Digital Essay 2: Douban 豆瓣

Once a sentimental teenager myself, Douban has been a substantial part of my inner life. My Douban persona is the most vibrating, intriguing facet of me; or rather, Douban records the quasi-intellectual artsy life I have lived since Nov 20, 2011, the day I registered as a user.

Launched on March 6, 2005, (Chinese: 豆瓣 Dòubàn) is a Chinese Web 2.0 platform providing social networking services to registered users. An online database for film, books and music, Douban allows users to record information and generate content related to these media forms. Douban owns an internet radio station, which ranks No.1 in iOS App Store in 2012. Douban also displays recent cultural events in all cities, so that the user can easily locate ongoing events in cities nearby. Douban is one of the most influential Web 2.0 websites in China. Unlike Renren (the Facebook ripoff), Douban is open to unregistered users as well. For unregistered users, Douban is the authority site for looking up ratings and reviews on a film, a music album or a book that he or she might be interested in. For registered users, Douban is the space to keep a log of those things and connect with people of similar interests–Douban recommends films, books and music that might be of interest to the user, and lists the “common interests” (films and books you both viewed) on top whenever you enter another user’s personal page.

My Douban personal page as of Feb 28, 2017.
As you can see in this snapshot layout, I have arranged my personal page this way so that the Film section is prioritized, displayed on the top (“428 to watch, 1399 watched”), followed with the Book section, then the 35 Reviews I wrote on films (including one on last month’s Live by Night), Stage Plays I watched, Music, and Journals at the bottom, where I post informal essays and original poems. The bar on the right side lists my most recent updates as Broadcasts (anime I watched and rated over the weekend), my Followers, my personalized Lists of Interests, Douban Location (豆瓣同城) for city events I go to, and Douban Group (小组) for message board topic groups I attend. 

Like Wikipedia, the database of Douban is built on collaborative common attributions. In the past I have contributed a few entries to the database. For instance, I created the entry for the UK tv show Two Fat Ladies. I submitted all the basic information required for generating an entry for film, including a standard size poster. I referred to IMDb for reliable facts. Douban censored and passed my request within two days. That was a smooth process, and it usually can be. However, as we all know, art is always political; and coupled with Web 2.0, Douban can severely undermine monolith state of China. Douban has attracted intellectuals eager to discuss political issues, thus making Douban vulnerable to the censorship by the government. Douban administrator reviews all content posted, preventing “sensitive” information from being posted in the first place, and taking down other materials without notifying the user beforehand.

Yihe yuan 颐和园

Dutifully obeying the respectful state laws, Douban quietly makes certain materials disappear. Its censorship department is a subsidiary company completely owned by Douban. Yihe yuan (2006) (Chinese: 颐和园 Yíhé yuán), the surprise film of Venice Film Festival, directed by the winner of Silver Lion for Best Director Ye Lou, challenges the power system to confront the June 4th Incident, on which the Party has never acknowledged and apologized. mv5bode0mji5mgmtzjg0yi00mzi5lwexnzmtzgnlnwi3zjhimdrhxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymjq2mtk1ote-_v1_sy1000_cr007031000_al_Lou brought the film to Cannes and Venice without the permission by China’s censor, and he was officially banned from filmmaking for 5 years. The chilling history unfolds in the background as the heroine goes through a compulsive relationship, defying the political suppression through her unrestrained sexual dalliances. Lou is talented enough make a political statement within the risque narrative frame.
Page creation request for the potentially seditious Yihe yuan never gets to pass the censorship by Douban. If China’s rulers deny that the June 4th happened, and if my parents, lived through that history as college students themselves, hushed me whenever I brought up the topic, it came out as no surprise that a dynamite like Yihe yuan should be obliterated from the country’s cyberspace. In March 2009, Douban removed some Renaissance paintings on the grounds that they contained “pornographic” elements. An internet campaign called “Portraits: Dress up” was raged against Douban’s self-censorship. That year also saw the 20th anniversary of the June 4th Incident, and Douban extended its keyword list to ban any terms that are likely to relate to the incident. The internet campaign exposes the breakdown of the suspended disillusionment of Douban users. There has never been a trust between Chinese internet users and the government censorship. Yet as Douban and other Web 2.0 services motivate a “much more pronounced rhetoric about audience sovereignty,” there was a brief moment of reserved mutual trust between Douban and its audience. Douban’s self-censorship shattered the harmonious bubble, violating the moral economy presumed in the transaction (Jenkins, “Where Web 2.0 Went Wrong”). As Jenkins wisely suggests, the tearing down of the conventional commercial economy propels a demand for a new, informal, cyber economy.

