For Chinese internet users who want expert insight into various topics, Zhihu is the place to go. Zhihu is China’s biggest question-and-answer-style knowledge base, and works very similar to the US-based Quora.
Launched in January 2011, the team of around 70 is quickly outgrowing its office space in Beijing’s student district. Tech in Asia stopped by to check out the startup’s operation.
“Clone” is often a term applied to Zhihu, as it shares a large number of nearly identical features with its western predecessor: voting mechanisms, personalized feeds, follow-able subjects and people, and even some options for anonymity (more on their similarities and differences here).
Of Zhihu’s 60 million monthly active users, less than one percent actually contribute questions and answers. Still, that puts it far ahead of its domestic competitors, such as Baidu Zhidao. Zhihu team member Yuan Cheng attributed its success to two factors: Zhihu has better insights that can’t be found anywhere else, and users simply trust Zhihu’s experts more. The site lists several high-profile entrepreneurs and public intellectuals among its contributors.
Like Quora, Zhihu’s initial user-base was made up of tech savvy and entrepreneurial minds, but it has diversified quite a bit since then, with the hottest topics being movies, IT, finance, and gaming.
How does Zhihu make money?
Zhihu boasts 1,700 new people who answer questions every day. It fosters a community centered around mutual assistance and knowledge sharing, but Cheng points out some responders’ motivation to answer questions is not just about being benevolent.
Indirectly, Cheng says many users make money off Zhihu. From lawyers to consultants to screenwriters, these experts can build a reputation and even find clients on Zhihu. While Zhihu itself isn’t really monetizing yet, it’s closely watching this segment of users as a potentially lucrative market.
On the subject of monetization, Zhihu periodically publishes print and electronic books of aggregated knowledge on a specific subject.
Most Zhihu users aren’t out to make money, and simply enjoy being a part of the community. In one special case, a young blind man who uses special software to navigate and read the site has made over 15,000 edits on Zhihu posts to date. He went blind as a young child, and tried to open a shop on Taobao but found his disability to be too large an obstacle. Afterward, he joined Zhihu and has been one of the site’s most active contributors ever since.
Preferring just to proofread, he never answered any questions himself until one day he came across a post in which a user asked, “How do blind people dream?” In a culture where ailments and disabilities aren’t openly talked about, the young man gave a lengthy response.
Afterward, he applied to Zhihu where he now works as an honorary team member. The company is now considering his full-time employment.
An oasis of free speech? Not so much
Zhihu has garnered a reputation among some English-language media outlets as a place for (relatively) free speech online, untouched by the heavy censorship and propaganda that plagues other social sites in China. This perception of the site was sparked when a Tea Leaf Nation article published in Foreign Policy described Zhihu as such.
While the site’s premise sets the stage for hearty debates among users, this reputation is largely unearned. Zhihu employs a small team to monitor discussions for politically sensitive content, and Cheng says the company has to do what every other site in China does to stay within the law. Tech in Asia asked to drop by Zhihu’s office at the beginning of June but had to wait until a couple days after June 4 – the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident when all domestic social sites are on high alert – to pay a visit.
What’s next for Zhihu?
Zhihu is still concentrating on building its user-base and is exploring a more regular means of monetizing. It received a US$7 million series A round in October 2011 from Innovation Works and Qiming Ventures and at least one more undisclosed round.
In addition to Quora-style Q&A sessions, it also has daily and weekly newsletters and hosts salons where a panel of experts are invited to ask selected questions.