"Know anyone who has any needs?"
"I'm not sure, I can ask around for you."
"Don't you have any needs?"
"I just want to be with someone I love."
"Really, I'm not bad. Give it some thought."
It was the worst pickup attempt that Dong Jin had ever heard. You might think that something was lost in translation, that surely this sounds better in the original Chinese, but you would be wrong. That all this was unfolding online — Dong, 26, a Beijing teacher, was being approached by a college student who had just friended her on the Chinese social network Renren — made it even weirder. Scenes like this (many of them, fortunately, less awkward) repeat themselves hundreds, if not thousands, of times a day on the Facebooks of China.
The real Facebook is not available behind the Great Firewall of China, except to netizens rich enough and technologically savvy enough to buy access to proxy servers, because government censors have blocked it as a foreign threat. Twitter and Google are off-limits too. According to the recent WikiLeaks disclosures of U.S. State Department cables, the latter fell victim to politburo member Li Changchun, who launched a personal campaign against it after Googling himself and finding an abundance of critical material.
In the absence of these web titans, dozens of Chinese copycats have sprung up, but none tell a story of evolving, modern China like the fake Facebooks, some of which mimic Facebook down to page architecture and color scheme. The leading social networks on the mainland are Renren, which, like Facebook, initially targeted the college crowd, and Kaixin001 (kaixin means "happy," and the 001 was added to give a techy feel to the name), aimed at young professionals.
In some ways, social networking in China is much like that in the U.S. It has spread well beyond its original target demographic. Office workers stay logged on constantly. Artists, singers, and secretaries post status updates a dozen times a day from their laptops or their cell phones. Grandmothers grow potatoes on local versions of FarmVille.
As with Facebook, the membership rolls are astounding and growing rapidly. In a 1.3 billion-strong nation where less than a third of the populace is online, Renren claims about 165 million users. A slogan on a chalkboard in an employee lounge at its HQ claims, "Every day the number of people joining Renren.com would fill 230 Tiananmen Squares." Kaixin001 says it has 95 million users.
In significant ways, though, online life behind the Great Firewall is different. For one thing, there is no dominant site. By blocking Facebook, the government has unwittingly ignited an especially fierce and litigious competition between Renren and Kaixin001. The two networks have pushed each other strategically and technologically, devising ingenious new ways to advertise to audiences that are even more saturated by marketing than Americans. Also, according to Netpop Research in San Francisco, Chinese Internet users are twice as conversational as American users; in other words, they're twice as likely to post to online forums, chat in chat rooms, or publish blogs. And to the joy of advertisers and marketers, social media is twice as likely to influence Chinese buying decisions as American ones, which explains why brands such as BMW, Estée Lauder, and Lay's have flocked to China's social networks.
Sites like Renren and Kaixin001 are microcosms of today's changing China — they copy from the West, but then adjust, add, and, yes, even innovate at a world-class level, ultimately creating something unquestionably modern and distinctly Chinese. It would not be too grand to say that these social networks both enable and reflect profound generational changes, especially among Chinese born in the 1980s and 1990s. In a society where the collective has long been emphasized over the individual, first thanks to Confucian values and then because of communism, these sites have created fundamentally new platforms for self-expression. They allow for nonconformity and for opportunities to speak freely that would be unusual, if not impossible, offline. In fact, these platforms might even be the basis for a new culture. "A good culture is about equality, acceptance, and affection," says Han Taiyang, 19, a psychology major at Tsinghua University who uses Renren constantly. "Traditional thinking restrains one's fundamental personality. One must escape."
Put another way, a lot of people in China have needs — and one of them is a place to be whoever they want to be.
Do not call Wang Xing the Mark Zuckerberg of China. Mark Zuckerberg is the Mark Zuckerberg of China. In 2003, Wang dropped out of a PhD program at the University of Delaware and returned to Beijing to create a local version of Friendster. It flopped. Two years later, he heard about this new thing called Facebook and decided to copy it.
