Like all Chinese, I’m on social media a lot. I check Wechat every other minute, I read Linkedin and Twitter from time to time, and then I post on Weibo and Douyin occasionally. (One minute—let me just check Wechat).
But even as Wechat—which recently claimed 1.1 billion global active users and Douyin (the Chinese counterpart to Tiktok) continue to gain new users in China, I have been wondering if there is space for a new social network in China, especially for the Generation Z, native to mobile Internet and known to be fickle, and maybe even for everyone.
We do have a very competitive landscape of social apps in China. There are three types of social apps here:
- Close-knit social apps where people can communicate with the friends, family, and acquaintances they already know offline. Examples include Wechat and QQ. As a result of the instant message focus of the apps and the extensive contacts most users, people don’t post user generated content in Moments tab as enthusiastically as a few years back. In addition, these apps do not provide an open platform for meeting new people.
- Content and media-driven apps. Examples include Little Red Book, Tiktok, and most of the apps that host online influencers. Users put out a lot of content, often quasi-professionally made, on these apps, and other people can comment or leave messages about the content and follow such influencers or each other. The downside, however, is that there is usually only one-way communication. There are few opportunities for meaningful two-way discussions. Often only influencers receive significant attention and quality feedback.
- Tool-type social apps like Momo or Tantan—known as the Tinder of China. These types of apps are highly effective for meeting new people, but are often hormone-driven and focus on appearances and social status more than any other attributes. This type of app tends to be limited to one-on-one conversations, with almost no content creation (other than profiles filled with photoshopped selfies) or opportunities to meet and interact with groups of people.
So is this the endgame for Chinese social networks? My answer is NO.
There are plenty of things you don’t want to share on Wechat Moments because you don’t want your friends, family, or colleagues to see them, and you don’t want to want share on Weibo because you may not get quality responses at all. You may ask yourself—when you click the “like” button on Wechat Moments, do you do that because the content is truly fascinating, or just because you want show some respect to the person who shared it?
This is why this app called Soul really gets my attention. It is quite a special one, unlike all others social apps in the market.
In fact, Soul is not that new. Founded by veteran consultant Zhang Lu, Soul went online in November 2016.
Soul promises an oasis in the complicated social media landscape, by promoting content based on users’ interests and lifestyle, and allowing users to express themselves and interact with one another in a stress-free, largely anonymous, environment. Users, which the platform calls “Soulers,” build a brand new virtual identity for Soul, with avatars and develop extendable virtual relationships without disclosing personal information.
The app encourages users to connect with strangers based on shared interests. Much like Bilibili, you need to take a survey while registering to be a user. But unlike Bilibili, where you have to answer 100 questions about online pop culture, on Soul you dig deeper into yourself by answering questions ranging from your personality to your daily habits, from your biggest fears to your pet cat’s favorite snack. And a personal profile is set up, tagged with your NERIS personality type as a tag, among other interests you have. Profile photos, locations, ages are not required, even discouraged, and never disclosed on the platform. You then leave the rest to an algorithm, which suggests friends and posts that may interest you based on the data you have entrusted to the platform.
Soul is already a popular app among China’s Generation Z population, who use it to publish UGC, ranging from diary, voice clips to photos, short videos of their own performances. According to data from Iresearch, Soul is more focused on Generation Z than any other major social network in China, with 35.6% of the app’s users falling in the age group.
Much like Snap was to Facebook, Soul is a complementary platform for young people. Like Facebook, Wechat is all based on real-name, real-life relationships. Soul provides a home for the type of UGC that you don’t want people in your usual social circle of offline relationships to see. Soul users also foster and maintain relationships on the platform based on their interests and engage in interactive features such as giving each thumbs ups, commenting on posts, or discussing specific topics through tagging their posts à la Pinterest.
Soul has positioned itself as the “next generation social playground for Gen Z” in China. But to me, Soul app is potentially not limited to only the Gen Z audience. Everyone, no matter what age they are, is sometimes lonely and wants an opportunity to express themselves with authentic interaction.
I don’t know how far Soul will go, but definitely in China, the social networking space is NOT done yet.