Is Bilibili Turning Its Back On Its Most Loyal Users?

(Source: Caiwei Chen/Pandaily)

Bilibili has changed. For better or worse, it is not the “small shabby site” it used to be. Started as a haven for Japanese anime lovers and later evolving into a hub for various youth subcultures, the once niche platform is now the closest Chinese equivalent to YouTube with 170 million users and over a million creative content generators. With a nearly 80% increase year-on-year in user growth, the arguably most unique Chinese video site has been undergoing a quiet but thorough makeover. 

Beginning in early June, keen eyes among Bilibili’s users noticed the change of its iconic splash page in the app’s recent updates. A staple of Bilibili, users will see two cheerful anime girls called 22 and 33 when opening the app — a feature denoting the site’s ACG (Anime, Comic and Games) subculture origin that has been maintained throughout its evolution. Replacing the inviting girls is a new slogan: “Videos you are interested in, all at Bilibili.” In the meantime, a wave of large-scale offline advertising promotions featuring the slogan are now visible in elevators and subways across major Chinese cities. All the ads feature blue as the one single theme color, a conspicuous departure from the pink theme that used to govern its visual.

Bilibili is certainly looking to present itself differently than before, and this is not making the majority of long-time community members happy. 23-year-old Bryce Yip, a loyal Bilibili user that spends an average of 1.5 hour per day on the platform could not believe his eyes when first encountering the poster in the elevator of his company building. “The slogan is forgettable and does not capture the essence of Bilibili at all,” said Yip. “Honestly, it can work as a slogan for any content platform… say TikTok, Toutiao, Kuaishou… But Bilibili is different.”

Bilibili is indeed something else. The platform, for all its continuing efforts to diversify its content as well as business, has still managed to preserve some sort of indie spirit. But however far the promotion has gone, replacing its original dorky but playful tagline “( ゜- ゜)つロ干杯(which means ‘cheers’) ” and the iconic image of anime girls has never happened before. On Bilibili, popular column creator “Bird on the left bank” writes: “The slogan reads more like a Toutiao ad than a Bilibili ad. It reminds me of the old Toutiao slogan — ‘Whatever you’re interested in is the headline’.” ByteDance’s first hugely successful app, Toutiao (literally “headline”) is a news app that mainly targets older audiences in smaller cities and rural areas. As many users commented on this post, the slogan is a deviation from the culture that made Bilibili successful in the first place.

Different from Tencent Video and Baidu’s iQIYI that adopts a Netflix-like model that mainly hosts professionally made programs, the highlight of Bilibili is a form of content referred to by the industry as PUGC — professional user generated content. These content creators are quirky, lively, well-versed in their own niche, aware of their strengths, and most importantly, highly engaged in their own community. They are more authentic and relatable compared to media professionals, but are still way more sophisticated and thoughtful compared to most short video content creators you see on TikTok and Kuaishou.

SEE ALSO: Bilibili Breaks (Through) Chinese Internet

Long-time Bilibili loyalist and content creator Kang Haowei, who goes by the nickname “diving chubby fish” on the site, observed two waves of users flooding in since he started using Bilibili in 2014 — the first one around 2018, and the second one now. Like many of its earliest users, Bilibili came onto his radar as a community for Japanese anime fans. Kang started to see the formation of diverse niche communities on Bilibili around 2018, during which he also started creating his own content about Chinese college debate competitions. “There is no other internet community like Bilibili,” Kang said. “Sometimes I would wait until Bilibili purchased the copyright of a movie I like just because I want to watch it with the ‘dan’mu’s (bullet screen comments).” The tight-knit circles on Bilibili have their own inside jokes and codes, and mainly interact with bullet screens, a real-time comment function that allows comments to fly across the screen like bullets — a staple of Bilibili. 

