This article is originally written in Chinese by You Cu for PingWest's Chinese edition. The English version is translated and edited by Wang Boyuan and Chen Du.
Clubhouse was already a hot thing in Silicon Valley by mid-2020, but it has only recently come out of the closed circle because of Elon Musk, who starred a chat room on Clubhouse to talk about his entrepreneurial life, stuff like missing out on Bitcoin, and also GameStop. Ironically, Musk himself no longer identify with that circle, since he hated Silicon Valley so much and had already planned to move his personal and corporate life to Texas.
The chat itself was fun, but mostly just one-off conversations that left nothing really insightful. But what became a real hit in China due to tech people's fondness of Musk was Clubhouse, the app that hosted the talk. From Facebook to Twitter, to even Chinese social media like Weibo and WeChat Moments, "asking for an invitation" echoes endlessly on timelines, as everyone wants to get in due to FOMO.
As is usually the case, people also began to wonder: "Who will be China's Clubhouse?" "Which Chinese company and team will be the first to 'copy' Clubhouse while it's hot?"
In the year 2021, such questions feel old and dumb, as Chinese companies had generally stopped copying Silicon Valley for many years, and said goodbye to the idea. Instead, original products that were made in China, like TikTok, won the heart of hundreds of millions of Western Gen-Zs and Millennials.
Nevertheless, in this case, it turned out that in China had a product that is basically Clubhouse, long before Clubhouse became a hit.
In August 2019, an app called Dizhua 递爪 (literally translated as sticking out one's paws, a meme-phrase for raising hands) went live, offering the same kind of voice-based experience that connects people, nearly a year ahead of Clubhouse.
Prior to its launch as an independent app, it used to be a feature of the Beijing-based knowledge-sharing app Zaih 在行, the founder of which, Ji Shisan, also runs popular science website Guokr 果壳.
Similar but not the same
The first thing you'll encounter when you open up Dizhua is the Recommend page, where a list of popular ongoing chat rooms are listed on more prominent positions on the screen, with rooms that are scheduled to open listed below them.
Topics of rooms contain just about everything, from "the meaning of life" to "a rap battle of serious nonsense". There are even rooms for school reunions on the app.
The format of discussions on Dizhua can be familiar with that of Clubhouse's: participants in the same room generally don't necessarily know each other and are there to network, socialize, meet and follow new, interesting people. There are moderators and listeners in a room. When users enter an ongoing room, their roles default to listeners, though one can always "di zhua" as the app's name suggests, to raise his or her hand.
The concept of living room discussions is at Dizhua's core.
A living room could be a mutual public space. But in China's metropolis, what happens quite often is that the living room gets divided and converted into more bedrooms for rent, which is one reason that many young Chinese people who rent apartments with other roommates (who don't really feel like roommates other than living in different rooms under the same roof) feel socially lonely. Restoring a living room may be a solution to that problem.
Zhu Xiaohua, the product manager of Dizhua, told PingWest that the team has been thinking about a multi-person scenario since the very beginning. In the meantime, most other social products are focused on one-on-one use cases.
"The most common chatting scenario in reality is a multi-person party, so the living room is one of the core ideas. What they chat privately afterwards is their own business." Zhu said.
And the focus of the chat is the topic: when a bunch of people sit together, it's only the same interests that could break the ice and make sure the discussion doesn't end in awkward silence.
"We want to create a new kind of social relationship," said Ji Shisan, the founder and CEO of the company that made the Dizhua app, adding that the most important distinction between Dizhua and Clubhouse is that on his app the users are mostly complete strangers while on Clubhouse people are only getting invited by their lucky acquaintances. It's this characteristic of the app that sets the two apps apart.
The distinction is further explained by looking at both apps' post-signing up experiences, where Dizhua gives users a personality test and then pushes relevant rooms to them, while on Clubhouse users start by following other people and join rooms that they're participating in.
It is safe to conclude that Dizhua feels more like a social app for strangers while Clubhouse is more about checking and raising one's privilege.
The Silent Room
After running for nearly a year and a half, Dizhua has naturally developed an interesting ecosystem.
For example, there are "language corner" type of rooms where language learners who are strangers put aside their awkwardness and talk and practice freely in a semi-public but comfortably private space. There's also a room where members from all over the world make Classic Chinese speeches every Friday night. That room, operated weekly, has been online for more than a year.
Zhu, the product manager, mentioned another unorthodox "chat" room, in which people don't actually chat at all: "the theme of this room is to gather in silence and complete your own chores. At first it was hard for us to understand why they would all connect here without talking. But it looks like our users really like it."
To the product team, it turned out that these weird, "boring" rooms are quite popular among users, while their officially curated rooms with designated serious topics hardly attract participants and produce any insightful discussions. Began in March last year, the team ditched the idea to curate first-party rooms, and gave users the freedom to host chats about whatever they feel like discussing.