Wang's story is a Chinese version of a time-honored tech-sector tale. A graduate of Tsinghua, China's MIT, Wang says that his purpose in starting Xiaonei ("on campus"), which was later renamed Renren, was "to make a better world." With that in mind, he and his two business partners pooled 300,000 renminbi (about $45,000) in savings and rented three tiny, adjacent apartments just off campus, where they lived, worked, and sequestered themselves for weeks and weeks during the fall of 2005 and into early 2006, subsisting on takeout, instant noodles, and code. Wang, an idealistic geek with a predilection for padding around his office in plastic slippers, saw their goal as a noble one: "Everything that helps information flow is good for society."
Xiaonei's soft launch coincided with the biggest party of the year at Tsinghua, the December variety show, which includes skits and song and dance, and is put on by the electronic-engineering department. Tickets are always hard to come by. (Truly.) Wang, who had somehow finagled a monopoly on distribution, turned the process into a Xiaonei membership drive: To gain admission to the show, one first had to join his fake Facebook. In just a few days, Xiaonei garnered 4,000 members. The following month, the company chartered a bus to provide free trips from the dorms to the train station from which students would depart for their Chinese New Year trips home. Again, to get access, you had to join Xiaonei.
Here's another reason Wang cannot be called the Mark Zuckerberg of China: He sold. In 2006, Oak Pacific Interactive bought Xiaonei for about $4 million, Wang says. It seemed like a lot of money at the time, but today, Renren, as the new owners renamed it, is estimated to be worth as much as several billion dollars. "There is no regret," Wang says now, sounding at turns philosophical, pragmatic, and fatalistic. "We should look forward. How many days do each of us have in our whole lives? We can live for 80 years on average. That's 30,000 days, 2.5 billion seconds. Which one makes you think life is short? The process is more important than the result, because we all have the same result — death. It's the same destiny."
Today, Wang rarely uses the social network he founded. But in a larger sense, he accomplished what he set out to do: to increase information flow. Studies show that Chinese college students now get more information via Renren's news feed than they do from search engines or other news sources.
That Xiaonei was so clearly a Facebook knockoff does not bother Wang. When asked how he could be so comfortable with copying, he says he has nothing to say about intellectual-property rights. In fact, many Chinese have remarkably lax views on IP. Copying usually isn't seen as wrong as long as you're making something better or cheaper. (A Facebook spokesman declined to comment, except to say that his company is "focused on innovation to build something meaningful.")
Wang went on to start Fanfou, a Chinese version of Twitter, which was shut down in 2009 by the government for political reasons but recently relaunched. His most recent startup is a Chinese version of Groupon called Meituan, a two-character name that seems a good way both to understand what Wang intended to do with Xiaonei and to describe what his baby has become for millions of Chinese netizens. The first character, mei (美), means "beautiful" (the Mandarin for America is meiguo, "beautiful country"), and tuan (团) can be read as "company," "group," or perhaps best for this context, "network."
In his Renren profile photo, Han, the Tsinghua sophomore, sits in a beam of sunlight flooding through a window, a white splotch of overexposure half as big as his face helping to fill the frame. It's a play on his given name, Taiyang, which sounds like the Mandarin for sunshine. "Renren is a display," Han says. "Everyone wants to be understood. Everyone wants others to understand who they are." He pauses before correcting himself. "Or who they want to be."
Han logs on to Renren several times a day from his laptop and even more often from his cell phone, to update his status messages and read his friends'. Lately, Han, who plays the French horn, adores karaoke, and eagerly participates in campus singing contests, has been updating mostly about music, onstage nerves, and audience reactions.
To Han, Renren is a personal marketing platform. "People create an ideal version of themselves. It's like an ad. You have to simplify yourself," he says, using his hands to shape a box. "You make a brand to help other people understand you, like a product."
Liu Neng, a sociologist at Peking University, says that Han's generation has come to see social networks as "a place of escape. Online, they find a sense of security and a sense of social worthiness. It's a place where they can derive their own youth culture. These are things they cannot get from their real lives, where they feel pressure."