However, Kang has seen a dwindling sense of belonging as well as a declining user experience during the past two years. “There are two main aspects where I see the most change — the homepage recommended feed, and the bullet screens.” Increasing irrelevant promoted content has shown up in the stream of videos, while the benign atmosphere of small circle interaction has become more and more interrupted by “outsiders” with little understanding of the content or media outlets that produce homogenous content. The subculture of the bullet screen originally implied dissatisfaction towards the mainstream, and at the same time weakened the role of authorities in the video watching experience. The collision between subculture roots and mainstream culture makes today’s Bilibili “full of contradictions.”

To congregate as many niche communities in one site and celebrate all is one thing, to try to introduce the site in a way that appeases the mass majority is another. Zhou Mi, risk manager at Lanmu Asset told Chinese media that “It’s dangerous to turn Bilibili into a mediocre all-encompassing platform. PUGC, creative niche content creators and the Gen Z audience have always been the core characteristics of Bilibili, and will continue to be the foundation of its future development.”

The massive user growth around 2018, driven mainly by the increase of niche community numbers and the rise of talented content creators, is a result of the flourishing vertical content realm. However, on top of all the differences among these niche communities, they share the value of mutual respect, a unique light hearted spirit, and a highly inclusive youthful mindset. In Bilibili’s Top 100 Creators 2019, ACG-related creators make up for no more than one-third. No matter if you are a gadget geek, ancient Chinese music lover, Kpop fangirl, or American movie fanatic, there is a Bilibili community that fully embrace your quirks.

But where is the line between growing the community and killing individuality? Bilibili chose to start from fostering categories that are not so niche, such as education. Including popular science, crash courses and full-fledged course series by professional training agencies, the new educational content has paid off by attracting more young vibrant community members. What’s more, the positive, up-and-coming image of Bilibili has won approval from Chinese authorities and wider mainstream audiences. Just recently, Bilibili launched its first original variety series Rap For Youth. Following the recent trend of Chinese TV networks to turn a formerly underground, niche art form into a mainstream media consumption product, Bilibili seems to be making a smooth but irreversible turn to please the general public. Lei Jun, tech giant Xiaomi’s founder, also jumped on the bandwagon, joining the slew of entrepreneurs and celebrities who have created an official Bilibili channel.

Huang Yuanpu, tech investor and Founder of investment research firm EqualOcean told Pandaily that it is necessary and inevitable for a once niche community like Bilibili to face pushback on its path to becoming mainstream. “Bilibili needs to ‘break through the walls’ quick and neat”, said Huang. “The shorter this adjustment period, the higher chance it will be a success. If the pain drags on long enough, Bilibili will lose more loyal users and give rivals a chance to swoop in.”

As Bilibili works to become China’s YouTube, so too is its biggest rival: ByteDance backed Xigua. This June, widely popular Bilibili creator “Wu Shi Cai Jing”, known for his educational insights on economics and finance, has left for Xigua and stopped putting out videos on Bilibili, a week after Bilibili just added the “Knowledge” section to its site. Although the demographics of these two sites’ user base are vastly different, Xigua and Bilibili share one similar strength: mid-length PUGC content. Xigua is getting ready for this talent-poaching battle by offering much higher rates.

Kang was among the creators that tried out Xigua for the financial initiatives. He tried to upload his content to Xigua, only to find the views and comments he gets there are lower than those on Bilibili. “I will continue to stay at Bilibili for the foreseeable future”, Kang told Pandaily. “Because my community is here. It feels like a home to us debate lovers.” 

Yan Yuran, a current Trust Manager based in Shanghai and a 7-year die-hard Bilibili fan said, “I hope Bilibili doesn’t go too far and forget why it started.” To Yan, Bilibili has been a “refuge” for him in the already highly restricted Chinese internet sphere throughout her youth. While Bilibili’s going mainstream seems inevitable, many old community members like Yan and Kang still call Bilibili “Little Shabby Site”, an endearing nickname used only by loyal Bilibili fans. 

The unparalleled community cohesion is still holding Bilibili together. For the long-term development of the site, going mainstream and accelerating monetization seems inevitable, but how to minimize the damage to its community culture still remains a big challenge for Bilibili.