For the Chinese tech press, 2021 started with a national debate about labor rights ignited by a big tech employee's death, a suspected result of overwork. But industry insiders knew about the death days before, thanks to a wildly popular app that their employers can't abide — and may ultimately succeed in destroying.
Wang, a young employee of the Chinese gaming company NetEase, first heard about the incident through Maimai, an app designed for professional networking. "The news was posted on Maimai on the same day as the death, while word only reached Weibo four days later," Wang, who only asked to be referred to by his last name, told Protocol. "Gossip appears on Maimai earlier than on other platforms."
Maimai, founded in 2013 and originally modeled after LinkedIn, now boasts over 8 million monthly active users. But what has powered its success is the major way Maimai is different: It allows users to verify their employment status and post anonymously in a chat forum under names like "employee of Alibaba," similar to Glassdoor.
In China, a general feeling of distrust towards the heavily state-controlled press has made people unwilling to talk to reporters. Maimai's app, where the collective anonymity gives users a sense of security, has become one of the few places online for many people working in China's booming but exhausting tech industry to vent. The result has been a vibrant community, mostly comprising tech insiders, where daily gossip runs wild about which company has unbearable office environments and which product is on the edge of being killed.
Anonymity has been Maimai's calling card, powering its success over the years and leading to genuine public good. It's proved that protecting privacy and offering a space for free speech can be a lucrative business. But it's also turned Maimai into a ticking bomb that investors increasingly don't want to touch.
Maimai wasn't the first Chinese app to have made a name for its anonymous social features, but it is the one that has survived the longest. Wumi, one of a dozen similar apps, garnered national attention in its early years but closed down in 2017 when the community was swamped by personal attacks and pornographic content. By contrast, through more rigorous content moderation and narrowing its focus to workplace and job recruitment, Maimai has managed to strike a balance between encouraging juicy hearsay and checking the community's baser impulses. And China's Big Tech can't stand it.
On Maimai, no Chinese tech company is spared. Huawei is nicknamed the "jail factory" for a controversial 2019 case in which an ex-employee was unjustly detained by police for "blackmailing the company"; the ecommerce rising star Pinduoduo gets the name "poop factory" because its headquarter has too few public restrooms. (Calling big tech companies "factories" is an inside joke on the Chinese web, referring to the long hours and the tedious work.) The protection granted by anonymity makes Maimai a paradise for sensitive leaks, workplace complaints and salary transparency — as well as rumors and disinformation.
Now, Maimai finds itself caught between two forces: corporations and workers. On one hand, it needs to reach some sort of detente with the big tech firms that have been repeatedly hauling it into court. On the other hand, it has to protect the anonymity of users — often the one thing tech companies most want Maimai to sacrifice.
The summer of 2018 was a dramatic moment for Maimai.
Up until then, the company was on track to a bright future: It had received $200 million in Series D funding that August; the same month, a report co-authored by Maimai and the Chinese data research firm Analysys said Maimai had penetrated 83.8% of the professional networking market, while the runner-up LinkedIn China only had 11.8%. Earlier, Maimai's CEO Lin Fan had hinted on several occasions that it was considering listing in the United States, targeting a $10 billion IPO.
But there was a shadow looming over these glossy numbers: in July of that year, Maimai had been summoned by the Beijing Municipal Cyberspace Administration and the Public Security Bureau over "rumors, libel and privacy leaks" in Maimai's anonymous chat section. The authorities didn't point to what crossed the line, but that chat vertical was shut down. Maimai relaunched the section next month with a few changes: Its name had changed from "Anonymous" to "Job Talk," and every anonymous poster now had a unique ID, making it possible to track their past comments.
At first it seemed that Maimai had managed to survive its brush with authorities. But the company's quick growth stalled after that. Its brief turbulence may have startled both users and investors. Since the summons, the company has not announced another series of funding, and there's no more discussion about listing overseas. In July 2019, Lin told a Chinese magazine: "This is not the best moment [for an IPO]. We are still observing." Maimai didn't respond to Protocol's request for comment.
In the meantime, Maimai's legal team has been busy. According to documents made public on China Judgments Online, Maimai has been sued for libel or unfair competition by several heavyweight internet companies in China, including Baidu, Bilibili, Ele.me (the food delivery service acquired by Alibaba), Guazi (an online marketplace for used cars) and BOSS Zhipin (a recruitment app).
In all but one instance, the company lost the lawsuit and was ordered by a court to release user identity information to the plaintiff, apologize publicly or pay compensation or restitution.
Big Tech claims some Maimai user scalps
Today, Maimai users are both anonymous and not. They register their Maimai account using their real names and identities, and even verify their employment status through corporate badges or email addresses, but when they post on the Job Talk section, their names appear as either a random alias or employee of a certain company.
And this January has put Maimai's promise of anonymity to the test as it's faced off with two big tech companies.
The latest court case was between Maimai and Bilibili, the video platform for China's Gen-Z. According to the judgment released this month, a verified "Bilibili employee" posted a comment on Maimai that alleged he had used his position to obtain sexual favors. The comment was highlighted in the app and picked up by a few social media accounts. Because of that, Bilibili accused Maimai of fabricating this user and his comment. At trial, Maimai refused to reveal the identity of the Bilibili employee, which the judge cited as a reason enough to rule that Maimai had indeed fabricated the post.
When the judgement came out, social media users first saw Maimai as a hero for user privacy, one that would rather lose in court than disclose private information. But Maimai soon released a statement saying that it had not manufactured the identity of the Bilibili employee and, in a settlement with the plaintiff after the trial, had agreed to release the person's information.
The other clash had a very different ending. Shortly after a Pinduoduo employee's high-profile death, another Pinduoduo worker in Shanghai saw an ambulance come to headquarters to pick up a colleague. That employee, Wang Taixu — an alias he used, as every Pinduoduo employee is required to have one for internal communications — took a photo and uploaded it anonymously to Maimai with the words: "the second Pinduoduo warrior has fallen."
According to a video Wang Taixu later uploaded, he was summoned by his manager the next afternoon. Wang Taixu acknowledged the poster was him but refused to sign an agreement that bound him to silence, so was fired on the spot.
The video received 2 million likes on Weibo and stirred up heated debate about how Pinduoduo was able to identify him. People questioned whether Maimai had handed over his information.
The same day, Maimai posted a statement denying they'd disclosed Wang's identity. Lin wrote a long social media post. "To protect the rights of employees to have an equal voice, we have turned down numerous requests by investors and CEOs to delete a post or disclose encrypted information, and we have been in many lawsuits because of that," Lin wrote. "Everyone can keep posting without fearing for their safety."
The next day, Pinduoduo released its account of the incident, saying it found out about Wang Taixu's identity through a more traditional approach: talking to his colleagues. But the company was also able to track Wang's past comments on Maimai through his unique user ID. Commenters suspected the company had also set up web scrapers to mine Maimai's data to find the old posts. Pinduoduo didn't respond to Protocol's request for comment.
Maimai came out of this saga mostly clean in the public's eyes. But the two clashes with Bilibili and Pinduoduo are a warning sign that although Maimai positions itself as a champion for worker's rights, it can't always protect them. Whether through lawsuits or data scraping, tech companies can still out a disgruntled employee. As China's big tech companies continue to go after employees who dare to speak out, the niche for free speech that Maimai opened up is already shrinking again.