Late last year, a new app with a familiar name quietly appeared on Apple’s App Store: Renren.
In 2011, back when the tech industry was hailing the social networking site as China’s answer to Facebook, Renren was valued at roughly $7.5 billion. But the past nine years have not been kind to Renren, which has been overtaken by competitors ranging from microblogging platform Weibo and messaging service WeChat to short video apps like Douyin — known outside of China as TikTok — and Kuaishou. Faced with mounting competitive and financial pressures, in 2016 Renren shifted gears and started promoting tacky soft-core livestreaming. The move cost it whatever loyal users it had left, and two years later the company, by then a husk of its former self, was sold off for a mere $20 million.
Yet for a great number of Chinese who went to university in the late 2000s and early 2010s, the name Renren still carries weight: The site was for many the go-to social network of the era, a place where you could kill time in class posting photos, sharing your emotions, or even writing articles for a wider audience. Although Renren never produced as many influential commentators as the more explicitly political Weibo, it did offer a rare arena for political debates, including after the 2011 Wenzhou high-speed train crash.
Alas, it’s wishful thinking to try and profit off nostalgia, and even a cursory glance at the new app suggests Renren is a shadow of its former self. But if the program’s release was quickly subsumed by the relentless churn of 2020’s news cycle, the rise and fall of Renren can still offer a window into some of the ways the internet landscape has evolved over the past decade.
At the turn of the 20th century, optimists praised the internet, and especially social media, as a new technology of freedom and equality. It was decentralized; it was accessible — you only needed a computer and later a smartphone to write down and share your thoughts; and it was egalitarian, because the reach of your message was conditioned less on your wealth, influence, or power than on the quality of your ideas.
Yet at the same time, social media has always also functioned as a kind of private sphere. Your most loyal followers are often your close friends, and the majority of people use their accounts as a means of sharing moments from their personal lives. An egalitarian, privacy-focused platform does not make stars, however, and a platform without stars doesn’t make money. Users — and apps themselves — interested in leveraging the internet’s full potential are frequently faced with the choice between maintaining their privacy and seeking out greater exposure and broader circles.
Social networks increasingly lean toward the latter, and in recent years many have made their platforms friendlier to professional content producers. Facebook, which like Renren started as a social network for college students, is now fueled by content from mainstream media outlets like The New York Times; Weibo and Instagram, on the other hand, both benefit from the buzz provided by celebrity and influencer users.
Even WeChat, which began with an intense focus on personal circles, has essentially separated into two distinct, albeit overlapping platforms. One is for personal sharing, in which posts are limited to users’ contacts; the other consists of public accounts with sharable content to spread widely. Many of the latter are run by or with backing from commercial entities, and their goal is less to foster discussion and more to maximize ad revenue.
Renren was especially vulnerable to this trend, because it was slow to abandon the values for which the internet and social media had initially been celebrated. Originally designed for students, it positioned itself as an almost purely peer-to-peer platform, one that encouraged a relatively equal distribution of discursive power, untainted by the hierarchical formations of social capital that gave us things like “verified accounts” and blue checks.
This made it less attractive to celebrities, media conglomerates, and other well-financed content producers. Instead, users established their own grassroots groups, which were sustained by an exclusive sense of community, rather than the commercial cycle of production, consumption, and profit. Even when users did attract a relatively large number of followers, they either could not or simply did not realize it was possible to turn the data and clicks they generated into investment and resources for further expansion.
Weibo offers an example of a social media platform that made this transition. Never based on offline friend circles to the same extent as Renren, it nevertheless used to stand for many of the same values people saw in the early internet: equality, a low threshold for participation, and, unlike Renren, anonymity.
Yet this state of affairs was fragile. In addition to tightened content controls and growing limits on political and social discussion, Weibo eventually also bowed to market forces and the value of cultivating influencers. Consumers want cheap entertainment, and influencers are masters of the art. Today, Weibo is heavily reliant on celebrities, and celebrity fan circles in particular. These groups of devoted fans spend significant amounts of time and money on the platform defending their idols and attacking their rivals.
More of an awkward anachronism than a flamboyant comeback, Renren’s new app takes its cues largely from the Weibo-WeChat duopoly, with a focus not on user-generated content, but on platform-pushed clickbait and “recommended” posts, often from homogenous professional content mills.
Renren thrived at a unique period in China’s digital transformation, one marked by a more diverse market and looser regulations. Yet as social media become increasingly business-oriented, content has become more standardized and less spontaneous, and the egalitarian potential of user-to-user interaction is being buried by the influencers dominating our news feeds.
Those who cheered for social media’s freeing and equalizing potential tended to imagine a public sphere formed by an aggregate of numerous private circles. Each circle would enjoy equal status, and their interactions would result in a diverse, boisterous, yet harmonious discourse.
Instead, social media has grown into multiple sets of concentric circles, isolated from each other and characterized by densely concentrated capital and hierarchical power structures. If Renren once appeared to have a slim chance of surviving as the black swan of the flock, now it seems to have pinned its hopes on painting itself white.
Editor: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: Chen Dongqiu/IC)