With coffers drying up, some longtime users are holding out hope for an Alibaba-backed resurgence.
AcFun, China’s first video-sharing platform to feature the now-ubiquitous “bullet screen” function, has been offline since early February.
The once-popular video-streaming website has not paid its employees since October 2017, according to Tencent News, and the lease for its Alibaba-owned servers expired at the end of January. In December, it was rumored that Alibaba intended to acquire AcFun, but a deal has yet to materialize.
“I really want to live for another 500 years,” AcFun wrote Feb. 2 on microblog platform Weibo, along with a cry-face emoji. The post was shared nearly 70,000 times, and many netizens begged their beloved video-sharing service not to go away. The company could not be reached for comment.
Though AcFun went offline or had some of its features disabled a handful of times in 2017, netizens soon realized that the company’s February post might really be a final farewell.
AcFun’s audience has been waning for years, as its rivals proliferate and expand. “It was knocked out by the market,” Jiang Mengjie, an AcFun user for over a decade, told Sixth Tone. The 25-year-old said poor management, ownership changes, and a clunky interface were likely responsible for the website’s decline.
Short for “anime comic fun,” AcFun was founded in 2007 as a Chinese imitation of the Japanese website Niconico, which attracts hordes of 2-D culture fans interested in animation, comics, and games — jointly referred to as “ACG.” At that time, there wasn’t an outlet providing easy access to Chinese ACG lovers’ favorite Japanese, Korean, and American series. AcFun filled this niche, and even added subtitles in Mandarin. Apart from mainstream dramas, AcFun built its reputation on so-called kichiku videos — pop songs remixed by netizens and set to quirky, homemade music videos — and bullet screens, the user comments that fly across videos as they play.
But AcFun’s 11-year history has been turbulent, with ownership changing hands six times and several spinoffs going on to surpass the company in terms of both users and revenue — to the extent that some netizens began referring to the ACG website as a “unicorn incubator.”
In 2009, AcFun went offline for an entire month because of an internal conflict. Xu Yi, a senior employee, left the company to pursue his own video-sharing startup — the predecessor to industry giant Bilibili. Together, Chinese netizens affectionately refer to AcFun and Bilibili as “A station” and “B station,” respectively.
In 2010, Chen Shaojie, the general manager of a Chinese gaming website, bought AcFun and steered it in a new direction: livestreaming. After four years, Chen left AcFun to run its livestreaming arm, Douyu, as a separate company. Today, both Douyu and Bilibili are valued at over $1 billion.
“AcFun’s best days were probably before 2014,” Li Haoyu, a student from the southern province of Guangdong, told Sixth Tone. Like many others, Li opted to watch NBA games on AcFun rather than on state broadcaster China Central Television: For him, the bullet screen feature made the difference.
Li, who is also a fan of kichiku videos, recalls two cases in particular that attracted lots of web traffic. The first involved a brand of fertilizer that claimed to be made in San Diego but was actually sold by a company in Henan. Its ads have been relentlessly parodied by net users since 2009, and many are still popular today. The second was a song by Hong Kong actor-musician Andy Lau that had been remixed in Sichuanese, a dialect spoken by the people of the eponymous southwestern province. According to a figure from April 2017, the video was viewed over 136 million times on AcFun.
But to most Chinese people, kichiku was still relatively niche — and also available on most of AcFun’s competitors, including Bilibili. What really reeled in viewers was its comprehensive selection of anime and dramas.
“Back then, people weren’t all that familiar with copyrights,” Jiang said, adding that both AcFun and Bilibili could credit much of their early success to pirated content uploaded by unscrupulous or oblivious users.
But video-streaming platforms that curried favor with investors soon began snatching up coveted copyrights. In 2014, AcFun was sued by Youku, another video-hosting site, for violating intellectual property laws. The dispute dragged on until August 2015, when Youku purchased stock in AcFun.
Since April of last year, AcFun has fallen on especially hard times. In July — and then again in September — it was ordered to remove foreign programming for which it had no license. For this offense, the site was fined 120,000 yuan ($19,000).
Later, in November, AcFun went offline for three days. The company said in an official statement that it had been hacked, but netizens suspected the licensing blunder had come back to haunt it.
The cumulative effect of these incidents is starkly visible in AcFun’s user numbers. In January 2017, the website had around 8 million daily active users; by November, that figure had dropped to just 1.6 million. Bilibili, meanwhile, currently boasts over 150 million active users.
A 27-year-old content creator who uses the online handle “Mark Chaoye” told Sixth Tone that while he used to upload his music videos on both websites, he has now shifted entirely to Bilibili. “I had around 7,000 fans on AcFun and over 40,000 followers on Bilibili,” he said. “Whenever I post a video on Bilibili, I get an immediate response from fans — but on AcFun, there’s only an audience for pulp content.”
Mark Chaoye argued that AcFun’s business model was partly responsible for its failure: Unlike Bilibili, where videos are displayed according to algorithms that adapt to users’ tastes, AcFun’s homepage shows videos handpicked by the site’s editors. “They choose what goes up,” explained Mark Chaoye, “and if they don’t pick yours, then you basically lose.”
But the content creator still values AcFun because it was able to get away with more than its peers. As a military aficionado, Mark Chaoye relied on AcFun for explanatory gun videos he couldn’t find anywhere else — a fitting homage to the platform’s freewheeling “Wild West” legacy.
Editor: David Paulk.
–This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.