As a platform that’s been a refuge for feminist conversation for years clamps down on freewheeling chat groups, its users have begun a search for a new home on the Chinese internet. So far, they’re still wandering in the desert.
Douban began as a rating site for books and movies in 2005, but later evolved into a social media platform after its group discussion feature won favor with interest groups. The platform’s invite-only discussion groups became a haven for perspectives that are often shouted down elsewhere online, and especially for women. With only 11 million monthly active users, Douban occupies a niche, but enjoys an outsized cultural cachet.
Celebrity gossip groups mutated into places for women to discuss male misconduct, and to reject marriage and motherhood. It could turn vulgar — it’s not uncommon to see users wish a “penis fracture” on male targets.
On Dec. 1, Douban was fined 1.5 million yuan ($235,000) for “unlawful release of information,” the 21st fine that Douban got this year. On Dec. 9, regulators ordered Chinese app stores to de-list the app, meaning that new users cannot join the platform.
In response, Douban shut down several gossip groups together with some feminist groups reportedly totaling over 1 million members on Dec. 2. It also suspended the reply function in the app’s groups from Dec. 2 to Dec. 17, making it difficult to carry on a conversation.
Douban feminists have long drawn fire on more male-dominated social media like Zhihu, a Quora-like text-based content platform, and Bilibili, a YouTube-like platform where a large amount of users often consume content objectifying women and making fun of “radical feminists.”
Many discussion groups on Douban limit membership to weed out trolls. A Douban profile showing strong interest in the topic and a statement of interest are often required when applying.
“Although most of the time it’s about gossip, we are bonding in this way. It’s part of our daily life,” a Douban user surnamed Wang told Sixth Tone. “We feel like fish without water when we are not with each other.”
“I am more like a consumer when on other platforms,” Wang said. “It is only in Douban I can truly be myself and truly speak my mind, but it seems it is going to disappear.”
A screenshot from Douban shows 豆瓣鹅组, one of the most popular gossip groups.
Over the past two weeks, thousands of group members have been wandering all over the net, looking for each other on different social media platforms. Some Douban groups set up temporary public discussion groups on the microblogging platform Weibo and online forum Baidu Tieba. However, conversations were more muted in these open forums. Other groups continued conversations in cloud documents created by office software.
Finding a new Douban is not so easy.
One of the first places Douban exiles headed was Dodo, a niche app for Animal Crossing players. Over 80,000 members, mainly from “Goose Group,” the biggest gossip group on Douban, moved to Dodo right after the group got shut down on Dec. 2.
It didn’t last long. Group members’ conversations were recorded and posted on Bilibili, attracting anti-feminists. Disappointed Goose members soon evacuated Dodo.
“That’s why we need a girls-only space to discuss gender-related issues,” Wang said.
During the 15-day suspension of the reply function in Douban’s groups, which ended last Friday, other groups moved to “Weibo Chaohuas” (Weibo Super Topics), forum-like groups on the microblogging platform Weibo.
But Weibo is public, and has recently shut down a number of accounts over "gender opposition."
Xiaohongshu, another female-friendly social media platform, witnessed many individual posts crop up from users expressing their worry that Douban will be gone. However, as the app does not support group conversations, these posts didn’t coalesce into a conversation.
Half a dozen Douban users told Sixth Tone that it’s almost impossible to find somewhere like Douban.
“Douban is unique in its ‘group’ function and its bulletin-board-system-like interactive design,” said Eastern Dragon, who used a pseudonym to protect her identity. “Almost no other social media platform shares the same logic.”
Other users have stayed on Douban. But the holdouts are seeing their groups get smaller, and quieter. Meanwhile, they’re being forced to welcome fewer new members.
Douban groups have been resilient. However, the threshold to enter discussion groups also becomes higher.
Once a group gets shut down, another with a totally different name will soon be created by the previous group leader. Only those who know a signal can be admitted. As the signals are often related to recent discussion, those who are less active in the old group will be lost.
“As there will be a loss of members every time, some smaller groups, especially feminist groups, will be difficult to rebuild after being ‘bombed’ several times,” Eastern Dragon said. “Group members are just like sand washed away by waves.”
Eastern Dragon said that Douban’s gender discussion groups will be hard to replace. Most members came from the gossip groups, looking for something deeper than celebrity scandal.
“Both types of groups have an aggressive gender attitude, but the former focus more on scandals in the entertainment industry while the latter have a deeper reflections of women’s vulnerability in each incident and contain more social ideas like opposition to marriage, or opposition to passing down of men’s names to children,” Eastern Dragon said.
Luqiu Luwei, an assistant professor at the School of Communication at Hong Kong Baptist University, told Sixth Tone that social media should serve as an important channel to “amplify and revitalize the power of the narrative for the ordinary, introducing new issues on rights and inequalities. ”
“The proliferation of diverse feminist media, such as websites, blogs, forums, instant messaging, online discussion groups… all give rise to a grassroots coalescence of women,” Luqiu said.
Digging a backup "grave"
While some are struggling to carry on their daily discussions, others have been busy with backing up their Douban heritage.
“I am not happy with the changed atmosphere of these groups, but I can’t give up on Douban for its comprehensive catalog of books and films, and the reviews I collected,” a Douban user surnamed Ma told Sixth Tone.
Now, many have turned to a cloud storage space called Doufen, which literally translates to “Dou’s grave,” to back up their collections of reading notes and film reviews. But group conversations can’t be backed up in the same way.
“I have attached many of my thoughts and memories about books and films to Douban,” Ma said. “I will be very sad if it disappears.”
Editor: David Cohen.
(Header image: People Visual)