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If you want to put your finger on the pulse of China’s Gen Z, you’d best prepare a hot compress for your bleeding eyeballs and get ready to spend a few hundred hours watching videos on Chinese streamer Bilibili.

The NASDAQ-listed site is often referred to as China’s YouTube, yet it is perhaps spiritually closer to a cross between Reddit and Twitch.

A sampling of more accessible yet “very Bilibili” videos might include a multi-hour live-stream of a girl simply doing her homework alone in her room; a vintage Korean anime show redubbed in absurdist fashion into local Chinese dialects; and a mashup of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker in conversation with old-school comedian Zhao Benshan, ending in the pair dancing to traditional suona horns.  

The site may seem indecipherable to the unfamiliar user, but it is expanding rapidly and moving out of its niche. Bilibili now has one of the fastest-growing user bases in the Chinese internet space, with 172 million users at the end of the first quarter, up 70% year-on-year — nearly 80% of whom are between 18 and 35. Only 13.4 million of these are paying subscribers, but there’s room for growth: Chinese Gen Z’ers born between 1990 and 2009, a cohort currently the size of the U.S. population, are predicted by big-data research firm QuestMobile to account for 66% of all online entertainment consumption by 2023. 

In April, Sony decided to plunk down a $400 million cash investment for a 4.98% stake in the company. Aiming to get bigger, Bilibili, whose first-quarter revenues rose by 69% year on year to RMB 2.3 billion ($327 million), has been moving upstream via collaborations with prestige brands like National Geographic and the BBC, as well as downmarket to appeal to users beyond its loyal contingent of super nerds. Along with ByteDance, it is challenging the near monopoly of China’s big three video streamers — Baidu’s iQiyi, Alibaba’s Youku and Tencent Video — in long-form content. 

As it pivots to a broader audience, Bilibili will walk a tightrope between grabbing a bigger piece of the market and retaining its credibility with existing fans — and between staying cool and veering too closely to government narratives. Its evolution is a test of how successfully a subculture can go mainstream in one of the world’s most repressive media environments. 

“People mostly associate Bilibili with cartoons and comics, but since the middle of last year, it has been expanding into more serious content verticals like lifestyle and technology. Increasingly, the parallel with YouTube is getting more vivid,” says analyst Charlie Chai of 86Research. 

Bilibili CEO Rui Chen said on an earnings call last week that the site “has become not only for the younger generation but for mass-market users” as well. While users previously favored Bilibili for a deep dive into obscure anime memes, they can now can search for more standard fare like cooking tutorials or workout videos, viewable without the intrusive pre-roll ads favored by competitors.

Bilibili trades in what it calls “professional UGC” — user-generated content that’s a cut above in quality. As Chai sees it, this is a more promising business model than iQiyi, Tencent Video and Youku’s blueprint of endlessly pumping as much as 80% of revenues back into content acquisition. 

“Due to China’s content censorship, the quality, variety and scope of professionally generated long-form video content is not so great,” whereas UGC is often less strictly regulated, leaving more room for creativity, Chai says. While other platforms aren’t even close to breaking even, Bilibili acts as a “gathering point where content is created almost for free.”

Leveraging the power of amateur video creators works as well as it does for Bilibili because the firm has a core asset nearly impossible to replicate: a uniquely passionate user base in the most coveted marketing demographic. 

Chen said on the earnings call that Bilibili’s ability to retain top content creators is the company’s “key competitive edge.” Aspiring users used to have to pass a 100-question multiple-choice test of obscure anime knowledge before they were allowed to become members with posting and commenting privileges, lending the site the feel of an insiders’ club.

“You really don’t have viewers in the U.S. who say, ‘I’m proud I’m on Netflix, and I look down on lesser streamers.’ But Bilibili users really identify with their platform, and are proud they don’t use the other [big] three,” says David Lee, CEO of Leeding Media.

Bilibili users are particularly devoted to “bullet comments” — text that scrolls directly over rather than alongside videos, appearing at the exact point in the video when a user first typed it.

