Is a company worth $65-billion the big brother China’s melancholic youngsters need? Netease thinks so.
When popular music player Netease Cloud Music announced the launch of its “Cloud Healing Center” (yuncun zhiyusuo) in early August, users began a heated debate online. The Healing Cloud is part of a campaign to change the platform’s reputation for loneliness and unhappiness in user comments.
Yuebai Liu is a London-based ethnographer working at the intersection of technology, culture, and policy.
Netease Cloud music is a freemium music streaming service geared towards the younger end that allows users to leave comments under every song.
The platform, which boasts over 800 million registered users as of April 2020, believes the comments section is one of its strongest features. In 2017, the company covered the walls and floors of Hangzhou’s metro line 1 with 85 million of comments from the platform as part of an ad campaign.
But the company is not happy with the mood of its comments section. Young people increasingly use the comments section to pour out personal pain, anonymously expressing grief, sadness, and day-to-day struggles. Comments have turned so bleak that Netease now wants to moderate its platform’s emotional content, but some users think this could destroy the therapeutic value of the comment section.
‘Net Depression Cloud’
Netease Cloud’s association with gloom and misery is so well known that it’s been dubbed “Net Depression Cloud.”
The nickname is a pun in Mandarin where the character for depression has the same pronunciation (yi) as the character for “ease” used in the company’s name.
In the comment sections under songs, users share stories of breakups, personal tragedies, anxiety, and loneliness. Some reference specific songs lyrics, or link their own story to a song’s meaning.
If it wasn’t for my family, I would have wandered away a long time ago.Netease cloud user comment on Bob Dylan’s ‘On the Road’
Users express support with each other through “likes” and encouraging comments, and music listeners find comfort in discovering others who have been through similar experiences. Such interactions are the foundation of a mutually supportive community of teenagers and young people that is unique to Netease.
Downers and haters
An increasing number of users, however, complain the amount of negativity in the comment sections is stopping them from listening and enjoying music.
Music should just be about music.Netease cloud user comment
Some also complain that too much attention is given to users they accuse of fabricating trauma to gain likes and promote their own personalised playlists.
The forlorn comment section has even become a joke on other Chinese social networks. Memes and stickers that make fun of Netease Cloud’s melancholic users have gone viral on platforms like Bilibili and Weibo. “Some people die at age eight even though they will only be buried at age 80” is a common comment criticizing music listeners who share sad stories.
Not all users accept this view of the platform. “Let’s reject the name Net Depression Cloud; it’s a warm and bright community!” commented another user on Netease.
With the launch of the Cloud Healing Center in early August, Netease will employ mental health experts to provide around the clock counseling and a “cloud police” to moderate comments that attack those who express sorrow, as well as reviewing potentially fabricated stories.
In a statement on Weibo (in Chinese), Netease announced, “Although we are sometimes troubled by sorrows, there is always a space that can accommodate our true emotions. A group of healing magicians in the cloud will comfort every stranded heart in the comment area… We will also resist malicious intentions; the new cloud and cloud police will work together to do so.”
“Cloud police” are not the platform’s only response to what is perceived by Netease as a growing need. Users that search words related to an unhappy mood are directed to songs that can help relieve stress. Zhang Jingnian, a cultural analyst observing the phenomenon, told TechNode that users now receive supportive and motivational messages in the form of push notifications from Netease. The initiative has been applauded by many who believe providing free professional help is a good move.
In the announcement, Netease said that it aims to “to create a more positive and friendly atmosphere” and to bring its comments section back to what it was originally intended for: music discussion.
At least some users are eager to see posers shut down.
I hope we can now help those who are really in need and call out the attention seekers.Weibo comment on the ‘Cloud Healing Center’ launch
But the idea of “cloud police” checking the sincerity of comments raises some difficult questions: How will they check if stories are true? How does one draw the line between a malicious comment, and the simple need to share emotions?
Content moderation is a headache for every social media platform where verifying the truthfulness of posts requires a rigorous fact checking process, but emotional content moderation is a whole new level of challenge.
‘Message in a bottle’
Some users don’t like the idea of therapists intervening. For many users, the comments section is a space to share deep emotions and commiserate with others. They may not welcome supervision.
In the Chinese context, verbal expressions of intimate emotions and unhappy feelings are rare even amongst family and friends. There is little space for anger, frustration and sorrow in day-to-day conversations as negative perspectives are seen as unhealthy. Netease Cloud Music is a tool for expression that fills this gap.
Netease Cloud is a small treehole for me. When I am emotionally down, I read the comments and listen to the songs. I really feel better, it’s a way to relieve stress. Don’t laugh.Netease cloud user comment
The comments feature under every song offers a space and shared meaning that music listeners can build on to talk about their emotions. Simply said, the songs are doing part of the job that therapists do in traditional group therapy settings: they get anyone that joins to share their story.
“It’s not like sharing on any other social media platform. People are using songs like ‘treeholes.’ Some of them are going through seriously tough times and sharing it with complete strangers helps them feel better,” says Zhang.
“Treehole” (xiao shudong) is a term that refers to the act of writing secret anonymous posts online, the equivalent of sending a digital “message in a bottle” in English.
‘I’m not depressed’
Netease is my eternal secret space where I can share all my nonsense. It’s not because I’m depressed, but people gather here to share emotions.Netease cloud user comment on Cloud Healing Center launch
The Cloud Healing Center initiative begs a question: is there really an unmet need for counseling, or has Netease perhaps got its users wrong? What if the desire is simply to share feelings without judgement, where the therapeutic process lies in the song’s community itself? If this is the case, then by inserting its technology and moderators in such an explicit counselor role, Netease risks losing what differentiated it from other social media platforms and perhaps what made it so popular in the first place: its mutually supportive users.