In China, college students spend the most time reading on three social media platforms: WeChat, Weibo and Zhihu.

The first two names are more familiar, but Zhihu is quickly gaining ground.

As of June 2018, the Quora-like Q&A platform said it had 180 million registered users, and 35 million of them were active monthly. Even though it’s not as big as WeChat or Weibo, it’s turning into an important window into what Chinese netizens are discussing online everyday.  

The site is run by Zhou Yuan, a tech journalist who majored in computer science before starting his own business. Prior to Zhihu, he helped create apple4.us -- a site for Chinese Apple fans to communicate with each other -- and started a data analysis company that eventually failed.  

In 2010, a year after Quora was launched, Zhou co-founded Zhihu for the Chinese market.

Zhihu’s content feed on mobile (left) and desktop (right). (Pictures: Zhihu)

Similar to Quora, Zhihu’s website features a long feed of questions and answers. But the Zhihu app looks a little different. The content is divided into four sections: Users you follow, recommended content from Zhihu, the top 50 trending questions, and videos.

In a 2014 post on his own Zhihu account, Zhou explained his vision for the product: “If Google is like a borderless virtual library, and Facebook is like a never-ending school reunion, then Zhihu is like a massive cafe where millions of people pass through and exchange their views and experiences.” (A never-ending school reunion, by the way, sounds horrible.)

In another post in 2012, Zhou also likened Zhihu to “the Napster of knowledge, experience and views”.

Observers in China generally believe Zhihu users are more educated and culturally refined than those using other social media products. But some think that’s gradually changing as Zhihu tries to expand its readership to earn more money.

The aggressive commercialization started this year. Besides selling online lectures, it’s also, unsurprisingly, started putting ads into people’s content feeds. The company says its revenue grew 340% year on year in the first half of 2018.

That might be good news for the company, but it’s been a headache for the people using it. On the platform, users have been posting complaints about how intrusive and annoying the ads have become, and some are wary that a more diverse user base might hurt the quality of discussions.

To show they care about content quality, Zhihu introduced a feature called “Haiyan” (which means sea salt) last month, which includes giving every user a private score based on their behavior on the platform.