Hybrid Economy

On the practical side, Douban profits from cooperation with online book sellers, O2O (Online to Offline) movie ticket selling, paid subscription of music streaming and serializing novels. Douban Book (豆瓣读书), Douban’s book database, provides a link on each individual book page, navigating the user to the purchasing site. Douban Movie (豆瓣电影) also contains links for purchasing tickets from a third-party company, who also sells tickets for film festivals that Douban promotes through Douban Location (豆瓣同城). Douban Music (豆瓣音乐) launched a project called “Golden Fleece,” promoting newcomer musicians through streaming subscription, and Douban Read (豆瓣阅读) also facilitates unknown writers on the subscription side. Quite a few–though not the majority of Douban writers–female writers rose to fame on Douban through managing their personal Douban accounts, blogging intimate stories and posting pictures of themselves, using their popularity as a leverage for promoting their works. The informal relationships between the celebrity writers and fans generate meanings through the exchange of media. The subscription business on Douban is a hybrid of meritocracy and economies based on reputation or status, competition and bragging. These informal economies coexist with the commercial economy, constituting the media complex of Douban (Jenkins).

The Limited Activism

Under the surveillance of The Great Firewall, Douban does provide a relatively laissez-faire environment for activism, although any discussion intending to organize a campaign will be removed by Douban administrator. I joined a Douban Group (豆瓣小组) called Anti-Parents Group that encourages victims to share stories of parental violence. With 122,058屏幕快照 2017-03-01 4.32.53 PM.png members, the group takes the form of a traditional online message board forum. Members would comment under the posts, offer advice and encouragements to the survivors. Many members are people in the sociological academia, and their active participation often guides the discussions to positive and rational solutions. Despite the edgy title, it is intrinsically a online help group rather than a blackhole for negativity. The group administrator carefully removes anti-social, sexist, personal attacking statements. As no one is permitted to raise criticisms against parents within the Confucian patriarchal matrix of China, Douban allows certain leeway for those under power. That 122,058 users joined the group manifests the deeper roots of this social issue denied by the normative society. Intellectualism, Arts, Feminism and other concerns for social issues are allowed, but no politics. In discussion groups like Anti-Parents, Douban liquidates the patriarchal normativity to some extent, and breaks down the line between subcultural discourses and socially acceptable sharing of information. However, the liberating of individual expression is rigorously contained within the online discussion groups. Douban evokes a self-recognition that ties to the artsy and sentimental, inspires self-expression, creativity and ideals espoused by academics and arts, the sort of information sharing the normative gender views would deem as non-masculine. However, Douban endorses a health environment for people’s interests in humanity and liberal arts. Douban resides the discourses in this mediasphere outside the mainstream, accommodating the growing individual awareness of the post’80s and ’90s generation in the shifting cultural context in the early 21st century China. Douban is not the subculture anymore. According to, Douban ranks as the 70th most popular site in China as of February 27, 2017. Users are not encouraged to register real names on Douban,屏幕快照 2017-03-01 3.45.40 PM.png so the user data are protected from data-mining companies, also allowing for a more private cyberspace (Marwick, 70). As Marwick explained, norms and mores of Web 2.0 platforms are often established before users exponentially grow in number. The transparency of Facebook is not only a commercial approach to sell user data to data-mining companies, but also based on the presumption that technological advancements will yield a more democratic society. Apparently, China has a drastically different political climate, and the anonymity of Douban maximizes the limited freedom of expression to the possible extent, for those awakening as individual persons in the centralized political system of China.

Works Cited

Jenkins, Henry, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. “Where Web 2.0 Went Wrong.” Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York, NY: New York UP, 2013. N. pag. Print.

Marwick, Alice. “Gender, Sexuality and Social Media.” Routledge Handbook of Social Media. N.p.: Taylor and Francis, 2013. N. pag. Print.