Nevertheless, too much silence also troubles the team as users still find it awkward and may leave the app for good. Ji, the CEO who spent much effort over the last year and half on the product, said that a chat room's vibrancy for its entire duration nearly completely depends on whether or not discussion can heat up in the first few minutes. "The shorter that time take, the better the whole experience. We found that time limit to be at about 6 minutes. If you can't heat it up within 6 minutes, the chat is basically falling apart."
In the early days of Dizhua, many new users carried the psychological pressure of having to open their mouths and chat with strangers. There will be a long time to break the ice, and some users had even asked if they can type instead of speak. So the product team introduced the role of moderator, who does onboard guidance for newcomers and set some prepared questionnaires to vibe it up.
"We found that most users, especially younger people, still have a natural desire to speak," said Zhu, adding that while people do have social anxiety, "hearing others talking can make them feel better and start to have fun chipping in to the discussion as well."
From 50 to 5,000 per room
The Dizhua team has been focusing on the small room chat. However, after seeing Clubhouse passed the 5,000 people per room mark, Zhu said to himself: "should we think big, too?"
Dizhua was made for small groups since its prototype days, as other more prominent social group voice chat features, like that of WeChat's, cap at 9 people. Though technically, Dizhua can cap multi-person rooms at 5,000 people, too. However during the earliest development phase, the team used WeChat as a benchmark, therefore the latter also became more or less a shackle for the team.
"Within this range, we found that 4-6 people is a relatively suitable number of people to chat with, and have been carrying this limitation forward, but at this point Clubhouse did fresh up a lot of our initial mindsets," said Ji.
Yet, the team at Di Zhua has their considerations when it comes to iterating the product. They worried that bringing too many people into rooms could disrupt the chat experience. Essentially, the more people there are, the greater the probability of having someone who doesn't get along in the room. Over time, a small space for like-minded people becomes a big bazaar, the negative effects of diversity kick in, making it harder to maintain meaningful dialogue.
In this regard, Clubhouse's 5,000-people room's success story is not something to behold per the Dizhua team. At present, Clubhouse still relies on its invitation system, which largely constrains the participating users to a group of tech elites, like venture investors and product managers, as its center of the relationship chain. Once open registration is available, it is unclear whether a mixed room of 5,000 people can still maintain such harmony. Meanwhile, Dizhua is open to all, so it had the chatting experience in mind to begin with.
In the second half of last year, the team found that the emergence of users who lower the discussion quality and morale brought many problems to the entire user ecology. They had to block many user accounts who appears to be located in other regions in Asia. "During that time fraud was a very serious problem, and we spent a lot of time tackling that. The product as a whole relies heavily on the sense of community, so the quality and characteristics of the users need to be taken care of," noted Ji. The team did not specify the reason they think non-Chinese users lower the bar.
Content moderation poses another important challenge for community-based multi-user voice chat apps, as after Clubhouse went viral in China's tech scene many began to wonder when it will face the inevitable of being blocked by the Chinese government, for it being a free speech platform.
They way Dizhua went about it was that while allowing users to spontaneously establish chat rooms, the platform also validates each topic being submitted and their hosts. "We have been and will always be very cautious in this regard," said Ji.
Still, the success of Clubhouse inspired the Dizhua team a lot. One of the insights it gained is the involvement of celebrities as key opinion leaders on platforms. Zhu told PingWest that as of this moment most of the users in the Dizhua communities are average people from a relatively singular age group, and the team plans to invite more influential people to join the platform. At the same time, Zhu understands that the ways celebrities interacts with average people differ abroad and locally. Other newer generations of Chinese social apps that have been focusing on utilizing celebrity users, like Weibo's Oasis, did not achieve what they aimed at.
In the end, it all fell back to the unique sense of community for Dizhua. Ji said that his team hopes to incubate a group of key opinion creators and leaders originally on the platform, and that its users can form a new kind of bond that is quite unique, like that of Douban's and Jike's. These two products are known on China's internet among younger generations as unique online communities the experience of which no other rival apps or services can imitate.
The current growth of Dizhua is at a steady pace, according to the team. In 2020, Dizhua saw a small surge during the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, with daily active users reaching 15,000 at its peak and currently stable at around 10,000, without mentioning other user metrics. Meanwhile, it appears that Clubhouse already has more than a million users, as many of the celebrity users on the platform, including Andrew Chen, an early investor of it, has more than a million followers.
Asked about the reason voice-based social apps like Clubhouse and Dizhua became popular over the last year, Ji said that it's because more and more people realized that texting is not the best answer for multi-person communication, and that as technology solutions mature, mobile-optimized multi-user voice chat products designed for non-work-related discussions (unlike Zoom) would definitely appear. Then, those who are not satisfied with texting or Zooming will hop onto the new kind of medium.
That's the story with Dizhua, an app that's similar to Clubhouse, but months ahead of its US counterpart. It's one of the latest examples of Chinese companies abandoning the idea of copying everything from Silicon Valley, and it has its originality that suits its unique user base, and just might make it fly at the same altitude as Clubhouse, if not even higher.