Facebook and Chinese IM (instant messaging) champion Tencent look set to join the battle for China's social networkers.
The Chinese version of Facebook appears to be the more elusive, as it began popping up on Thursday, and only to certain users of the site who are based in China. Even visitors going to Facebook's ".cn" domain are still routed to the main English homepage.
"[Thursday] we introduced three new Facebook languages: Russian, simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese. This is part of our ongoing effort to enable anyone in the world to communicate and share information with the people they know, regardless where they live or what language they speak," Facebook spokeswoman Debbie Frost confirmed by email.
The beta version of "School Mates" ("Xiaoyou" in Mandarin Chinese") debuted "a few weeks" ago, Catherine Chan, a Tencent spokesperson said by telephone. Operating under Tencent's popular QQ brand, the site's home page stated that it has been in development since August 2006. The page's design is similar to Facebook's basic look with little more than a description and login fields. The site also said that only some features will be available during the beta period.
Both are taking on "Xiaonei," which translates as "On Campus" in Mandarin Chinese, which was purchased by Beijing-based Oak Pacific Interactive in 2006 for an undisclosed amount. In April, Oak Pacific announced it had raised US$430 million for Xiaonei. It claims 22 million registered users and 12.7 million daily users, according to its Web site.
"It's obvious, blogs have been very popular in China," Chan said, explaining Tencent's decision to enter the social networking arena. She said it was targeted mostly at university students. No date has been set for an official launch, and no numbers were available yet for the initial number of sign-ups, she said.
Tencent has an established user base it will attempt to migrate from IM into social networking. QQ is China's most popular IM software. In its first quarter results for 2008, released May 14, Tencent claimed over 700 million registered QQ users, with 317.9 million active users -- exceeding China's Internet population of over 220 million.
Observers were bearish on the prospects for the new sites. "I am not convinced that Facebook-type social networking Web sites will take off in China. I think that many young Chinese people like anonymity and using plausibly deniable pseudonyms online," said Jeremy Goldkorn, editor of Danwei.org, a Beijing-based blog that monitors China's media. "Most Chinese universities already have popular BBS or forum Web sites, a type of online activity that is strongly established and very popular in China."
"I'm not sure that Facebook has anything new to offer to Chinese netizens. Chinese netizens are already some of the most social Internet users in the world," said Sam Flemming, CEO of CIC Data, a Shanghai-based Internet word-of-mouth consultancy. "BBS communities and the QQ ecosystem including QQ IM, Qzone (blogs), and QQ groups already provide a platform very passionate and active users," he said. However, he liked Tencent's chances better: "QQ, with its massive and active user base will serve as a much more formidable threat to Xiaonei."