs and mobile phones and re-separates Douban users in different apps. Therefore, no single Douban app can outweigh any other apps. Whereas Bo Yang continuously justified his behavior by his assertion that he had expected to “provide Douban users with a world of their own”, the true reason why Douban separates all of its functions into several apps is that Douban is too big for a single app.

On the one hand, Douban is busy with managing all of its apps, on the other, more and more users are commenting on Bo Yang’s Douban updates and calling for him and his team to develop a single app that includes all the contents. Even for BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent), it is also a big challenge to manage several apps in different fields at the same time, let alone for Douban, which vows to never submit to commercial factors and prefers the idea: small is beautiful.

In August 2014, Douban App1.0 was first released. In this single app, users can search for books, films and music anytime and anywhere. According to Lebanner, a product manager of Douban, this new app is designed in a manner as if Douban were first released on a mobile phone, instead of on PC. Douban goes back to the very foundation, books, films and music while at the same time gives up the over-complicated navigation bars, hot-spot recommendation and neighboring broadcast.

Obviously, this is only a transitional product and far from an ideal “interests-exploring app” of Bo Yang. By limiting to three channels and replacing “exploring” into searching, Douban still fails to break the gap between different blocks and channels and make Douban a more closely-connected community of different interests.

After a 4-month transitional period, Bo Yang and his team released Douban 2.0 and add Douban List, a forgotten function on Douban’s website but a key function now in Douban’s app. Douban List is supposed to bridge the gap between different channels and blocks and reorganize different contents, encourage users to explore and participate on Douban.

Is Douban list the ultimate cure? I shall explain further in this article.

2. Is Douban’s model outdated?

The past decade witnessed the emergence of numerous Internet companies in China, among which few survived and even thrived, such as the three Internet giants BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent), while the majority quickly died out, like a flash in the pan., is one of those few survivors.

Ten years ago, Douban, along with Blog China, Tudou and other UCG websites, enjoyed the media spotlight a lot. Nowadays, however, mobile app is the new media idol, instead of web2.0 or web3.0. However, less than one thirds of Douban’s traffic comes from mobile phones. Undoubtedly, Douban has already left behind in the mobile Internet age.

The question is: Is Douban’s model already outdated? Is Douban’s golden time gone forever?

To answer this question, we have to first make clear what Douban’s model is. When everybody is adherent to the C2C (Copy to China) principle, Douban is one of the remaining few that are not copied to China. But when it comes to Douban’s model, nobody seems to have a clue. A Douban user once concluded in this way:

Douban’s model can be summarized into three aspects: firstly, users get to share their user experience of a product, such as a book or a film; secondly, Douban will recommend books and films to users based on their previous likes and browsing history; thirdly, people with different interests are connected through Douban Group and Douban Location.

In Bo Yang’s eyes, Douban’s model is quite simple: to help users explore their interests. However, he is describing his wishes instead of the methods that should be adopted to achieve his dream. Another product manager once concluded on Douban’s model and suggested, “Douban attracts users as a search engine but get users ‘addicted ’ to it as a social networking site.”

As the most comprehensive search engine of books, films and music, Douban is highly relied on by Chinese netizens. More than 18 million items on Douban are the inexhaustible traffic source of Douban, and also the very reason why Douban survives to this day and is ranked the fifth biggest website by Wikipedia. Early in July, 2005, Beijing News carried out a feature report on Douban with Wikipedia’s ranking as the introduction. From this point of view, Douban is like a combination of an encyclopedia and a post bar.

To wrap up, Douban is fundamentally a combination of an encyclopedia and a post bar. The following question is: is this model outdated?

When people’s daily life is constantly fragmented among WeChat friend circles and Weibo, people prefer listening to music on and reading love stories in the song’s comments area than reading. Nobody bothers to rate and write a long commentary on Douban after watching a movie, rather, they prefer reading bulletin comments while watching the movie. Fragmented and sensational information far outperformed Douban and is attracting more attention. Moreover, since Douban doesn’t have a popular application on mobile phones, it loses a great deal of traffic.