The pressure comes from the aggregate demands of the Chinese family, party, and nation. Traditionally, the wants and needs of the individual have been secondary; the primary emphasis is on duty, conformity, prescribed roles, and sacrifice for the greater good. (As Han delicately puts it, "Before, Chinese people didn't like narcissism.") This falls especially hard on the balinghou (literally, "post-1980s") and the jiulinghou ("post-1990s") because they are, for the most part, only children — the first generations to be born under the nation's one-child policy. The idea of doing what you want because it makes you happy is a novelty, but one that blooms on these social networks because they are "based on creative and humanistic values and respect for individual human needs," says Liu. "Renren has a humanistic value system."
As is true of any evolving culture, this one doesn't entirely dispense with the old in favor of the new. For instance, the balinghou and jiulinghou cohorts typically have unusually strong bonds with their parents, which manifest themselves in unusual — one might even say fruitful — ways. On a typically busy workday, Liu Yuan, 29, an administrative assistant at Lenovo who's an avid player of Happy Garden, the FarmVille of Kaixin001, asks her mother to tend her crops. "She'll grow and harvest vegetables for me," says Liu, who thinks nothing of sharing her login and password with her mom. "When I'm at work, she'll send me a text asking what kind of vegetables." She says that many of her friends ask their mothers to do the same. (What makes this simultaneously perverse and loving in an only-in-China way is that, as youths, many of those moms were working on real farms as forced laborers during the Cultural Revolution.)
"Young people need a public space," says Xiaonei founder Wang. "They don't have a physical public space, so they need a virtual public space." Wu Guohong, a psychology professor at Shanghai's Fudan University, explains it a bit differently: "Chinese people's behavior on the Internet has gone above and beyond the traditional expectations of being subtle, stiff, shy, and bowed to authority. Traditionally, the Chinese have had no outlet, no freedom of expression. I think the extroversion of the balinghou and jiulinghou generations on social-networking sites is just a sort of overcompensation for lack of real-life outlets."
That's particularly true for people who would typically live on the social margins of Chinese society. Take Marco Qu, a 25-year-old gay Beijing DJ. Last year, he went to a Halloween party in drag — long black wig, black bikini, rings around his nipples, a whip in his hand. "Drag queens are pretty rare in China," he says drolly. "They're mostly underground." At the party, someone took pictures, some featuring him draped around a Boy Scout, and posted them on Kaixin001. The album was titled: "Female ghosts." Within two weeks, users had posted more than 24,000 comments, mostly positive. "I don't know who took the pictures, but they've been posted and reposted on other websites as well," Qu says. "Some friends were making fun of me, but people friended me because of that." He has even met several of his new friends in person.
In a nation where homosexuality is still typically frowned upon — gay-themed movies are banned from TV and cinema — and was removed from the official list of mental disorders only in 2001, this feels radical, and it is, even for Qu. In his own Kaixin001 profile, there is no mention of his sexuality. It's actually not possible on Renren or Kaixin001 for a man to say he's "interested in: men," as one can on Facebook. And Qu hasn't posted any drag-queen pics. "If people know me, they know I'm out, but if they don't ask, why should I put it on my page?" he says. "Sometimes life is easier if you don't."
With politics, too, these online public squares seem more open than the offline versions. "We can focus on a few social topics, including racial issues, including democracy," says Liu, the admin at Lenovo. "It's freer." But there are limits. While both Renren and Kaixin001 decline to specify what they do to comply with government directives on content, Internet companies in China must censor a range of sensitive keywords, including terms related to the Dalai Lama, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and Chinese dissidents including 2010 Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo.
But in a modern twist on the venerable Chinese tradition of pun and wordplay, netizens quickly find words and images that can, in small ways, subvert censorship and make their views known. For instance, the government recently added the ongoing cases involving melamine-tainted infant formula, which sickened hundreds of Chinese kids, to the list of censored topics — what bloggers call "Directives from the Ministry of Truth." So one Kaixin001 user, who insists he lacks a photo of himself, posted, as his profile pic, a snapshot of a can of formula. And bad news, political or otherwise, can spark the proliferation of one clever status update, found most often on Renren: a simple picture of a cup. The Mandarin word for cup, bei, conveniently sounds a lot like the one for tragedy.
