Giraffes, wolves, and dragons: How evolutionary biology explains the Chinese internet

This is a story of Darwinian evolution. About how, over time, living in different environments, the descendants of the same species can adapt, mutate, and diverge into animals that are entirely different. It is also about how the traits and power dynamics of species within an ecosystem can fundamentally change its structure, impacting all life within it.

Let us begin with the okapi. Native to the forests of Central Africa, the okapi looks like an awkward combination of a deer and zebra. It stands about five feet tall and eats mostly fungi, ferns, and buds that are abundant in the African rain forest.

About 16 million years ago, the okapi, which belonged to the genus canthumeryx, left the forests for the savannah. To adapt to the faster predators of the open grasslands, it evolved longer legs and an ability to gallop at fast speeds. It also evolved a longer neck and a long, coarse tongue in order to eat from the high, thorny branches of the acacia tree. This animal became the massive creature we now know as the giraffe.

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The modern-day okapi and its giraffe cousin

Charles Darwin first identified the idea of divergent evolution while studying the diversity of beaks among the finches of the Galapagos Islands. But the story I want to tell isn’t merely about a 150-plus-year-old theory.

This is a story about the cultural, political, and economic ecosystems of the internet inside and outside of China, and how, when placed in two different environments, companies that begin with the same DNA can evolve into entirely different species.

Quora vs. Zhihu: The okapi and the giraffe

In January 2011, a year and a half after ex-Facebook employees founded the Q&A platform Quora in Silicon Valley, a very similar-looking website called Zhihu (知乎, Chinese for “did you know?”) was founded in Beijing. Like many Chinese internet firms at the turn of the 2010s, Zhihu looked to capitalize on the opportunities within China’s unique internet ecosystem, fostered by the “Great Firewall” — which blocked many foreign platforms — as well as unique language, regulatory, and cultural environments that made it challenging for outsiders. With the “apex predators” of the Western internet unable to dominate in China as they did elsewhere, a habitat was formed in which certain species could move up the food chain.

But despite their similar beginnings, Quora and Zhihu have been changed by their environment, and have evolved into two very different beasts. Like the okapi, Quora has stayed close to its original form. It is still primarily a Q&A site, though it has added some features like a blogging platform and financial “bounties” for top users.

Zhihu, on the other hand, plays a very different role in the Chinese internet community: It is morphing into a combination of Quora, Twitter, Patreon, Coursera, and even LinkedIn. In other words, it has elongated its neck and extended its reach.

Evolutionary biology

The okapi still resembles its ancestor, while the giraffe is an entirely different beast

“Education and self-learning are very important in Chinese culture,” explains Zhihu co-founder and CEO Victor Zhou (周源). “People in China are very goal-oriented and entrepreneurial. Young people here believe that with the right knowledge and opportunities, they can completely revolutionize their lives. Zhihu provides a platform to make that happen.”

To understand Zhihu’s indispensability, we have to understand its environment — one in which reliable information is hard to come by. Unlike in many Western countries, China’s media is not independent, and historically has not been credible. The Chinese people have been long known to be skeptical of claims made by companies and institutions, wary of the profit-driven and political motives behind them. In steps Zhihu, whose participants — including credentialed experts — are rigorously up- and downvoted according to their answers, thereby providing netizens at least a reason to believe that certain information is reliable. While Quora offers the same function, the English-language internet has never had the same vacuum needing to be filled like the Chinese web. 

“I use Baidu [China’s largest search engine] if I need to get directions to the place I’m going, but if I’m trying to find out what insurance I should buy or learn about the latest trends in a professional field, Zhihu is where I go,” explains a young professional in Shanghai.

The knowledge community on Zhihu has turned it into more of a social network, a sort of Twitter for smart people. The other day, a friend of mine I hadn’t spoken with for a year — an academic working at China’s National Museum — asked what I’ve been up to. “Haven’t you seen my posts on WeChat Moments?” I asked, referring to a function on China’s number one social network that’s similar to Facebook’s News Feed.

“I never check my Moments anymore,” she replied. “It’s too filled with people selling things. Many of my friends have moved to Zhihu.”

 

Referring to Weibo as “China’s Twitter” or Baidu as “China’s Google,” while once useful shorthand, is becoming less and less accurate, as the environment in which they exist is shaping them into different identities.