If there is no need to talk about a book or movie, then no wonder will Douban fall into oblivion. Gradually, the item-based Douban will be substituted by service and content-oriented social networking sites. (I have two following up questions for you to think over: why is Zhihu more popular than Douban at present? What makes Douban Moment slightest more popular than any other Douban apps?)

3. Is Douban a social networking site?

It seems that many people treat Douban as a place to hook up with others. However, according to Douban’s Demand Map on Baidu Index, Douban users’s use Douban mostly to search for movies, followed by music and renting, whereas babes ranks lower even than books, let alone hooking up.

How should Douban become a place to hook up with others? I’ll tell you my answer later, and will give you a Douban Hooking-up Manual.

First, answer me one question: Is Douban a social networking site? Many people shall say yes, I suppose. For media, Douban users are mostly literature and art fans, and thus their topics are mostly high-end. However, Bo Yang doesn’t think so and shall never ever compare Douban with Facebook or Renren.

When we look at all the thirteen apps released by Douban, we may find that most of them (except for Douban Group and Douban Broadcasting) are merely tools, not social networking sites. However, even a Curriculum app can be used for social networking purposes nowadays, why didn’t Douban figure out this trend and keep up with it?

For Bo Yang, Douban should only be a tool for its users to develop and explore their interests, rather an end in itself. Even in Douban 2.0, users are not supposed to take selfie or show off the Apple Watch he/she just bought, even sharing sorrows and happiness. Instead, they are merely organizers and circulators of Douban Lists, and even in Douban Neighbor, users are supposed to find what books, films, stuffs his/her neighbor have seen or what lists and photo albums he/she is following?

Is Douban deliberately keeping a distance from social networking and turning a deaf ear to mobile social networking? (Same, a mobile version Douban with only more than ten thousand users, was recently purchased by Tencent) I don’t think so.

As is mentioned above, Bo Yang believes that “it is difficult to be only a vertical SNS, since people interested in one particular topic are not enough to support a platform”. But my question is, even if Douban connects people with different interests together, active users are still the minority. The majority will just use Douban as a search engine and never bother to leave a comment. Take myself as an example, I have 150 neighbors, among whom only 15 are active and constantly engaging in conversations while more than 50 are silent all the way and never have any interaction with others.

After all, taking a selfie and posting a Weibo update is easier than writing a book or movie review or a diary. Except for those Douban “addict” like myself, nobody would ever mark what he/she wants to read, listen and watch everyday.

On mobile phones, Douban app is constantly left untouched and can only draw people’ attention through notice. Wouldn’t it be more exhilarating to refresh one’s WeChat friend circle and see others’ likes and comments than reading through a hot Douban List or other lists recommended by some Douban’s backend or by some total strangers?

Without connection, interaction and friends circle, no efficient social networking can be done. Yet, there is no such connection, interaction and friends circle in Douban, because Douban uses social networking more as a way to explore new interests, not an end in itself.

Moreover, since Douban users are separated in thirteen different and isolated apps, how can you expect them to interact with each other and have fun? Douban did once try to enhance its function as a social networking site on mobile phones, but it has no concrete ground to achieve that.

Don’t worry, let’s now talk about hooking up on Douban. We’ll have to focus mainly on Douban Group, the major reason why Douban gets such a name.

Douban Group is the very platform where users get to interact with each other. It is fair to say that Douban Group, along with post bars and Tianya forum are the origin of Internet popular culture. One Douban user phrased in the following way: If books, films and music channels are the birthplace of high-end culture, then Douban Group is the birthplace of street culture. One might not be able to write an essay, but can at least just stand by and see what others are talking about. In a sense, Douban Group help Douban attract more mediocre users, those ordinary and even creepy guys.

The real problem is, Douban Group, similar to Baidu Post Bar, is not an SNS, and cannot win enough audience on mobile phones. In Douban Group, one can only see other users’ groups, topics and answers, but not his/her Douban homepage or Douban updates. In this sense, Douban Group is more like a self-sufficient land, not a place to have concrete conversations.

