(Protocol) – He’s also an obsessive user of a failed 14-year old social media website he built, Fanfou. As a commercial enterprise, it’s a dud: It’s a digital ghost town with no revenue, no employees and no way for new users to join. But as a private social network for Wang, free from the pressures of the outside world, it’s become a great place to be.
Wang doesn’t use Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, all of which are blocked in China yet routinely used by elites (and the Chinese government) via VPNs. He has a blank profile on Weibo, the popular microblogging site in China, although 6 million people still follow him there. He has no public account on social giant WeChat.
By contrast, since 2007, Wang has posted over 16,000 times on Fanfou, averaging about three posts per day for 14 years. Wang’s Fanfou bio reads: “If I haven’t seen, thought of, or done anything worth mentioning on Fanfou today, then this day was wasted.”
Wang’s Fanfou feed is personable and relatable, stuffed with nuggets of trivia and out-of-nowhere quotes from Jack Welch or Peter Thiel. Sometimes Wang gets personal. On Feb. 3, he wrote, “I came home tonight and noticed my shoes. They were the same pair I wore to my grandma’s funeral eight years ago.”
Wang only occasionally reminds his followers that he moonlights as the busy CEO of a major technology company. Fewer than 1% of his 16,000 posts directly mention Meituan.
To Wang’s followers, this separates him from other Chinese tech heavyweights. “You have the opportunity to get close to him. He is a real person. For all the other [tech elites], you can only see them through reporting or videos, but there’s never the chance for close interaction,” Ma Jing, the founder of a medical tech startup in China, told Protocol. On Fanfou, fans call him “the village chief.” To Ma, “it feels like we are a big collective, a big family.”
This suits Wang just fine. His account functions as a semi-private diary, one he shares with a fixed, friendly audience, disinclined to share his words elsewhere. Fanfou offers Wang the kind of hard-to-find balance between exposure, intimacy and self-expression that billionaires crave — particularly Chinese moguls mindful of the government’s wrath.
Failure, the mother of success
Much of this is the accidental result of Fanfou’s commercial failure. The pioneering microblogging website was shut down in 2009, two years after its birth and right after it reached 1 million users.
By the time Fanfou returned 16 months later, Sina Weibo dominated the microblogging landscape, as it has ever since. Many Fanfou users never returned. In June 2018, Fanfou disabled registration for new users, but existing accounts remained. Now, a Fanfou account sells for between $7 and $20 online. Many are marketed as “an entry pass to read Wang Xing’s posts.”
Today, Fanfou has no employees. The website looks like it’s from a decade ago. A few Meituan employees reportedly maintain it as a side project. In an email, Meituan told Protocol that “Meituan and Fanfou operate as two independent companies.” Fanfou has no app, but loyal fans have built mobile versions of Fanfou on their own.
Ma, the tech founder, has made her Fanfou account only visible to followers. She checks the site daily and interacts with about a dozen friends who are still there. In late January, she joined dozens of Fanfou users in a Clubhouse chatroom to reminisce about Fanfou’s heyday.
There’s an odd resemblance between Clubhouse and Fanfou, even though one is entering a growth stage while the other is in terminal decline. Like Clubhouse’s early users in China, many Fanfou-ers were tech industry insiders or urban elites who hopped on the website before the concept of microblogging made it to the general public.
When the hype had passed, those who stayed on Fanfou did so because its obscurity was a feature, not a bug: They could continue to post without being seen by the masses. By comparison, Weibo has over half a billion monthly active users, meaning posts can elicit responses from people with vastly different views. Posts can also be shared widely, bringing unwelcome government scrutiny.
To a high-profile figure like Wang, Fanfou’s intimacy connotes safety. When he posts on the website he created, he’s talking to a small, generally like-minded circle. Some of his scribblings might cross the vague red line that triggers online censorship elsewhere, but Wang knows what happens on Fanfou won’t travel far, and he has confidence his fans won’t turn against him./.