Just as Facebook inspired Xiaonei, Xiaonei inspired a raft of facsimiles, including 51.com (for rural users); Qzone (younger netizens who use its instant-messaging service, QQ, a knockoff of ICQ); and the most successful, kaixin001.com. When Kaixin001 launched in March 2008, it was clear that there were only two major differences between it and Xiaonei. One was the site's dominant color: Xiaonei featured blue, like Facebook but just a shade darker, while Kaixin001 went red. The other is that Kaixin001 shrewdly targeted young, white-collar workers — in other words, grown-up Xiaonei users.
Kaixin001's founder, Cheng Binghao, was formerly the CTO at Sina, China's biggest Internet portal. Within months of its spring 2008 launch, Kaixin001 had built a strong following in two key sectors in Beijing — techies and media professionals. That fall, Oak Pacific, which had bought Xiaonei, tried to purchase its fledgling rival. The offer was rejected, so Oak Pacific bought the domain name kaixin.com and set up a site nearly identical to Kaixin001 — basically a knockoff of a knockoff of a knockoff of Facebook.
In May 2009, Kaixin001 sued Oak Pacific for unfair competition, asking the courts to force kaixin.com offline. Meanwhile, Xiaonei hired Saatchi & Saatchi's Beijing office to help rebrand it, seeking to make itself more attractive to Kaixin001's market. The name it chose was Renren, meaning "everybody."
But it wasn't until this past October that Kaixin001 won a partial victory. The Beijing Second Intermediate People's Court ordered Oak Pacific to cease all use of kaixin.com and pay 400,000 renminbi ($60,000) in damages. The company has not yet paid or relinquished the domain name; it has simply rerouted traffic from kaixin.com to Renren. So far, the court has done nothing to enforce its ruling.
This brings to mind an oft-reposted status update on Renren: "In the West, law is like an .exe file. In China, law is like a .txt file." In other words, in the West, the law works. In China, it exists, but doesn't operate — something that Kaixin001 knows all too well.
If there is an upside to the legal wrangling, it is that these rival social networks have pushed one another to innovate, to create truly new features — and as speedily as possible, since any popular new idea nearly instantly gets copied. "Almost anything is easily duplicated," says Mark Natkin, managing director of Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting, which focuses on China's telecoms and Internet sectors. "It very quickly ceases to be a source of competitive advantage."
Early on, for instance, Xiaonei added a feature that Facebook still doesn't offer — the ability to see who has viewed your profile. (The other Chinese networks copied it.) "People want to know whether they are popular," Wang explains. "We have different standards for privacy [than the U.S.]." The feature is useful for flirting. "If someone looks at your page every day, you can tell they are interested," says Hua Kuoman, 32, a teacher.
The major innovations have come in social gaming, the biggest driver of traffic and revenue. The most popular game is Happy Farmer, a third-party app developed for Renren in 2008 by a firm called Five Minutes. This was the inspiration for Kaixin001's Happy Garden — and for Zynga's FarmVille, which debuted nearly a year after the Chinese versions. Three-quarters of Renren users have played Happy Farmer; by comparison, less than 10% of Facebook users play FarmVille.
Gaming's immense popularity has opened up new channels for advertising. In April 2009, Lay's potato chips launched its Happy Farmer campaign — more than a year before FarmVille had any product placement. "We let users grow Lay's potatoes, which are bigger and beefier and create more profit for the user, and then we let them create a Lay's factory," says Alex Miller, advertising product manager at Renren. Before the campaign, he says, 45% of users surveyed had tasted Lay's during the previous month. Within two months, that figure had jumped to 65%.