Douban Group, a conversation plaza on PCs where people make jokes as bold as they could but a self-sufficient island on mobile phones, doesn’t work on mobile phones either.

On the contrary, Douban Group’s “street culture” will corrupt Douban’s reputation and environment and get literary and art fans like me misunderstood. (Never ask me for the “Douban Group Hooking-up Manual”. Were I have such a manual, how come I didn’t hook up with anyone yet?)

4. Why is Douban’s homepage always changing?

When I wrote down the first line of code for six years ago, I expected Douban to help people explore interesting things in their life. Now, I’ve got a team of more than one hundred colleagues and we are still working in that direction.

Between 2005 and 2006, Douban attempted to achieve its goal through “personalized recommendation through backend algorithm”, that is, Douban will recommend new music, books and films based on their previous likes and updates. Between 2009 and 2010, Douban released Douban Neighbor (today’s Douban Says). Between 2009 and 2010, as more and more users began to talk about every aspects of their personal life, we decided to develop a new channel called Douban Community and two further functions: Online Activity and Douban Site.

That’s how Bo Yang summarized the development strategy of Douban. We can draw from his analysis that Douban has been developing on two distinct models: personalized recommendation through backend algorithm and social networking. If Douban can strike a good balance between these two models, then it will help Douban attract large crowds of users and develop rapidly.

However, the inconvenient truth is that these two models are always competing and blocking Douban’s development.

My evidence? Just take a look at Douban’s homepage, and you will have a clue. For the past decade, Douban’s homepage is always changing, from Douban Says, to Douban Updates, and then to Douban Guess, there is even a joke among Douban users explaining such mixed phenomenon: The reason why Douban’s homepage is always changing can be explained by Douban’s CEO Bo Yang’s nickname “A Bei”, which in Chinese means you can never find what it is going to be like. This phenomenon continues on Douban’s apps: from 1.0 to 2.0, Douban changed again, and one might expect another great change on 3.0.

Does Douban feel like puzzling its users? Of course not. The truth is that Douban has always been struggling between two development models: whether should it emphasize more on personalized recommendation through backend algorithm or social networking.

When the number of Douban users hit 10,000,000 in 2009, a major debate on the development model of Douban separated Douban into two sides: some favored SNS while others thought that Douban should stick to what it began with: personalized recommendation through backend algorithm. The conflict was finally settled: Douban Community was put on the homepage and maintained customer loyalty degree, while books, films and music are separated into three independent channels. After the debate was over, Bo Yang wrote an essay called “The Metamorphosis of Douban”, in which he voiced his concerns about Douban Community.

However, it only put aside the dispute and didn’t solve the problem.

Two most recent revisions suggested that the dispute persists. At the beginning of 2012, Douban Guess replaced Douban Neighbor in the homepage, which caused great controversy. In September 2013, Douban Guess was again replaced by Douban Neighbor since it’s guesses and recommendations are not at all personalized and accurate. Up to now, Douban Guess failed to get onto the homepage again, but is hidden on the homepage of Book, Film and Music channels.

Why can’t Douban Guess and Neighbor settle the argument and coexist? Because they emphasize on two distinct aspects: while Douban Guess is item-based and encourages interaction between users and items through marking “want to read”, “is listening”, “having watched” and rating stars, Douban Neighbor encourages interaction between users through making likes, commenting and reposting. How could these two models coexist when one focuses on human to computer interaction while the other one on people to people interaction? Douban cannot drop one and only choose one because it has to rely on both functions to attract enough users.

Social network recommendation relies heavily on close connection, active interaction among users. That’s where Douban is short of compared to SNS, such as Facebook.

At the same time, backend algorithm should base itself on a huge database of items, highly organized tags and user feedbacks, so as to give an accurate personalized recommendation. When it comes to the first two factors, Douban is similar to Amazon, but when it comes to the third factor, user feedback, Amazon predicts users’ likes based on their purchase history, which is far more accurate than tags such as “likes”, “having read” or “is reading”, which are adopted by Douban in making recommendations. Moreover, users cannot revise the backend algorithm and give feedback to the recommendations, so they have no choice but ignore them.