 

Zhihu has also discovered opportunities for monetization. In August 2016, Zhihu launched “column rewards” (专栏赞赏), a function where readers can donate money to those who give useful answers. This process is streamlined by China’s seamless online payment system, in which Alipay and WeChat allow users to transfer money quickly and easily via QR code.

Zhihu has recently found success expanding into live streaming as well with Zhihu Live, which allows users to pay a small fee, usually the equivalent of two or three U.S. dollars, to attend an online webinar. Well-known experts have been known to attract hundreds of thousands of viewers. Twitter-like Weibo, live-streaming upstart Fenda, and subscription service Dedao have found ways to capitalize on this trend as well.

In 2016, Zhibo evolved toward LinkedIn by adding an “institutional account” feature that allows companies to communicate with the Zhihu community. Although this development is still in its early stages, Victor Zhou envisions the future identity of his company as an “opportunity hub” for entrepreneurs, recruiters, and experts. “We are creating a win-win-win partnership between Zhihu, the experts on the platform, and employers,” says Zhou. “When an employer uses LinkedIn or a traditional job board to recruit, they rarely receive more information about a candidate than their CV. That simply isn’t enough. With Zhihu, employers will be able to deeply investigate an expert’s knowledge and point of view, allowing them to get a clear picture of whether this person is actually the individual they’re looking for.”

Quora, on the other hand, seems to see expansion opportunities solely in terms of widening its user base, instead of adding depth to functionality. Over the past year, it has developed Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Japanese versions of the site. The Quora okapi is looking for other forests, while the Zhihu giraffe is evolving to meet the demands of the Chinese internet savannah.

WeChat and the “dominant predator” effect

Inhabiting a chain of islands in southern Indonesia is one of the fiercest predators on the planet. Weighing roughly 150 pounds and eight feet in length, the Komodo dragon is the world’s largest lizard. With teeth like steak knives, armor-like skin, and venomous saliva, it is downright nasty. It also absolutely dominates its ecosystem, as competing predators have long since been driven to extinction by this real-life dragon.

Komodo dragon

A Komodo dragon

 

The concept of a truly dominant “apex predator” forcing out competition can be seen in the ecosystem of the Chinese internet as well. Want an example? Let’s take a look at Slack.

In recent years, Slack has transformed how firms communicate in the U.S. Inc.com’s 2015 company of the year. Slack is a messaging app that lets co-workers carry on a large number of group and individual conversations, some private and some public, all on the same interface. Molly Fischer of New York Magazine described its effect as turning the workplace into a “nonstop chatroom.”

In China, however, Slack and its Chinese counterpart, DingTalk (钉钉), have not had the same revolutionary effect. This was illustrated to me when I recently worked at the Beijing headquarters of a Chinese company that also had a large U.S.-based workforce. One day, when discussing a project with a Bay Area–based colleague, she said to me, “There doesn’t seem to be a very strong consensus on how to communicate here. The Americans all use Slack, but most of the Chinese team members tend to conduct all of their work in WeChat groups.”

It should be noted that, at least in my own anecdotal research, Slack and DingTalk have had some success, and most people I speak with say that their company uses an enterprise messaging app of some sort. What differs is the actual use of these apps for messaging. “Our company has Slack, but to be honest, most of the work communication happens via WeChat,” explained one Beijing-based internet company employee.

This represented a sentiment that I noticed throughout my social and professional network in China. Curious, I asked a series of people from major Chinese tech firms if they use DingTalk, and if so, how much they use it for messaging. Almost across the board, people responded that even if their company used DingTalk, it was primarily for the clock-in/clock-out and location functionality that it offers. When I asked what ratio of DingTalk vs. WeChat was used for work communication, the most common answer was one to nine. Only one respondent, an engineer for a Shenzhen-based firm, said his team preferred to use DingTalk.

People I spoke to had a few different theories for the preference of WeChat over enterprise messaging apps. Some suggested that Chinese teams aren’t as strict about data and messaging security as those overseas, or that Chinese people are more comfortable mixing work and social life, so they don’t need two separate apps. While these factors may play a role, I think the best explanation is the most obvious: convenience. While Slack draws people away from the annoyances of email and toward the ease of a chat app, most workplaces in China were already using WeChat for internal communication. In this case, switching to Slack or DingTalk is making things more complicated and less convenient than the status quo.

