The battle of the Chinese joke-writers

The battle of the Chinese joke-writers

A cabbie once shared his life philosophy with me when I was in his car. He said proudly," I have my own car and my own business. I'm my own boss and nobody can give me orders." I nodded and said:" Turn left on next block."

This is a typical duanzi circulating on Sina Weibo - China's Twitter-like service - which has more than 100 million active users by the end of last year.

Duanzi, a term originating from Chinese cross-talk (Xiangsheng) meaning an episode of comedy, is now most often used to refer to short comedic pieces on the Internet.

As people laugh and click to forward the post in a tea break or after a tiring day of work, the duanzishou, or professional duanzi writers, are busy planning their next step in the fast-developing Internet era, as a GQ report finds.

Game of thrones

In the early days of Sina Weibo, duanzi emerged as a popular form of posts on the SNS platform. But for the writers like Bai Er, then an advertising executive, producing duanzi was nothing more than a personal hobby.

In 2011, an account which simply copied all kinds of duanzi on the Internet every day, earned 15 million yuan ($2.4 million) in a year. The producers could either protect the copyright of their works or make profits out of them.

As Bai got to know more and more duanzi writers on weibo, he began to take orders from the advertisers and distribute them to his contemporaries the next year. The writers need to produce duanzi based on the clients' request to help promote their products or achieve other effects. Thus the early business model for the duanzi industry emerged.

Bai quit his job in 2013 and started a full-time duanzi PR business. His company was more like an agency for the writers rather than their employer. The top-level duanzi writers such as @a panda genius@Professor Yi Xiaoxing@talkative Gu and @gossip_I'm too naive all have contracts with him.

Yuan Zhuo was among the duanzi writers that worked with Bai. In 2013 he quit his salesman job and set up a company doing a similar business to Bai's. @an account exclusively for memory and @pretending to be in New York are among those who have contracts with him.

Also in the same year, Lin Rui, a 23-year-old graduate who met Bai during an internship, established the third company in the industry. Though Lin seems to have come too late to sign on the most popular writers, he successfully picked some winners such as @sister Xiaoye learns to complain and @British newspaper sister. The yearly revenue of Lin's business surpassed Bai's and Yuan's put together.

Now about 90 per cent of professional duanzi writers have signed with the three companies and the number of their weibo followers exceeds 300 million. The top writers could earn as much as one million yuan a year.

With the fast expansion and fierce competition, three-cornered fight appeared. No outsiders could step in and none of them could be squeezed out.

In March, the three companies held a meeting, the Yalta Conference of the duanzi industry. One of the consensuses is that the business of these talents is no longer limited to writing duanzi on the Internet. Their commercial value and influence are extending to other areas like movies, books, and music.

As the industry sees further development, a "game of thrones" dynamic has emerged among the key players.

More than writing duanzi

About 300 professional duanzi writers have emerged in the past three years.

Successful writers have highly recognizable Weibo posts. Among the most successful writers are @uncle Tongdao, who draws Western horoscope comics, @an account exclusively for memory, who likes to feature cute pets, and @talkative Gu, who mainly focuses on American talk shows.

While the Internet era has reshaped the format of duanzi by using pictures and videos, it has also endowed the profession with deeper significance.

Duanzi has become a part of daily life as they are read during a tea break or on the subway and quoted by people in their conversations. Duanzi writers, therefore, do not limit themselves to writing stories with many interacting with their fans on Weibo.

@seven rice dumplings sometimes writes more than 50 posts a day on Sina Weibo, mainly about trivial matters, but still, her fans enjoy it as if she were a friend and companion.

Embedding ads is still the main profit model for duanzi writers, but apparently their influence has already spread much further than the SNS platforms. Those standing at the top of the pyramid are gradually breaking away from the profession.

Though favoured by millions of fans, @a panda genius doesn't like being called a duanzishou, or duanzi writer, which he thinks is a low-end job. With his fame and influence, he has become a partner in an O2O company.

The studio of @uncle Tongdao is preparing a series of books on western horoscopes while he is focusing on a app startup.

@eyes on butt, a 23-year-old who entered the industry right after graduation, is now the scriptwriter of the hot web series Detective Di Renjie.

The era of posting ads on SNS will end and the industry needs to break into other fields, said Lin Rui.

In fact, his company has already set up subsidiaries to develop new businesses in books, comics and movies.

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