Douban FM is an exception. Users can click “like” and “ship” to help the backend algorithm adjust its recommendations. More importantly, listening to songs and “educate” Douban FM could be such a fun compared to books, films, music, since nobody bothers to mark “want to read”, “want to watch” and “want to listen”.

While Douban 1.0 gave up its exploring function, Bo Yang insisted on including this function in Douban 2.0. Users are encouraged to explore new interest by mainly two ways: first, Douban will recommend hot-spot contents to every users, following the example of personalized news app recommending news; Secondly, Douban’s backend algorithm will start to do the math and recommend Douban Lists after a user has collected a good amount of lists for the algorithm to guess. The more lists one collects, the more accurate Douban’s list-based recommendations will be.

For Bo Yang, Douban List serves as a bridge between items and users and help Douban’s algorithm work more accurately. However, can Douban List really fulfil that?

Bo Yang once reposted an article named “Tips on How to Use Douban App”, in which the author reveals that:

Not all Douban lists will be updated. So a user might find that although he/she has collected more than 120 lists, he will only receive a limited number of updates, the equivalent of following three to five users.

Isn’t Bo Yang self-depreciating himself?

Honestly speaking, it is too difficult to maintain a Douban list, especially a good one. Gradually, Douban list will lose its popularity and nobody will ever bother to refer to, just like some VIP accounts on Weibo. My guess is that Douban will become more like a media than a social networking tool. The success of Douban Moment can also signify the great potential of Douban to become a media. Yet, that’s far from satisfactory for Bo Yang.

I’ve got another question: what happened to Douban Neighbor? Douban 2.0 includes this function at the request of its regular users but hides it in the channel Circle, because Douban is well aware of the fact that Neighbor doesn’t quite match Douban List.

However, backend algorithm based on the all-encompassing Douban lists is not only beyond Douban’s ability but also not user-friendly at all. In the future, I predict that Douban will do as many other so-called personalized news apps do and deliver hot-spot Douban lists to users, and only time could tell when Douban gets to fulfil its dream to help users explore interests and recommend to others what they might be interested in. Douban should know upfront that users tend to look through news more often than Douban lists on mobile phones. The challenge for Douban is real and hard to overcome.

5. Will Douban be acquired one day?

In an era when nobody gets to maintain its status in China’s Internet industry, Douban is known for its “slow philosophy”. Before the mobile Internet age, slow is regarded as a forgotten quality, but after the mobile Internet paves up its way, slow is depreciated as drowsiness and even laziness.

At the 2014 annual meeting of Douban, Bo Yang, founder and CEO of Douban, acknowledged that Douban failed to face up to the challenges of the Mobile Internet era in the past three years and was left behind.

After all, Douban will not fall apart one day since it has already become an encyclopedia of books, films and music in China. However, its slowness in its commercialization progress is testing investors’ patience. Douban’s income comes mainly from advertisement, while Douban Reading, Douban FM, Douban Film, Douban Stuff all cannot bring Douban any good amount of profits. On mobile phones, it still remains to be seen whether Douban List will help Douban reverse its failure.

If investors’ patience is exhausted, what outcome will Douban face?

Will it be acquired one day? Several years ago, Douban is prey to all Internet giants, such as Dangdang and Tencent. However, Douban is too large to be incorporated since it has too long a product line (American Douban Goodreads was purchased by Amazon but it includes only books). Even for BAT, it could be really hard to acquire and incorporate Douban, let alone Dangdang.

If Douban were to separate all its products and incorporate them into new websites, users will stop using those individual products either, since Douban’s users would feel like using the same products just like BAT’s hundreds of millions of users do.

What will China’s Internet look like without Douban? If we still can’t figure out that picture, then Douban will never fall apart.(The article is published and edited with authorization from the author @Zuo Shujun, please note reference and hyperlink when reproduce.)