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China’s millennials are mourning the end of an era in online hook-up culture

A Chinese couple pose for a wedding photo on a busy alleyway or 'hutong' in Beijing July 7, 2008.
Reuters/Claro Cortes IV
A Chinese couple pose for a wedding photo on a busy alleyway or ‘hutong’ in Beijing July 7, 2008. Marriage registration offices in Beijing predict…
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Tencent, the Chinese technology giant that operates the ubiquitous messaging app WeChat, has shut down an anonymous chat function that at one time was one of the few outlets where people could vent their secrets or emotions, and even make new friends and meet potential dates.

The function, named “drift bottle” or piaoliuping (漂流瓶), was available mainly on QQ Mail, a mail service provider associated with QQ, an instant messaging app launched by Tencent in 1999 before the emergence of WeChat in 2010. On drift bottle, users could “throw” bottles containing either a text or voice message into a virtual ocean or “pick up” floating ones. The function allowed users to stay anonymous, but people could also exchange contact details through the bottles.

Tencent in fact announced in December that it would suspend drift bottle on both QQ Mail and WeChat, after it found that users had been spreading pornography or soliciting prostitution on the platform, part of a broader campaign to “clean up” the internet by the government in recent years. In a statement in April, the company said it would officially shut down the chat programme on QQ Mail on June 24. It has not said whether drift bottle would be resumed on WeChat.

Screen grab/Drift Bottle
The interface of the drift bottle feature on QQ Mail.

For many of China’s internet users, particularly those born in the 1980s, drift bottle was a go-to-place for finding either friendship or romance online before the proliferation of other apps that performed similar functions. With the rise of local dating apps and social networks such as Momo and Weibo, however, drift bottle is now largely an object of nostalgia for China’s internet users.

Some of drift bottle’s users took to Weibo to express their sadness at the termination of the platform, with the hashtag “QQ Mail stops drift bottle operation”(in Chinese) read over 95 million times since yesterday (June 24).

“Drift bottle is my matchmaker. Eight years ago I ‘threw’ a bottle that was ‘picked up’ by a guy who is now my husband. I hereby mourn the death of it, as well as the passing of my younger years!” wrote a Weibo user.

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