Dying Forums and Aging Users: Is Baidu’s Star Community Becoming Outdated?

Yet the once-successful product now became somehow shadowed by the latest trending products such as Douyin, Zhihu and Douban.

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Dying Forums and Aging Users: Is Baidu’s Star Community Becoming Outdated?

Trending Memes, viral topics, funny comments, and in-depth analysis, you might be seeing them on various social media tools nowadays, but some 10 years ago. You might go to one place for all of that: Baidu Tieba.

The Reddit-style forum was powered by Baidu’s searching engine. Users find the respective forums based on searching keywords and bookmark the forum links. Simply by registering a user account, anyone can publish contents to the forums and join the discussion.

Yet the once-successful product now became somehow shadowed by the latest trending products. The prevalence of smartphone devices took away many of the once-dominant forums, leaving Baidu’s Tieba service with declining content qualities and fewer users following.

The Good Old Days

Counting back 10 years, it was definitely the time for BBS forums: Users can not only see various contents of their interest, but also join the discussion at a very minimum cost.

Unlike forums like Reddit, Baidu Tieba benefited from its strong connections with China’s largest searching engine, Baidu. Users can access and even create Tieba, also known as posting forums, based on their topics of interests. The product soon grabbed users’ attention as almost all users can find their points of interest via the powerful searching tool. From chatting with people in the same city, taking to friends going to the same schools, to sharing opinions on a certain issue, Tieba did a fantastic job aggregating similar people. Together with benefiting from having a relatively low barrier of entry, Tieba’s unique mode made it surpass other competing forums in the era.

Tieba shares similar features with other BBS forums. Experienced and highly active users may enjoy the privilege of becoming the admin or a moderator of a given Tieba. Such as admins and moderators on Facebook, they have the power to delete inappropriate contents and ban suspicious accounts. The availability of admin positions also served as a strong motivator for users to actively engage in the products, and played a key role in vitalizing Baidu’s online community.

Reaching a record-high page view of 1 billion in 2010, Baidu was certainly one of the most successful Chinese Internet product in the past decade. The giant firm also claimed itself as the largest online Chinese-language community in the world.

Aging Products not being Attractive

Toutiao, Douying, Kuai are all popular apps now in China. Image credit to Visual China.

The prevalence of mobile smart devices in the past five years significantly changed the fate of Baidu Tieba, in a negative way.

It would be fair to say that Baidu Tieba totally missed out on developing its business on its application end. With a number of users claiming Tieba’s application not user-friendly, statistics showed that merely one-sixth of Tieba’s original users were converted into the Tieba application. In other words, Tieba lost five sixths of its original users from web pages.

On the contrary, Tieba’s main competitor Weibo managed to retain 93% of its original users to its mobile applications. Tieba also fell behind in its competition against Weibo from many areas: From content depth to diversities, Weibo did a better job in retaining high-quality content producers and finding trending contents for users to view. Weibo also did a better job in controlling low-quality contents with little insights and meanings. Tieba, unable to make effective changes to adapt the mobile device era, started to be left behind in this race of user retention.

In addition, Tieba’s mode is no longer the popular trend today. The majority of Tieba’s content are words and pictures, rather than videos and short scenes. Its rather outdated features are not that attractive to the new generation Internet users. While the younger generation netizens are busy filming their Douyin videos, they have little time to spend on Tieba which has a community full of old-aged adults and ‘uncool’ grownups.

The Deteriorating Content Quality

Image credit to Visual China.

Yet the most significant problem for Tieba is its deteriorating content quality. Nevertheless, with various platforms fighting for high-quality content creators, Tieba’s content quality would face tougher challenges in the years ahead.

Facing pressure in generating profits, Tieba increased the amount of advertisements in its content, causing a higher number of user dissatisfaction in return. Furthermore, Baidu’s advertisements face additional scrutiny and criticisms due to various disastrous incidents involving un-licensed hospitals and fake product advertisements. Adding advertisements to Tieba’s contents will, unfortunately, receive a high number of negative user feedbacks in return.

Lack of name recognition and income for top-level content creators also deteriorate Tieba’s community quality. As users are not required, and not likely to use their real names in Tieba, their contents are not likely to receive any connections with their names in real life, leaving it difficult to enjoy the sense of recognition and achievements in real life. The lack of name recognition puts Tieba at a huge disadvantage against Zhihu and Douban, both being communities encouraging personal brand buildings and fan economy.

On the other hand, Tieba offers little financial incentive to motivate content creators. While a number of creators insist to stay on Tieba for its long-tradition community and brand, profit-seeking creators are likely to divert their attentions into more profitable platforms such as Toutiao, WeChat, and Baidu’s own media platform, Baijiahao. With little incentives to offer, Tieba is now bearing the cost of the loss in high-quality creators. With low-quality and meaningless posts occupying the FrontPage, it would be hard for users to stay on Tieba, rather than switching to other applications such as Weibo and WeChat.

The Achilles’ heel of Tieba, however, is the significant loss of freedom due to tightening regulatory requirements from the Chinese cyberspace authorities. In addition to constant censorships and massive delete of user contents, Tieba suffered from two significant losses of its crucial features. In the past 10 years, Tieba was forced to shut down its important feature of anonymous postings, leaving the users no option but to register an account to engage in any forms of discussions on Tieba. The regulatory measure further deteriorates Tieba’s freedom of posting in 2017, as the cyberspace authorities require all users in Baidu to be registered with a verified cellphone number, making all Tieba users to post under an account associated with their personal ID card. It feels like showing in a room with close circuit television: Despite you get to do everything you want in the room, there is always someone watching you behind the screen. This drastically drove away many users, who enjoyed Tieba’s anonymity and freedom of expression without using a real identity.

Tieba used to be the source for breaking news. It used to be the plaza for meaningful and up-to-date discussions on the trending topics. However, as the regulatory authorities demand additional disclosures on users’ profile and identity, only those who are ‘brave enough’ will continue on expressing their opinions on Tieba. It feels like dancing with chains locking one’s feet: Despite trying his best in offering good contents, the noise and damage caused by censorship will never fade away.

Writer: Chauncey Jung

Chauncey Jung works with a unicorn Internet firm based out of Beijing. His professional experience pays him off an insider perspective over China’s internet industry. Completed his bachelor and master education in Canada, Chauncey is obsessed with trending technologies and economic developments across Asia. He can be reached at [email protected]