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 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.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. And thanks to you I lost a whole day at work uploading my books…doing the music will cost me my job.

  2. Ok, Mr. Doom, John, I’m a newbie to this kind of thing (I don’t Flickr or do any blog). So, suppose you like an author that is very popular but not recent. Suppose he wrote books from the 30s through the 70s, and now they are available in a huge number of editions. The discussion forum will be kind of weird then, right? Scattered all over the place, a new forum for each variation?

  3. AL, I’m actually just the type of person who would love that type of discussion forum. But I think the discussion would be more centered on the author regardless of what era… So it wouldnt be too scattered. I’m trying now in my know-it-all book worm way to figure out who you are talking about…

  4. Hi John. Thanks for the write-up.

    About flickr and douban: yes, Flickr had been the key inspiration when douban’s page layout was designed a year ago, and I stand for any due criticism. The reason was quite simple: I was so much in love with Flickr (invited about 50 of my friends to that site), just couldn’t get it out from my head. Being the only developer, I decided to innovate on the “social network over books” effort, not on Douban’s interface. The idea was to start-off with the flickr metaphor and gradually evolve into Douban’s own. Because Douban’s content is much-more text intensive, there’s no doubt in my mind one day the resemblance will disappear. Having a development team (will happen soon) will accelerate this process too.

  5. Hey, a visit from the busy founder himself! Not bad.

    Bo Yang,

    I have forgiven Douban for copying Flickr, but I’m very glad to hear that you envision Douban evolving into something more distinct from Flickr. I have to agree that Flickr is a good starting point.

  6. Thanks for mention China’s Web2.0 Review in your blog.

    so your guys maintain CBL? that is a great list!

  7. Which book?

  8. Doom, are there forums for authors? I thought they were for particular books. Maybe I’m just clicking the wrong links.

    Ok here’s my example. JRR Tolkien wrote The Hobbit in the 30s, Lord of the Rings in the 50s, and The Silmarillion was edited and published by his son in the 70s. All three being hugely popular, you can get copies in hardcover, paperback, all in one volume, separate, boxed set… for almost any year since their sales took off.

    So Douban has many pages of listings if you search for Tolkien. Will the discussion be scattered all over? Perhaps a few topics will be posted under the boxed set with cover art from the movies because a lot of people bought those, a few more under the beautiful hard cover that recently came out… Do you see what I mean? Maybe I’m doing something wrong and I just don’t understand the layout.

  9. Basically AL, Douban in English is still very new(like less than a couple of weeks). Discussion groups and forums are just being created right now. So if you wanted to discuss Tolkien, who I am admire as well, you can create your own Tolkien group and then see who joins. What is discussed and how it is discussed is entirely up to the users.

    For instance, if I wanted to make the discussion more broad than just Tolkien and talk about the Inklings, or even British literature from the thirties to fifties, I could, and we could discuss CS Lewis, Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, GK Chesterton etc.

    On a side note, I was guessing Graham Greene as your prolific author of longevity from your original post. Oh well.

  10. Also, I think if Bo Yang is still around he can clarify that perhaps better than I am doing. And I have just started my first group at Douban, wordpimps and I expect all of you to join it and make me feel popular.

  11. Phil,

    It was Blink. But now I see it’s in your “want to read” list, not your “reading” list. Did you move it, or did I just see that wrong?

  12. Mr. Doom, thank you, because I was oblivious to the groups. I only noticed that discussion could be posted for a particular group. I’m clueless!! That will be great for discussing the authors who don’t have their own Usenet newsgroup.

    Although I’m not totally in favor of the name of your group, I will check it out.

  13. Al’s quesiton has been a long-standing problem with Douban. It’s actually even worse with Chinese books. Because of much relaxed copyright control, many classic works have 20 or so editions. The solution is to establish links among editions of same work, and pool the reviews, discussions and recommendations together. Do-able, by combination of machine (title-author match) and human (user-defined, similar to wiki) efforts. This has been on the todo list for 8 month now. Once the english douban is stable and up to speed, we’ll tackle this.

  14. By the way, one good way to make, say, Tolkien group more visible is to add the popular Tolkien works to the group’s collection (find the books, use the “add to my group collection” link on the right hand-side of the book page). Then anyone who stumpled upon any of these books will be able to see “Telkien” group as one of the groups that’ve collected it.

  15. I may well have put it in the wrong column to start with. Also adding to the confusion Ben is all about it at the moment.

  16. AL, I changed the name of the group to satisfy better literary sensibilities. Sorry, I couldn’t change the name of the group ID. Hope this makes it easier for some Tolkien effusions. I am more of a CS Lewis fan myself which may help or not help in the discussion of Tolkien.

  17. Bo Yang, I admire your work on Douban very much!

    The “groups” feature will help a lot.

    What if a book with lots of editions could have more than one ISBN pointing to it? So when yet another person with a new edition of Lord of the Rings tries to add Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, only the ISBN would be added as another possibility for the same book.

  18. […] Sinosplice discovers Douban, a successful Chinese book-sharing site that now has an English (Flickr-like) beta. “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.” […]

  19. Al, sometimes the “edition” information is needed. For example, someone might want to collect one or few particular edition of the same book. so the solution is to pool discussions and reviews together, not to pool the book items (ISBNs) together.

  20. […] I have been spending a good amount of time at Beantal. John Pasden introduced it to me a week or so ago, and then later he wrote a post about it found here. John is not really stupid, at the time of his post the website was actually called Douban. Now it is called Beantal. I like Beantal better for reasons I can’t explain. […]

  21. douban is really a great product of web2.0. i don’t know if the english speakers would like to use it.

    check it out by yourself:

  22. I’m also a user of douban, I think the best thing of it is that you can pu up new books/movies/music yourself! Now on the Chinese site I can find almost everything I want in every edition. I don’t know whether the English site has also reached as many users yet…

  23. hey,
    Coz i havnt took a careful look at Douban in English version,but what i wanna say here is,the most impressive or biggest fun for the very douban fans is the various weird ‘group’ (which r more than one thousand i’m afraid)which actually seems like som secret partys happening there with the theme like ‘we lov telling frozen jokes’,’lsd addict’,’Karlheinz Stockhausen’…about youth mental problem,underground bands,special habit..Members sharing this unique thing do hav some gathering activities underground especially guys in Beijing and Shanghai(where i liv).
    There r a big numbers of cool guys living in another space in China u probably couldnt see on the realistic stupid streets,and just use English as tool but not that fancy the global things.Anyway,i think this hidden part is really cool and passionate.
    Hav fun everyday!

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