 

While WeChat’s dominance has made it tough for direct competitors, it also produces a positive effect similar to what natural ecosystems experience when there is a dominant predator.

 

WeChat is clearly the Komodo dragon of the Chinese internet ecosystem. Its sheer dominance has driven lesser competitors into extinction. Take, for example, the case of Renren. Once heralded as “China’s Facebook,” the social media platform has lost more than 70 percent of its monthly active users since the company’s 2011 IPO. And while the company itself has found sustainable value through its investments, Renren has not come remotely close to living up to its Facebook comparison.

Why? “WeChat beat Renren,” explained a former Renren employee. “WeChat has so many functions, not just messaging. WeChat got support from local governments in ways that Renren didn’t, supporting ticket booking, utilities, and other essential services. Renren was a social app, but WeChat was a ‘life app.’ Renren just couldn’t compete.”

Like the Komodo dragon, great white shark, or Siberian tiger, WeChat, as the dominant predator of the social ecosystem of the Chinese internet, has forced out comparable competitors. While overseas internet users may toggle between three, four, or even five separate apps for messaging, social networking, and online payment, in China, you really only need WeChat.

While WeChat’s dominance has made it tough for direct competitors, it also produces a positive effect similar to what natural ecosystems experience when there is a dominant predator. Research has found that the presence of a stable “apex predator” is one of the most important factors in a healthy ecosystem. Take the case of the gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park.

The wolf was eliminated from Yellowstone through hunting in the 1800s and early 1900s, but was reintroduced to the area in 1995. Biologists were astonished by the ripple effect that followed. They observed a flourishing of beaver colonies that were previously rare. Why? When the wolf was removed from the ecosystem in the early 1900s, Yellowstone elk no longer had to fear their main predator, and their population flourished as a result. They would linger in one location for long periods of time, feasting on young willow stands near streams, removing what beavers rely on as a critical food source in the winter.

When the wolf was reintroduced, the elk population did not dramatically decrease, but was pressured into more frequent movement, thus ending the sedentary overgrazing of willows. Suddenly, beavers had more to eat. With a newly invigorated beaver population, the dams and ponds they created changed how water moved through the ecosystem, and provided new habitats for fish and birds.

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WeChat’s ubiquity has provided a stable platform from which sub-industries have developed. The QR-code-based e-payment methods enabled by WeChat (and its competitor Alipay) have made online payment so seamless that cash seems to be a thing of the past in China. You know those “column rewards” that allow readers to tip the writers of Zhihu articles? That is made possible through WeChat, where users can pay in seconds. Compare this with the popular American platform Patreon, where donors subscribe to content for extended periods of time, inputting credit card information and agreeing to long-term commitments. While Patreon requires a concerted commitment from donors, the WeChat-enabled tipping model removes the barriers to action for the donors, allowing them to give on impulse.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. The central axis of WeChat has altered the very fabric of the Chinese consumer lifestyle, from fostering a world-leading sharing economy to enabling hyper-efficient food delivery to allowing for unmanned convenient stores. It is impossible to live in a Chinese city without seeing the ripple effects of WeChat in nearly every social and commercial interaction. Like the Komodo dragon, its dominance has driven competitors to difficulty or extinction, but like the wolf of Yellowstone, it has enabled the existence of a thriving ecosystem further down the food chain.

WeChat wolf

China has often been referred to as having a “parallel internet” to that of the U.S. (and the rest of the world). While partially true, that is becoming less the case. Like natural ecosystems under different conditions, they have evolved, and are continuing to evolve, in different directions. Referring to Weibo as “China’s Twitter” or Baidu as “China’s Google,” while once useful shorthand, is becoming less and less accurate, as the environment in which they exist is shaping them into different identities. China’s internet is no longer “parallel,” but rather, as Darwin would say, divergent.

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Elliott Zaagman

Elliott Zaagman is a corporate trainer, executive coach, and writer who splits his time between Bangkok and Beijing. He focuses on Chinese companies and how they relate to their employees, customers, and the public. Connect with him on LinkedIn, Twitter, Weibo, or on WeChat at ezaagman.