Media

A big ask

Pony Ma looks for answers on China’s Quora-equivalent Zhihu

Pony-Ma-w

This guy has a question: Pony Ma

Chinese internet giant Tencent can afford to hire the best management consultants. But its boss Pony Ma has recently resorted to Zhihu, the country’s most popular online question-and-answer platform for fresh ideas.

Late last month the tech mogul turned up at the knowledge-sharing site at midnight. His question: “In the next 10 years, which scientific breakthrough will affect the internet sector most? What changes will the interplay between the industrial internet and consumer internet bring?”

(The term “industrial internet” generally refers to the use of internet-connected sensors, Big Data analytics, and real-time optimisation to increase the productivity of companies. It was coined by US conglomerate General Electric.)

Surprised by Ma’s appearance, hundreds of comments poured in, addressing his query. In typical Zhihu style, many were cogent and well-researched, with one as lengthy as 60,000 words. Some of the feedback that was particularly well received highlighted the potential of magnetic skyrmions (a vortex-like nanoparticle) that could upend data storage technology.

Ma’s question was actually part of Zhihu’s “Internet Prophet” campaign, which invited 10 tech gurus to pose a question about the internet’s future. The 10-day event has garnered 5,650 answers.

Ma’s query, which went first, drew 3,340 responses and more than 13 million views.

Other leading lights joining the campaign included Kathy Xu, CEO of private equity fund Capital Today; science fiction writer Liu Cixin (most famous for his award-winning The Three-Body Problem, see WiC262); as well as Zhihu’s founder Zhou Yuan. Foreign guests such as Wired magazine’s founder Kevin Kelly and Quora boss Adam D’Angelo also took part.

Although their questions failed to attract as many responses as Ma’s, it’s fair to say that they were often more profound.

Xu, for instance, wondered: “Do we have the rights to data, if Big Data – the root of computing – came from each of us?” (Yes, we had to think about that for a while too.)

Liu asked: “Information technology and the internet’s development are removing the obstacles brought by distance. Is such a trend going to slow down or even end the process of urbanisation?”

Alibaba’s Jack Ma was not on the list because the questioners were mostly Zhihu’s stakeholders. Tencent, most notably, has been a financial backer of the company since its inception in 2010.

While some felt that the event could burnish Zhihu’s image as the host of China’s most knowledgeable online community, others were more dismissive about its recent efforts to monetise its user base, which today exceeds 200 million.

36kr, a news portal, lamented that Zhihu now abounds with as many anecdotes and advertisements as cerebral exchanges.

The decision to hire Liu Haoran, a 21 year-old actor, as its spokesperson during the World Cup this summer did not go down well with Zhihu’s more educated fans either.

The commercial drive is likely linked to five rounds of fundraisings, with the most recent pumping fresh capital into the unicorn and upping its valuation to $2.4 billion (see WiC421). Apart from launching more paid products – a personal consultation service and a live-streaming platform – Zhihu is doing more promotional activities in shopping malls and partnering with e-commerce site JD.com.

These efforts appear to have prompted D’Angelo’s question: “What can US internet companies learn from their Chinese counterparts?” The question from the Quora boss received the least answers of the 10 posed. Perhaps China’s more patriotic netizens don’t want to reveal any of their internet sector’s secret sauce to rivals in the US.


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