July 1, 2008

Open source social networking app thrives in China

Author: Chen Nan Yang

The popular social networking site Facebook just announced a Chinese version, but similar Chinese-based Web sites such as Xiaonei and Hainei have been struggling there. However, since April, UCenter Home, an open source social network service based on PHP and MySQL, is pushing open social networking in China.

Like other successful follow-the-leader Web sites in China (take Baidu, for example, which is a counterpart of Google), UCenter Home lacks innovative ideas but is good at localization. Its social network framework copies Facebook's, but it brings a style to the Chinese market that is more welcomed by local people than other foreign and domestic competitors.

UCenter Home's developer, Comsenz, has dominated China's Web site solutions market for a few years. Its first success came with its forum software Discuz!, which also localized ideas from the global Internet market. Unlike people in other parts of the world, the Chinese particularly fancy using forum systems to communicate over the Internet. Discuz! is efficient and secure, with a mass of dazzling functions that people outside of China might find gaudy or even unbearable. But its success is clear: Discuz! has won more than half of China's free forum market.

However, as the market continued to boom, Chinese forum software developers began to run into more and more problems that curbed their expansion. For example, when a forum first begins, devoted users with knowledge about the forum's topic are its backbone and offer high-value information to attract visitors. However, as the number of visitors to the forum grows, new users bring more and more unrelated information, which increases the "noise" of the forum and makes it more difficult for users to find the information they need. The forum may become a jumble, and users leave or attempt to set up a new forum elsewhere.

To keep this from happening, Chinese forum system developers looked for a new way to retain users by tying them more closely to their forums. Social networking adds a strong personal connection, thereby increasing a forum system's "stickiness." From the other angle, without forums, many experts doubt if a Facebook-like Web sites could become popular in the Chinese market because of the cultural difference.

UCenter Home is open source software that integrates with the company's other free software seamlessly. Its open source nature allows developers to redesign the source code and create their own Facebook-like sites easily, without making big changes to their existing Web sites.

The Chinese Internet market seems to be accepting Comsenz's tactic and UCenter Home quickly. Just one month after UCenter Home's release, 4,000 Chinese Web sites were using it in combination with their own forum systems, and two million new users had registered, according to the company.

Currently the developer offers only Traditional and Simplified Chinese versions. UCenter Home must run under UCenter, a control panel for all the free and open source projects released by Comsenz. The step-by-step installation process is easy to follow.

A good idea is successful only if it meets the needs of a specified market. With UCenter Home, Comsenz has reformed the popular Facebook approach to social networking to meet the needs of the Chinese market, and it's using open source software to blaze the trail.


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