The comments “manage to be a digital replication of what it feels like to be in a crowded movie theater that’s really rowdy, or watching a movie with your friends, with everyone making jokes as it’s happening,” explains digital ethnographer Christina Xu.

As Fu Ze, a premium user and researcher of Chinese political culture at Harvard, describes it, Bilibili’s bullet comments are often more important than the content itself, and are key to the site’s strong sense of community.

“It’s not like finished videos uploaded to YouTube; it’s a joint creative process that’s ongoing all the time, with everyone working together to create something,” says Fu. “You want to watch on Bilibili instead of other platforms because here, everyone is a creator — even if you’re not uploading a video. It’s very postmodern.” 

The bullet comments bring a stickiness to the site that Bilibili is now directing at original content over which it has more creative control, particularly in the documentary space. 

In the past two years, it has co-financed and distributed factual programming with National Geographic, BBC Studios and Discovery. It has also financed Japanese anime and dramas, including an adaptation of revered manga artist Osamu Tezuka’s classic “Dororo,” and debuted Chinese anime originals of its own. 

This year, it plans to release titles co-financed with Netflix, Smithsonian Channel and ARTE. Its big test for content creation, however, will be its involvement in an original animated adaptation of Chinese sci-fi writer Liu Cixin’s novel “The Three-Body Problem,” slated for 2021. 

Despite ambitions to co-produce with the West, Bilibili declined repeated requests for interviews for this report, apparently unwilling to speak to American media at a time of rising U.S.-China tensions.

Notably, Bilibili’s main revenue stream isn’t advertising, but rather mobile games. Last year, the gaming sector made up 53% of its annual revenue, down from 83% in 2017. Most revenue comes from a single title: Sony subsidiary Aniplex’s “Fate/Grand Order,” which accounted for 58% of Bilibili’s gaming revenue in 2019. Aniplex and Bilibili started working together on “FGO” in 2016 and are now looking for a new star product as it reaches the end of its life cycle. 

Sony’s investment facilitates that search, and “demonstrates their confidence in Bilibili’s growth potential and our unique positioning,” chief operating officer Carly Lee said on the earnings call. Bilibili’s user base overlaps strategically with Sony’s interests in gaming, movies, anime and music. “Though Sony is an influential international giant, its presence in China is fairly small,” said Chai. “It is likely trying to reestablish that through Bilibili, especially among youth.”

As Bilibili grows, it has become the site that China’s propaganda apparatus increasingly turns to when it wants to appeal to young people. 

On May 4, China’s national Youth Day, Bilibili grabbed headlines and saw its stock price soar with a viral video extolling the younger generation that caused fierce debate between those who found it moving and those offended by its materialism and message.

Accompanied by strident, swelling music and clips of affluent young people enjoying themselves — kayaking, visiting Japan, skydiving — popular actor He Bing delivered an effusive message from the older generation, saying that Gen Z should be proud of the country’s development and ignore detractors. 

“Those who complain that each generation isn’t as good as the next should look at you the way I look at you — full of jealousy” and admiration of the rights young Chinese today enjoy, as well as their myriad life choices, he says.

The clip, created in collaboration with several state media outlets, has been viewed more than 70 million times on various platforms, and was even reposted by the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, People’s Daily. 

All Chinese social media platforms must self-censor in order to operate, but content like this goes a step further. “Bilibili is actually [more government-leaning] than the other platforms: It’s the only one trying to integrate official ideology into what’s perceived as accessible or cool content, making fun, viral videos with an ideological bent,” says Fu. 

For the markets, the gamble appears to have worked: Bilibili’s stock grew nearly 27% in the two weeks after the video’s release.

Being cool is big business. And for now, Bilibili has made it financially feasible to be one of the last bastions of personality and weirdness on the ever more sanitized Chinese web — all while maintaining its political bona fides. To remain one of the most creative online spaces within China’s Great Firewall will require a continued balancing act.