Facebook’s secret Chinese app is a dud in China so far

If at first you don’t succeed.
If at first you don’t succeed.
Image: Reuters/Kenzaburo Fukuhara
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The secret’s out, but no one cares.

Over the weekend the New York Times reported (paywall) that Facebook had stealthily released a photo-sharing app in the Chinese iOS App Store translated as “Colorful Balloons.” The news spread rapidly around English-language media, as it marked the first sign that the company is indeed attempting to make a product specifically for Chinese consumers after years of being shut out of the country.

In China, however, response to the news was more muted. The lukewarm reception to the app from both consumers and the Chinese media suggests that Mark Zuckerberg will face an uphill battle if he hopes to make inroads in the country.

Data from App Annie show that since May, “Colorful Balloons” has been lingering in near non-existence in China. Before the piece was published, its highest-ever ranking was when it was the 313th most-downloaded app in the Photo and Video category. It never cracked the rankings for the Overall category in China. That should come as no surprise, since Facebook did nothing to promote the app.

Since the article was published, Colorful Balloons has enjoyed a slight bump—as of Sunday, it ranked number 46 in Photo and Video and 758 in Overall. Today (Aug. 14) it moved up in Photo and Video to 40.

That’s a sign of some curiosity, but it’s hardly the sign of a hit app. It’s ranked well-behind popular photo apps like B612 (owned by Japan’s Line), Meitu, and Meipai, all of which have extremely loyal followings in China.

So far the app has drawn only 52 reviews, though most have been positive—it’s rated 4.5 stars out of 5.

Outside the confines of the App Store, internet commenters have been less impressed. While some pieces covering Colorful Balloons were dubbed “trending” on Weibo (which, in some regards, is China’s answer to Facebook), the story hasn’t garnered the viral response of other news in China. Instead, the hot tech story of the weekend was “shared stools,” the latest “innovation” in China’s so-called sharing economy.

Many commenters on Weibo who followed the app’s release noted that they prefer Weibo’s interface (link in Chinese, registration required) to Facebook’s—a common critique whenever news pertaining to Facebook appears on the site. “Facebook is too dull and boring,” wrote one commenter. “The features are nowhere near those of Weibo, this has nothing to do with politics.”

Among tech news readers in particular, many more expressed longing for Google’s return to China. The top comment (link in Chinese) on one Chinese tech blog’s writeup read, “Forget about Facebook, Google Search is more important, it’s disgusting that the Android market can’t come here.”

It’s still not clear what specific expectations Facebook holds for the app, especially given its stealth release. While it has the same app icon as Facebook’s analogous Moments app and contains similar features (the main difference is sharing enabled through WeChat, China’s most popular chat app), it was placed in the App Store under the developer name YouGe, not Facebook.

Facebook did not reply to requests for comment.

It’s not clear if Facebook notified authorities about the app, or if such notice was even necessary—for all of Zuckerberg’s PR efforts like speaking Mandarin and jogging in heavy Beijing pollution, Facebook’s China ambitions may be irrelevant if consumers don’t care much for it.