Both networks have been much more aggressive than Facebook and Zynga in sprinkling product placement throughout their games — and according to Nielsen, this is quickly becoming the biggest revenue source for China's social networks. Players of Kai-xin001's Happy Garden can plant seeds and squeeze juice for Lohas, a soft drink made by COFCO, China's biggest food manufacturer; they can also enter a lottery to win Lohas. And players of Happy Restaurant can earn virtual currency by hanging ads for companies on the walls of their virtual eateries. After meals, they can also hand out sticks of Wrigley's gum.
Renren has been more in-the-user's-face about advertising. Its pop-up and banner ads constantly barrage the user with promos, usually for virtual gifts — a big source of revenue and a chance for consumer brands to do quick, targeted promotions. Last year, for instance, the food maker Youlemei picked one of February's coldest days for a campaign aimed at users in frigid northern China. On that day, members could send friends a cup that came complete with digital steam and the words, "Have a hot cup of milk tea on me."
Renren has gone so far as to place promotions in members' news feeds. It calls this Top Feed, but it's virtually indistinguishable from the river of friends' status updates and non-ad news. "The click-through rates are very high," Miller says, though he declines to give precise numbers. "People say, 'What's that? It's in the top of my feed, right where my friends should be. Let me click that video.' "
Kaixin001 has been more minimalist, a nod to its target audience, which it claims is more sophisticated than Renren's. In a nation where advertising redefines ubiquity — cafeteria trays promote mobile phones, gym mirrors with built-in screens flash ads as you work out — it has sought to be a bit of a haven. "A visitor from Facebook asked me, 'Why don't you have any ads?' " says deputy general manager Guo Wei. He points to a sample page that has no ads save a public-service announcement soliciting clothing donations. "Our ads are not rare; they're just nontraditional."
Take the 50th anniversary of Mini, which the carmaker marked with a campaign that included sponsorship of free virtual gifts. Lured by the brand's prestige, Kaixin001 users in one day sent their friends 1.5 million virtual Minis, Guo says; 4 million people pressed a congratulations to mini! button — and automatically told their friends they had done so. The next best thing to showing off your own auto in car-crazy China? Showing off the car you'd have if you could afford one. "Advertising, at the very least, should not annoy the consumer," Guo says. "Kaixin001 should feel like the most important site on the web. It should feel like my own space."
If you need a reminder that China is still a relatively poor country, you need only look at the revenues of these burgeoning networks. Ads are cheap: While Facebook posted more than $1 billion in revenue in 2010, Kaixin001 scored about $40 million. (It predicts that will roughly double in 2011.) Renren, which hopes to go public this year, declines to disclose full revenue figures but brought in at least $50 million.
Those numbers will undoubtedly rise. Both networks say they're adding hundreds of thousands of users daily, and China's Internet penetration rate is still only about 30%, versus some 75% in the U.S. One question for Renren is whether it will be able to retain its users, or if they will "graduate" to Kaixin001. And a major challenge for all networks will be to keep people engaged and online, especially because many users are too poor to own computers and rely on Internet cafés. For them, Jin Meizi's story could be a cautionary tale.
A lounge singer from Jilin, in China's northeast, Jin was nearing 30 — the age after which singletons are called "leftovers" — without much hope of marrying. A friend urged her to join a social network to meet guys, so one day, she did. Like many Chinese looking for love or lust, she used a fake identity, but she was puzzled that she couldn't find most of her friends online. Turns out she meant to sign up for Kaixin001, but accidentally registered at Kaixin instead.
No matter: She began chatting with a guy who seemed nice. He also seemed familiar, even if his name did not. Soon, the truth emerged — he was an ex-boyfriend of hers named Li Yueming. He had also been using a fake name, and had been emboldened to approach her because of the cloak of cyberspace. "In a restaurant, you can't go up and introduce yourself. Something you say might bother them," says Li, a sound engineer. "Online, you can say things you might not say in person, so you come to understand each other better."
Six months after reconnecting, Li proposed — via chat on Kaixin. They wed in November 2009. But the passage of time hasn't diminished their embarrassment at how they rekindled their romance. "We didn't tell anyone," says Jin, who at 28, is relieved never to have been called leftovers. "Only we know."
They found what they needed. Today, they no longer go online.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.