You couldn’t make it up: the facts of Zhihu’s pivot to fiction

The Q&A platform that once took pride in fact-based content is redefining itself to cater to a bigger market.

Photo: VCG

Photo: VCG

By JIANG Jingling


“Share the story you just made up,” used to be a common tongue-in-cheek comment on Zhihu, China’s popular Q&A answer to Quora. It was slapped on posts so eye-popping that readers simply assume them to be fabricated.

But recently, Zhihu users have noticed posts unabashedly tagged as fiction appearing in their feeds. The platform that once prided itself on facts, has started a fiction factory, rewarding popular writers with much greater incomes than other content platforms.

The truth about fiction

Zhihu’s experiment with a smartly designed monetization model has been quite successful, at least in terms of paying users. The market for fiction has proved bigger and deeper than anyone suspected, so it looks like the made-up stories are here to stay.

Writer Beiwang claims to have made 600,000 yuan (US$90,000) from his Zhihu blog, Life as a Prison Guard, which tells of his encounters with inmates while working as a correctional officer. Workplace stories like Beiwang’s, based on the author’s real life, have always been a popular genre on Zhihu. But since last year, users interested in narrative content have noticed pure fiction recommended in their feeds.

Questions such as “How do I write a ninja story?” used to be followed by a discussion on writing techniques. Now, a ready-to-read ninja story is likely to be the most upvoted response.

Zhihu said narratives, both nonfunctional or fictional, are “very well-received” and it’s easy to monetize such popularity. Authors on Zhihu’s curated list get paid through subscriptions to their blogs, or from clicks by paying members. They also receive royalties from eBooks published by Zhihu, or even movies or TV shows if Zhihu goes in that direction. 

Xixin, a writer, told Jiemian News that her two fiction blogs have brought in 500,000. She considers this “midrange”: top earners make as much as 100,000 a month. She said writing for Zhihu is easy compared to other websites. To make the same amount of money on Yuewen, another membership platform for writers, she would have to write about 10,000 characters a day. In contrast, there is “absolutely no pressure” to write daily on Zhihu.

Zhihu had not always been so fiction-friendly. Xixin used to be part of Story Vending Machine, a cross-platform brand specializing in fiction. In 2018, Tusiji, its founder, closed Story Vending Machine's Zhihu blog, then one of the most-read on the platform, and mobilized hundreds of other fiction writers to follow suit. Tusiji explained the action as a protest against Zhihu's resistance to fiction. He accused the platform of suppressing traffic to fiction, which the platform denied.

“Zhihu never explicitly said fiction was discouraged, but in 2018, it became quite apparent. No matter what we wrote, page views never moved up,” Xixin recalled. 

Profit speaks louder than words

Fiction was once considered incompatible with Zhihu’s fact-based objectives. The platform aspired to be the go-to place for the urban, well-educated crowd in search of vetted information and intellectually stimulating real-life stories. When Beiwang first published Life as a Prison Guard in 2016, the platform even asked for documentation to fact-check his posts. At that time most posts tagged as “literature” were still reviews and criticism.

Zhihu says it always treats every writer equally and embraces “freedom of creation.” Only fiction disguised as fact is discouraged.

Things began to change in 2019 when, as Beiwang recalled, Zhihu seemed to suddenly realize the commercial value of fiction and began to actively court writers who had the platform. Those who returned found a set of established processes to promote writers.

Zhihu recommends fiction based on plot and style, offering a few episodes for free to tempt readers.  When their free posts are used up, those eager to learn what happens next are more willing to become paying members, or subscribe to the blog.

This mechanism has proved highly effective. From March 2019 to March 2020, the number of paying members on Zhihu increased fourfold, coinciding with the explosion of fictional content on the platform.

The next thrilling installment

Now with 220 million registered users and still expanding, Zhihu can is longer a club for the “urban, well-educated” few. Zhou Yuan, the founder of Zhihu, said in 2018 that the platform's user base has expanded from elites in first and second-tier cities to a more general audience in smaller cities and towns across the country. Public data shows that the biggest user age group has evolved from 2018's 30-39 to the current 20-29, similar to other digital publications.

Not everyone is thrilled by Zhihu's pivot. The mixture of fact-checked articles and pop fiction seems bizarre to some, but the profit incentives are too strong to be brushed off on the basis of sticking to the original style. Investors, gleefully awaiting the next chapter, care not a jot whether their profits are based on fact or fiction.