Richard Gao has a problem. He owns 10 vehicles, ranging from a Harley-Davidson to a luxury SUV, and they are constantly in danger of getting parking tickets.
"I have to keep an eye on my cars all the time so no one gives me a ticket," said Gao, a PR professional in Beijing.
A players' page on kaixin001.com shows four virtual parking spaces for his five virtual cars and a list of his friends. An iResearch survey shows that internet socializing is expected to grow (inset).
Fortunately for Gao, these tickets exist only in the virtual world of an online game called "Parking War." Unfortunately for Gao, so do his cars.
Gao is one of a growing legion of Chinese office workers who are hooked on "Parking War", which is hosted by Kaixin (kaixin001.com), a social networking website.
The rules are simple: each user owns a street with parking spaces. If he catches a friend parking illegally, he can ticket the offender and collect a fine. Once he earns enough (virtual) money, he can buy more (virtual) cars.
"Playing 'Parking War' with my friends is fun," said Gao, 32, "and it brings you closer to your friends."
An estimated 30 million users a day log onto Kaixin ("happiness"), which combines a social networking service (SNS) similar to Facebook or Myspace with online games. Earlier services such as xiaonei.com and 51.com targeted college students; there are also dating websites, such as Jianyuan.com, and business websites, like Tianji.com.
According to the iResearch Consulting Group, the combined market value of networking services in China exceeded 500 million yuan ($71 million) in 2007, of which social networking services accounted for 280 million yuan, dating services 220 million yuan, and business sites. 4.5 million yuan. The total is expected to reach 1.6 million yuan ($229 million) by 2011.
"The SNS market in China is ready to take off," said Xu Bin, an analyst at iResearch. About 72 million Internet users per day visited SNS sites in July, compared to 25 million per day in February, according to Xu.
"That is quite an amazing increase," he said. "It is a natural step after the national frenzy of blogging and forum posting."
Kaixin, which experts say is a 'faithful copy" of Facebook, is the brainchild of Cheng Binghao, a former executive at Sina.com, China's leading web portal. Cheng has declined to comment on rumors that he has received a $5 million offer from venture capitalists.
Although Facebook launched a Chinese-language site six months ago and MySpace has many applications tailored to Chinese users, they have not been able to keep pace with local networking services. Kaixin appears to be the favorite of white collars in big cities, the most lucrative market for developers.
Kaixin's secret lies in its easy-to-play games and in its marketing strategy, described as an "invitation virus".
Once a user registers, the website sends out emails to everyone on his MSN contact list, according to Hong Bo, a well-known Beijing tech blogger. New users who might otherwise ignore the invitation are seduced by the presence of a familiar name on the email, according to Hong.
When Richard Gao, a former Facebook user, received email invitations to join Kaixin in May, he deleted them.
Two weeks later, however, Gao discovered that his co-workers were all playing "Parking War" or sending virtual "teddy bears" to their friends on Kaixin.