Zhang Lu is the founder of Soul, a social app backed by Tencent. It has more than 30 million users in China, mostly young people, and uses algorithms to connect people with similar interests. Zhang also serves as CEO of parent company Soulgate, which has applied to go public in Hong Kong. Soul doesn’t allow users to display their real names or photos, instead encouraging them to create an avatar. Zhang has chosen to use her avatar instead of a photo for this story.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as the founder of a social media company in China? 

Coming from a consultancy background, I ran into many challenges as an “internet newbie.” When I was discussing with my team about our demo product, I could not even understand terms like “front end” and “back end.” But I’ve always known what I wanted Soul to be –– a gamified social platform, where people interact with virtual identities, build their own personas, and express themselves without any concerns. 

Why do you think users, including yourself, need these virtual avatars? 

Different from the traditional social networks that emphasize appearances and hormonal stimulus, Soul has never allowed its users to post real photos. The virtual avatars allow people to express themselves freely and build high-quality, deep relationships. Users are freed from the baggage that comes with age, job, and other external labels and instead focus on personal characteristics that are closer to their hearts. 

The virtual identities also create more immersive social experiences. They make users feel safer and enable them to be their true selves. With its own NAWA rendering engine, Soul allows users to control their avatars with facial expressions and body movements. As Soul continues developing its metaverse, users will, in the future, have experiences that resemble, and even go beyond, the kind of face-to-face interactions in the real world. 

Most Soul users are Gen Z Chinese. What do you think young people are looking for on social media? How are their needs different from millennial users, like yourself?

Having grown up with economic prosperity, fast-developing technologies, and better access to information, Gen Z Chinese have developed diverse interests, strong curiosity, and a need for emotional fulfillments. In the meantime, most Gen Z Chinese are only children at home. They are dealing with lots of stress from school, workplaces, and simply living in the big cities. They are eager to be understood and heard by their peers. 

On social media, Gen Z users seek to break away from their real-life identities and express their true thinking in a stress-free way. They want to talk and have fun with those who share their tastes and hobbies. Gen Z users also tend to embrace experiences brought by new technologies, such as getting immersed in a metaverse. 

What do Soul users do and talk about on the app? Many people regard Soul as a dating platform. How is Soul different from Tinder or Tantan? 

Labeling Soul as a dating app is a major misunderstanding about this platform. Soul is not aimed at forging offline relationships but fulfilling a diversity of social needs online. Users post about their interests and life, such as schoolwork, Hanfu [traditional Han Chinese clothing], beauty, pets, entrepreneurship, and outdoor activities. On Soul, users not only build one-on-one relationships but also friendships between the two sexes or in a group. 

Does Soul have plans to expand outside of China?

We are always open to overseas markets. Soul’s vision is to have no lonely person in this world. We hope more young people will find where they belong on the platform.