Bilibili is (some would say was) the sanctuary of the Gen Z anime, gaming and comic community in China. Whereas it once served fringe subcultures to overwhelming success and support, its mainstream success has led to increased scrutiny. Misogynistic content is one of the main reasons for recent public outrage towards the platform in China. Bilibili’s subsequent response is an indication of the growing sensibility to social issues which characterizes the new generation of young Chinese “netizens”. Brands looking to do business in China should take heed of this cultural shift.
Bilibili’s Humble Beginnings
Bilibili is the Chinese equivalent of YouTube. Just as YouTube started in 2005 as an online dating service with an exceptional video upload function and progressed to hosting homemade videos, before eventually becoming the Google-owned behemoth that it is today, Bilibili was launched in 2009 as a fandom community that eventually became optimized for video sharing as it grew in popularity. It was a sanctuary for the primarily male (and highly devoted) anime fan demographic and also relied heavily on user-generated content. Marginalized Chinese subcultures embraced Bilibili and contributed significantly to its initial user base and laid the groundwork for its eventual commercialization.
Bilibili’s Transition & Criticisms
In 2014, Bilibili began to diversify its content in a bid to get official approval to become the Chinese YouTube. “B-site” (as it is known among its Chinese user base) took a page out of YouTube’s playbook and began hosting food, fashion and lifestyle vlogs, as well as movies, documentaries and, of course, anime serials, among other things.
Some users noticed, however, that Bilibili became more sexist even as its user base became more gender balanced (43% female) since its male-dominated fandom days. The most glaring example of this phenomenon can be seen in the aggressively anti-women comments which populate videos that seek to prevent this type of behavior. For instance, the comment sections of videos with content geared towards women and/or content discussing male celebrities are almost invariably filled with outrageously sexist comments.
In February 2021, online activists mainly belonging to the female-dominated forum on Douban (a popular Chinese social media network which hosts review of various forms of popular media) with over 700,000 members organized on other social media sites to apply pressure on Bilibili to remove a particularly offensive anime series which objectifies women and, at times, appear to promote pedophilic elements.
The series was subsequently removed by Bilibili after receiving mainstream attention.
Bibili responded to public pressure by launching a month-long campaign to address content issues and publicly pledged to deal with offending accounts according to the relevant regulations. Bibibili’s CEO also publicly confirmed that “fairness and inclusiveness” were the two most important values that the platform commits to.
The brief description of the NASDAQ-listed Bilibili’s conflict with its female user base highlights broader cultural tensions at play, which indicates the increasing complexity of the Chinese market.
The takeaway is that companies in China, even seemingly omnipotent tech companies, cannot afford to have their brands tethered to the label of misogyny. Moving forward, businesses will have to tread carefully in dealing with gender issues and many other points of cultural sensitivity as they build and grow their Chinese following.