When Wu Jingping quit China's national ping-pong team as coach in July 2016, having helped achieve four Olympic gold medals at Rio, he imagined his life in the public eye was over. Six months later, Wu was back—this time as a "celebrity author" on Weibo Q&A, part of a burgeoning cash-for-questions industry.
Since its launch in December, 2016, Weibo Q&A has joined Fenda ("One-Minute Answers") as one of China's most profitable knowledge-sharing platforms. These differ from sites like Quora, Zhihu, and Reddit by charging for questions and answers: Users pay "experts" a fee to answer personalized questions, either in a 60-second voice message (Fenda) or a written answer (Weibo). Others then pay 1 RMB to "view" the answer. The fees from viewers are split between the initial asker and the expert who answers, with the platform taking a percentage—imagine a celebrity AMA, in which potentially everyone stands to make a little money.
After 26 years coaching ping-pong players like Olympians Ma Lin, Wang Hao, and Xu Xin, Wu Jingping was looking for new opportunities to share his talents when Weibo Q&A came along. On February 8, Wu received a message, soliciting his expertise on the platform. Wu spent over 10 days studying the rules before finally making up his mind to join. He has since answered around 150 questions, and Weibo Q&A has become Wu's primary method of communicating with fans.
While China's web users have long been accustomed to free content, some investors are betting on this "knowledge" as the next viable commodity. Others warn that the trend is merely a fad within a volatile sharing-economy.
Trailblazer app Fenda notched up 10 million registered users within 42 days of going live last May; one million of those were paying customers, while another 330,000 were industry "experts," who helped generate around 18 million RMB in transactions. Fenda's rapid rise helped it attract an initial 25 million USD from investors including Wang Sicong, China's richest son. Then in November, it attracted an undisclosed amount of "series A-plus" funding from social media titan Tencent.
Zhihu recently joined the action with a premium paid service, Live. In a recent advert, a boy runs up to a girl, pauses, then jogs on; she looks wistful. "Why don't guys approach girls anymore?" the ad wonders. Those seeking a serious answer might be disappointed. As with its microblogging service, Weibo's Q&A platform is predominated by "Big Vs" (verified users with large followings) whose often-brief but lucrative contributions reflect less their expertise than their popularity.
Take Wang Sicong: China's most outspoken fu'erdai was paid 5,000 RMB to explain, "as a sophisticated person with a wealth of experience, how can you identify a 'green tea bitch' based on her appearance?" Wang answered with a simple idiom—"熟能生巧" (Practice makes perfect)1. By April 11, 190,671 people had checked his answer, earning Wang around 22,500 RMB per character. And before Wang joined Weibo Q&A, he was even more active on Fenda. By answering just 32 questions, including "What kind of girl do you like?" Wang earned more than 240,000 RMB in less than two weeks.
Much of Fenda's traffic is generated by this celebrity gossip, though the rates tend to vary wildly. Responses from Zhang Ziyi, a star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, to a fan's plea for advice attracted less than 100 listeners. But when someone paid 6,666 RMB to ask actress-singer Zheng Shuang how she feels about her ex, Zheng's two-character answer "尴尬", embarrassment attracted more than 10,000 views. Both Wang and Zheng now charge 10,000 RMB per question, the highest allowed by Weibo.