Recently Andrea invited me to Douban. I had never heard of it, but I checked it out. My first impression was negative. Although it’s not a photo sharing service, the site’s design and “Web2.0″ social networking structure was completely ripped off of Flickr. But I explored a little.
I found that I really liked Douban! The site allows you to share what books you are currently reading, what books you have read, and what books you’d like to read. Obviously, the real value is in the “sharing” aspect of it. It’s great to see what books your friends are reading. It’s also great to see that one of the books you want to read is currently being read by one of your friends also in Shanghai (that’s you, Phil!). It does all this with attractive book cover images and the same navigation that Flickr has made comfortable.
Douban also does the same thing for music albums. This is cool too, although I’m way more impressed by Last.fm for my music Web2.0 social networking needs.
Douban was originally launched in Chinese (called 豆瓣), and has been so successful that it just launched this Beta English version. The Chinese version allows users to share movies in addition to books and music.
I think one of the things that impresses me most about Douban is that it started out as a Chinese service, and then it branched out to embrace an English-speaking audience. I’m not totally up on all the new Chinese websites (I would have known about Douban long ago if I were), but I’m of the opinion that this is rather rare. What you see much more often is something akin to what happened with Flickr. Flickr came up with a great new service. Some Chinese users embraced it, but before it could really catch on in China, a handful of Chinese companies copied and translated Flickr as best they could and released it to China. Most Chinese surfers would then go with the Chinese copy. Either they don’t know about the original, don’t care, or don’t want to bother with English. All understandable.
I think that the resulting division of the community is a real shame. If all the social digital photographers in China were using Flickr instead of whatever second rate Flickr clone they’re using, it could be a huge boon to the community. Furthermore, I think the Chinese users would really feel a difference, using the service of the original innovator instead of a poor imitation.
Even though Douban is not especially innovative (none of the ingredients of the site are new), the execution is good, and I like the effort of bridging to English. There’s even talk of merging the two systems, I hear. Not sure how that would work.
It makes me wonder, though… what can an innovative new service like Flickr do to avoid losing their potential Chinese audience to second rate imitators? The only solution I can think of is to release a Chinese language version of the site as early as possible (and make sure that the servers are fast in China too).
Read more about Douban on the great new blog China Web2.0 Review. (If you hadn’t heard about it elsewhere, you would have known about this blog a few days ago if you follow the new CBL additions.) China Web2.0 Review is part of the same network that does blog中文翻译.