Popular knowledge-sharing platform Zhihu has introduced a user credit system in a bid to incentivize good behavior.

Similar to Alibaba’s Sesame Credit system, Zhihu Credit is part of a “credit craze” sweeping through China’s internet and technology companies, as they get on board with the government’s plan to introduce a broad “social credit system” by 2020.

Blacklists and redlists: How China’s Social Credit System actually works

Seven-year-old startup Zhihu is unknown in most parts of the world. In China, it’s an indispensable component of the country’s growing internet and information ecosystem. Founded and led by former journalist Victor Zhou, the knowledge-sharing platform is best known for its Quora-like Q-and-A function.

Yet to describe Zhihu as a “Quora clone” would be to overlook both its unique role in China’s digital society, as well as the steps it has taken to expand its services and establish itself as the central node for credible knowledge on the Chinese internet.

Investors seem to recognize this as well. Earlier this year the Beijing-based company secured $270 million in a Series E funding round that, according to the company, valued it at roughly $2.5 billion.

Despite lacking Quora’s robust international user base and functionality in a number of languages, Zhihu seems to be out doing its most often-cited Silicon Valley analog, which raised a modest-by-comparison $85 million on a $1.7 billion valuation in a funding round of its own last year.

Zhihu’s offerings now include electronic books and paid live streaming. The company also launched “Zhihu University,” which offers paid online courses in business, science, and humanities and career coaching. According to the company’s representatives, the online university has more than 6 million paid users.

In managing its platform, Zhihu is faced with several complex challenges. While initially targeting China’s highly-educated elite, its user base has grown to include a much broader demographic mix. This is of course a good sign for a business whose monetization model is based largely on advertising. But it also has a downside.

Zhihu has struggled to ensure that all the knowledge shared on it is reliable. Sensational and opinionated answers and entries that can often engage users may not always be fact-based. Outside actors such as scammers and businesses can also use to platform to promote their own financial interests. Trolling and rude behavior can cause constructive discussions to collapse into name calling.

But while these troubles are typical for most major social media platforms, Zhihu has other challenges as well, with uniquely “Chinese characteristics.” In Spring of this year, Beijing cyberspace authorities ordered it and other platforms to delist from all app stores for a week, as they had not adequately curbed “illicit information.”

Zhihu walks a precarious tightrope. It needs to encourage user engagement while keeping information credible, attract a large user base while maintaining those with the most relevant expertise, and stay in regulators’ good graces. The platform needs to do all of this without sterilizing the dynamic community that keeps it vibrant.

How does it work?

Following a soft launch in July, Zhihu Credit became a standard feature for all users the week of October 15. Its Chinese name literally translates to “salt value” (盐值).

“We use the term ‘salt,’ because to us, all the users, with their professional knowledge, experience and unique understanding of world, are like the salt to the sea,” explained Dayun Sun, community management director for Zhihu. “By establishing Zhihu Credit, we want to help our users live, grow, and build their influence with their professional expertise and insight.”

Zhihu’s system is made up of ratings in five categories, each evaluating a separate aspect of Zhihu user behavior, based on the application of different algorithms to the full set of Zhihu user data.

