[Gang Lu: You can also find a revised version of this post on ReadWriteWeb. ]
Facebook has officially launched its Japanese version, and its Chinese version was also released last week. However, the fact is that many Facebooks have been made in China and in operation for a long while, which probably means whether it will be officially running in China or not does not really matter any more for millions of Chinese users. Here are some news: A new look-liker Yiqi.com is in public test. The guy behind Yiqi is Wen Xie, former CEO of Yahoo China, a very influential veteran in China web; UCenter, a mini-version of Facebook developed by Comsenz, now can be downloaded for free. The lastest stats from Comsenz is that there are over 50,000 UCenter have been set up, only 3 months after its release;
You may feel bored with those copycats stories. However if we study in depth these Chinese Facebooks, the stories are actually more colorful than you thought. Started as simple clones, Chinese Facebooks are seeking their own ways to survive and most importantly, to evolve.
The most well-known Facebook copycat is Xiaonei.com. It was just like a simplified version of Facebook in Chinese when it was first launched. The same layout, same colour scheme and even a very similar logo make people even wondered if there was an official connection with Facebook. But clones do not mean they can not succeed in China. Xiaonei is bought by Oak Pacific Interactive which has recently sold its approximately 35% share to Softbank for $430 millions. Interesting enough, it is not only Xiaonei love the design of Facebook, many clones are still look similar with Facebook, but in different colour.
Word of Mouth has become a very powerful and useful resource for consumers and business people. Facebook, YouTube and many other web2.0 stars have been using buzz marketing for their growth. Chinese netizen has exceeded 200 million, the power of Word of Mouth Market (WOMM) just can not be ignored. But, the fact is that the traditional offline promotion is still considered as the most efficient and effective marketing strategy in China. Word Of Mouth could be zero cost, but money and resource required for the offline promotion is not a big deal for a relatively well funded start up. Xiaonei used to give gifts such as iPods, vouchers to its users for free and are still organising various offline events and campus tour in Chinese universities, lots of resource has been spent but it is worthy of it: Xiaonei has reaches 1000+ oversea universities, 3000+ Chinese universities, 8000+ high schools and 85000+ companies.
THE CHANGE AND EVOLUTION
Similar layouts do not mean these Chinese Facebooks function the same. Being a online social network for Chinese, it has to understand the Chinese social culture. Xiaonei released a feature called Market where you can sell and buy second hand stuff to/from other users. The second-hand market is an event almost every student union has to organize at least once every semester in Chinese universities; UCenter has integrated with Comsenz’s other product, such as Discuz!. If you know how popular the BBS is in China, you would not be surprised the number of installation of UCenter soars everyday; Yiqi is trying to tell users that their real life can be reflected on the online world. In Yiqi, you can find some features such as Block, Square, Newspaper etc. We took screenshots of the top menu and side bar of these sites. It is very interesting to see that the features on each site are partially different and have been well localized, which actually reflects the change and evolvement of Chinese Facebooks.
VERTICAL SOCIAL NETWORKS
How many social network should a user register? If your friends are on new social networks, you will be soon invited and most likely will have to do the registration again and again. Later you will receive some invites (application invites, event invites, etc) most of which you just are not interested in at all. What’s the value of joining so many generic SNS? if I am looking for a contact for business reason, Linkedin or Plaxo will make my happy. The competition of SNSs is getting tough in China (although Chinese market is massive enough to accommodate more), then the vertical social networks might be unavoidable choices.
Hainei is founded by Xing Wang who is also the co-founder of Xiaonei. I am not sure if Mr. Wang did this by intention. It seems to me that Xiaonei has become a Facebook focusing on Internet industry. On Hainei, most of the users are linked to Internet industry (which means it is hardly to see an active Female user). 5GSNS is founded by Keso, the most influential Chinese blogger, the site is built on UCenter and it is a social network helping users to find a job in IT industry (see screenshot below); There will be several huge SNSs leading Chinese online social networks industry, but there will be thousands more vertical ones meet various user requirements.
Comsenz’s Discuz! BBS platform has dominated 70% Chinese online forum. UCenter can be bundled with Discuz!, together they could be standard requirements for many Chinese web sites. So Facebook is trying to aggregate all the applications into one place, but in China, many mini Facebooks are now distributed and fully controlled by the users. Need to mention that UCenter also supports Themes, i.e. people will not feel these SNSs are Facebook look-likers (see screenshot below). Furthermore, what if UCenter supports OpenID or any other open standards? Can you foresee what Chinese online social networks will look like?
Debating on the copy-to-China model of Chinese Internet market is getting really boring; Whether Facebook will officially come to China, for many Chinese netizens, is still an interesting question as people are still very curious about what the impact on the local market will be.
So what should we pay more attention right now? SOHU, the top Chinese portal has partnered with Netvibes for its open blog platform in Oct 2007, which is the first time Chinese Internet embraces the Open concept. The latest news is that several popular local SNSs including Xiaonei, Hainei, Yiqi have joined Google OpenSocial. Rumour says Sina and QQ are planning its own open platform too. Open Platform is now one of the hottest topics in China. The questions remains are how Chinese users will respond to the open SNSs and whether any of these social networks can later lead Chinese web to the global market?