Profile of Maimai, a Chinese site modeled after LinkedIn with a Glassdoor-like forum where users can post anonymously, as it fights China’s tech firms in court (Zeyi Yang/Protocol)

Profile of Maimai, a Chinese site modeled after LinkedIn with a Glassdoor-like forum where users can post anonymously, as it fights China’s tech firms in court — 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.

You’ve probably heard of Maimai, the app Chinese tech workers are raving about – but their companies hate it.

It’s a place where China’s tired tech workers can gossip, vent, and be themselves in a safe environment. There is a battle raging between big tech and the small guys.

A big tech employee’s death, caused by overwork, ignited a national labor debate in the Chinese tech press in 2021. Due to an incredibly popular app that their employers can’t abide, industry insiders knew about the death days before.

profile maimai linkedin glassdoorlike
profile maimai linkedin glassdoorlike

In Maimai, an app designed for professional networking, Wang learned about the incident. Weibo only received the news four days after Maimai posted it, Wang, who only wanted to be referred to by his last name, told Protocol. Unlike other platforms, Maimai posts gossip first.

Maimai’s original model was LinkedIn, but it now has over 8 million monthly active users. The key to Maimai’s success is the way it lets users post anonymously under names like “employee of Alibaba” in a chat forum.

China’s heavily state-controlled press has caused a general distrust among the population. It is one of the few places online where people working in China’s booming but exhausting tech industry can vent thanks to Maimai’s anonymity app. The result is a vibrant community, mostly comprised of tech insiders, where daily gossip runs wild about which companies have unbearable office environment and which products are dying.

Maimai’s success has been driven by anonymity, generating genuine public benefit over time. It’s proven that protecting privacy and offering a free speech space can be profitable. Investors are increasingly reluctant to touch Maimai because of its ticking bomb.

There have been other Chinese apps with anonymous social features, but Maimai has survived the longest. The community of Wumi was swamped with personal attacks and pornographic content in 2017 and the app closed down. Maimai has achieved a balance between encouraging juicy hearsay and checking the community’s baser impulses through strict content moderation. It’s too much for China’s Big Tech.

The Chinese tech giants are all on Maimai. For an unjustly detained ex-employee in 2019, Huawei has been nicknamed the jail factory; Pinduoduo has been nicknamed the “poop factory” due to its lack of public restrooms at its headquarters. The Chinese web refers to big tech companies as factories, referring to long hours and tedious work. Since Maimai offers anonymity, sensitive leaks, workplace complaints, salary transparency, rumours, and disinformation are attracted to it.

As a result, Maimai is caught between two forces: corporations and workers. A detente needs to be reached with the tech companies that have been dragging it into court repeatedly. Yet Maimai must protect user anonymity – which is often the one thing tech companies want Maimai to sacrifice.

China slaps back at the U.S.

It was a dramatic summer for Maimai in the summer of 2018.

Maimai had received $200 million in Series D funding in August, and a report authored by Maimai and Analysys stated that Maimai had captured 83.8% of the professional networking market, while LinkedIn China had just 11.8%. Maimai was rumored to be considering a $10 billion IPO in the United States.

These glossy numbers hid a dark reality: in July, Maimai had been summoned for “rumors, libel, and privacy leaks” in its anonymous chat section. That chat vertical was shut down without specifying what crossed the line. Next month, Maimai relaunched the section as “Job Talk,” and anonymous posters now have unique IDs, allowing them to be tracked by Maimai.

At first, Maimai appeared to have survived the authorities’ wrath. As a result, the company’s growth slowed. Users and investors were startled by its brief turbulence. Since the summons, there has been no discussion about listing overseas since the summons. We are still observing.” Lin told a Chinese magazine in July 2019. Maimai did not respond to Protocol’s inquiry.

Meanwhile, Maimai’s lawyers have been busy. China Judgments Online has revealed that Maimai has been sued for libel or unfair competition by several internet giants including Baidu, Bilibili, Ele.me, Guazi, BOSS Zhipin, and Ele.me (the food delivery service acquired by Alibaba).

Every case but one ended in the company releasing user identity information to the plaintiff, publicly apologizing or paying compensation or restitution.

Some Maimai users scalped by Big Tech

Today, Maimai users can choose to be anonymous or not. As they register their Maimai accounts and verify employment status through corporate badges and email addresses, their names appear as random aliases or employees of certain companies in the Job Talk section.

During January, Maimai has faced off against two big tech companies, testing its promise of anonymity.

An employee of Bilibili posted a comment on Maimai alleging he had used his position to obtain sexual favors as a result of his employment at Bilibili. This month, the court delivered its judgment on the case. Several social media accounts shared the comment. Maimai was accused of fabricating this user and his comment by Bilibili. The judge ruled that Maimai fabricated the post because she refused to reveal the identity of the Bilibili employee at trial.

Maimai appeared to social media users as a hero of user privacy, willing to lose the lawsuit rather than reveal private data. Following the trial, Maimai released a statement saying it had not manufactured the identity of the Bilibili employee and had agreed to release his information in a settlement with the plaintiff.

Another clash ended very differently. The ambulance came to Pinduoduo’s Shanghai headquarters shortly after a high-profile death at the company. He uploaded the photo anonymously to Maimai with the words: “the second Pinduoduo warrior has fallen.” Wang Taixu – the alias he used for internal communications – took the photo.

A video Wang Taixu uploaded later revealed he was summoned the next afternoon by his manager. As Wang Taixu refused to sign a confidentiality agreement, he was fired on the spot.

2 million people liked the video on Weibo and a heated debate ensued over Pinduoduo’s identification. His information had been handed over, people questioned.

In a statement, Maimai denied disclosing Wang’s identity. A long post was written by Lin. We have been in many lawsuits because of our refusal to delete posts or disclose encrypted information to protect the rights of employees, Lin wrote. No one needs to worry about their safety when posting.”

Pinduoduo reported the incident the next day, saying it discovered Wang Taixu’s identity by talking to his colleagues. Wang’s unique user ID also allowed the company to track his past comments on Maimai. Maimai’s data was also scraped by web scrapers to find old posts, commenters suspected. Protocol’s comment to Pinduoduo was not returned.

The public saw Maimai mostly clean after this saga. Despite Maimai’s position as a champion of worker’s rights, these clashes with Bilibili and Pinduoduo show its limitations. The tech industry can still out a disgruntled employee through lawsuits and data scraping. China’s big tech companies continue to target employees who dare speak out, so Maimai’s space for free speech has already shrunk.

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