Bilibili started out as a platform for Japanese anime. It’s now the center of China’s social video boom.
This is how it works.
A version of this article first appeared on 7 December, 2017 in the Magpie Digest newsletter (we recommend it) — a project by Christina Xu, Tricia Wang, and Pheona Chen to help busy people stay attuned to China’s rapidly shifting conversations from abroad. It’s republished here under a Creative Commons license.
When Marvel Studios recently released the trailer for the much-anticipated Avengers: Infinity War. Fans in the rest of the world celebrated and discussed the trailer on Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube. But Chinese fans flocked to their own platforms to revel.
One such platform is Bilibili — also known simply as B站 (“B-site”) — a video streaming platform inspired by Japanese otaku video site Niconico. With 100 million daily active users and IPO whispers, Bilibili now dwarfs both Niconico and its older Chinese competitor, ACFun, in size.
Creating a same-screen social experience
Bilibili’s most recognizable feature is its 弹幕 (danmu — “bullet comments” — a loanword from Japanese), a user conversation system originally invented for Niconico where time-synced comments are overlaid directly on top of the video as it plays, literally foregrounding the conversation.
The danmu system creates a viscerally social watching experience comparable to sitting in a rowdy movie theater: during pivotal moments in a video, reactions wash over the video in a dense tidal wave, often covering up the source material entirely.
Users are not just using danmu for trailers on Bilibili; some of the site’s most popular videos are whole TV shows and movies (especially anime and classic, nostalgic Chinese fantasy series), either officially licensed or uploaded by fans without permission.
Like the tweets flying around when a popular TV show is airing, the danmu on these videos range from pure reaction to jokes to more thoughtful analysis. The crucial difference is that Bilibili’s danmu are cumulative over time. The best way to experience a show’s Twitter commentary is for the viewer to be watching at the same time as everyone else; trying to catch up on reactions later is a totally different experience. In contrast, danmu are time-synced and attached to the video itself, meaning that the echoes of previous viewers’ reactions are always accessible, as if everyone were watching at the same time.
On Bilibili, the danmu system means that social conversations around video are not just a second screen experience — they are on the same screen, always attached and accessible in one neat package.
On Bilibili, social conversations around video are not just a second screen experience — they are on the same screen, always attached and accessible in one neat package.
Just as with a raucous movie theater, people who prefer to focus on the content itself will find danmu extremely distracting — that is why Bilibili gives viewers the option to turn the comments off altogether. But there are a lot of video platforms to choose from in China, and younger generations are turning to Bilibili in droves — a shocking 90% of its users are under 25 — precisely because of the quality and quantity of its danmu.
Danmu’s popularity among young people has led to its adoption by other platforms as well. Mainstream video sites with no connection to otaku culture like iQiYi and Tencent Video now have danmu commenting systems, as do most livestreaming platforms (one could make the case that Facebook Live’s emoji-based reactions are a descendant as well). Outside of video, danmu can be found in comics (有妖气) as well as in music streaming (QQ Music). And as the above image shows, many apps have adopted danmu as an Easter egg or otherwise special feature to activate social experience.
Danmu have even managed to escape the internet altogether. Starting in 2014, movie theaters in larger cities have staged special danmu screenings of films to encourage live audience reactions to films popular among post-’90s audiences. Even in a real life setting when socializing about the film is possible, the virtual social layer of danmu has become the norm.
Getting community right
Bilibili has managed to hold on to its users despite all of this competition because danmu is not just a technical feature, it requires a vibrant community — and Bilibili’s is considered the best in terms of creativity.
Part of the reason for this is that while anyone can watch (most) Bilibili videos, only registered members who have passed a 100-question test about danmu etiquette and anime trivia are allowed to leave comments and upload videos.
This is actually a simplified version of the test, which used to be so difficult that it was nicknamed the “Chinese otaku high school examination” and drove a booming trade in test answers and account sales on Taobao. More disruptive forms of danmu — such as colors and finer control over comment positioning — are further restricted privileges, earned only through community contributions like video uploads.
This harrowing on-boarding process flies in the face of today’s conventional startup wisdom about removing obstacles to user acquisition. But it is these gates that keep Bilibili’s community high-quality. The stakes of danmu are higher than normal comments because of their hypervisibility; the tests ensure that the bulk of the people creating them at least understand the norms of the community. And despite the clubhouse feel, Bilibili has actually managed to maintain a roughly gender-split user base (52% male, 48% female) — much more even statistics than any large “geek-centric” social platform in the West.
This hyper-social, semi-enclosed environment creates ideal conditions for meme incubation, which is why if you want to understand the jokes and catchphrases that populate China’s internet, the danmu on Bilibili is a good place to pay attention.
Danmu is not just a technical feature, it requires a vibrant community — and Bilibili’s is considered the best in terms of creativity.