  1. Basic Credit (基础信用): This dimension relates to the basic profile of the Zhihu user, essentially their resume. This includes educational degrees, work experience, and any other qualifications that the user may have. For many users, this score can be improved by simply filling out a more detailed user profile to fully include all areas of professional and academic expertise, to indicate areas where each user may have higher credibility.
  2. Content Creation (内容创作 ): A Zhihu user’s score in this dimension is determined by the quantity and quality of the content they create on the platform. According to representatives from Zhihu, this primarily consists of four activities: Asking questions, answering questions, publishing articles, and posting on Zhihu’s xiangfa (“想法”) channel, a function similar to a Twitter feed, or WeChat moments.
  3. Friendly Interaction (友善互动): This dimension refers to the level of civility with which a Zhihu user interacts with other members of the community. This does not necessarily refer to rules, or terms of service infractions, but one’s reputation for interacting with others in a respectful and polite way. In other words, a user may still be complying with the platform’s rules, but if they are seen by other users to be rude or mean-spirited, their score in this dimension may still suffer.
  4. Community Behavior (遵守公约): While the “friendly interaction” dimension applies more to informal courtesy, “community behavior” refers more to compliance with official terms of service. Infractions that can damage a user’s score in this dimension range from libel, to plagiarism, to threatening and harassing other users, to posting inappropriate or illegal content. There is certainly some overlap between the two dimensions (for example, both dimensions can be used to discourage cyberbullying, which has been a problem on the Zhihu platform), but although the two dimensions promote some of the same desired behavioral outcomes, different mechanisms and standards of evaluation are used.
  5. Community-Building (社区建设): This dimension refers to the degree to which a user contributes to the monitoring and curation of the content on the platform. Users can increase their score in this dimension by productively up-voting and down-voting answers to questions, editing content, and reporting on other Zhihu users in a way that is accurate. By measuring this dimension, Zhihu is able to incentivize its community members to provide a self-governing function.

As is evident in my own Zhihu Credit score (above), this is something I personally do very little of as a Zhihu user. My score of 564 is slightly above average, with my highest scores coming from the dimensions of “friendly interaction” and “community behavior.”

User reaction

Zhihu’s users tend to be young adults, in general more educated and upwardly mobile than those of most popular Chinese social media platforms. When asked about their thoughts regarding the Zhihu Credit score system, many expressed optimism, hoping it would encourage the positive elements of the platform, while limiting the negative.

“I understand the developers’ desire to get rid of negative energy, and hope it goes well,” expressed a Chinese graduate student who goes by the English name Jamie, and who is currently studying overseas. “In the past, when I commented with opinions different from Zhihu’s mainstream, tons of weird attacks would flood in. If the (Zhihu Credit) system works well, it can get rid of the trolls.”

“Zhihu is a really good platform when its answers are good,” explained one financial researcher based in Inner Mongolia and who has been a Zhihu user since 2015. “There are some people and companies on Zhihu who use the platform to promote fake news, or just to sell their products, though. If the Zhihu Credit score can get rid of those users, that will be a good thing.”

Yet, other users are more skeptical, worried that the Zhihu Credit system is another step to limit users’ freedom of speech. One dedicated user, a Chinese-born man living in Australia, complained that the platform, in response to tighter regulations, was censoring content deemed to be politically sensitive. “The parts about friendly interaction and community behavior, they restrict how users express themselves. For political content, there is no room for anything anymore.”

Indeed, Zhihu keeps a tight lid on political speech. I personally have had politically themed jokes that I posted removed from the platform, followed by a message, explaining why the post was removed. Despite such censorship measures, posting such content does not seem to negatively impact a user’s Zhihu Credit score. My “friendly interaction” and “community behavior” scores were the strongest aspects of my profile. For the dedicated user who expressed concern over his freedom of speech, his Zhihu Credit score is still nearly perfect.

Why the ‘Zhihu experiment’ matters

As a platform, Zhihu carries with it a great deal of significance for the future of the Chinese internet, social, professional, and academic discourse, freedom of information, and entrepreneurship. Its founder Zhou has achieved tech-titan status. He speaks frequently about his passion for entrepreneurship, and his desire to build a meritocratic platform where the best ideas, and the most knowledgeable users, succeed. He sees one of Zhihu’s major roles as being a facilitator for opportunity, helping aspiring entrepreneurs connect with the knowledge and network that they need in order to succeed.

Zhihu has a difficult balancing act to perform, staying engaging and informative, limiting trolls and fake news, and remaining in the good graces of regulators—all while making a profit as well. Whether or not it succeeds will determine not just the fate of this company, but may also in some ways serve as barometer for the health of the Chinese internet as well.

The author, who is a corporate trainer, executive coach, and writer based in Bangkok and Beijing, has worked with Zhihu as a client in the past. 

Elliott Zaagman is a contributor to TechNode. He is also a corporate trainer, executive coach, and writer who splits his time between Bangkok and Beijing. He focuses on Chinese companies and how they relate...

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