SiriusXM is leaning into TikTok. The satellite radio company and Pandora parent today announced a partnership with the social video platform to power several new initiatives, including a TikTok channel on SiriusXM, hosted TikTok playlists on Pandora, and re-airings of Pandora LIVE events on TikTok.
The hosted playlists on Pandora are the first of the new initiatives to launch.
Starting today, popular TikTok creators will curate, host and promote their own Pandora playlists to their fans on TikTok, starting with Bella Poarch. The TikTok influencer, who now has 69.6 million followers, is best-known for her viral lip-sync video to “M to the B,” which blew up to become the most-liked video on TikTok. She also makes videos featuring singing, dancing, and gaming content, among other things, and this month released her first single, “Build a B*tch,” which has broken into Spotify’s U.S. and Global Top 50 charts.
As of the time of writing, Poarch’s TikTok announcing her playlists, launched 4 hours ago, has 187.6K likes and 1 million views.
Image Credits: SiriusXM
Other “TikTok Tastemakers,” as SiriusXM has dubbed them, will release their own playlists in the months to come, including Christian Shelton and Nick Tangorra.
In addition, Pandora users will be able to tune into the TikTok Hits Playlist at any time, which features popular and trending songs from TikTok.
Pandora is not the first music streamer to tap into TikTok’s influence for its own ends. Today, TikTok’s trends are driving songs up the Billboard charts and delivering Spotify streams as younger users look for their favorite TikTok songs on their preferred streaming music app. Spotify is now curating TikTok hits across editorial playlists like Viral Hits, big on the internet, Teen Beats, and others. Apple Music also got in on the TikTok action when it introduced 10 new playlists last year aimed at younger, Gen Z users. This included its own Viral Hits playlist, which pulls in top tracks from TikTok and other social media channels.
Among the other SiriusXM initiatives is the soon-to-launch TikTok Radio, a full-time music channel featuring tracks trending on TikTok which will be presented by TikTok creators, influencers and D.J.s. The channel will debut later this summer, and will stream across SiriusXM, including in vehicles as well as in the SiriusXM app for desktop, mobile and connected devices.
TikTok fans will also later be able to watch selected re-airings of Pandora’s original events series, Pandora LIVE — a continuation of Pandora’s live events that went virtual during the pandemic. Pandora LIVE events feature artists from across genres, including country, rock, pop, R&B and more, and have typically been re-aired, in part, the day after on SiriusXM.
Recently, Pandora LIVE celebrated Women’s History Month with a virtual event that included performances by Gwen Stefani and Jazmine Sullivan, which was re-aired on TikTok.
More Pandora LIVE events will soon do the same. SiriusXM says it will announce which events will re-air on TikTok throughout the year.
“We are excited to collaborate with TikTok to create new content that brings the vibrancy of the leading social networking service to life on live radio and our streaming platforms,” said Scott Greenstein, SiriusXM President and Chief Content Officer, in a statement. “The effect TikTok has on music, and pop culture in general, is undeniable. Our platforms will provide a unique opportunity for TikTok creators to engage with our listeners with content experiences that have never been done before in audio,” he added.
SiriusXM’s move to partner more closely with TikTok could help it to attract a younger set of listeners and subscribers, who may follow their favorite fans over to Pandora to tune into their playlist content. However, it’s unable to benefit from the full impact that working with TikTok could bring as the integrations are split across its two services, instead of being focused on just one.
Plus, SiriusXM, like others, still faces the looming threat of Resso, TikTok owner ByteDance’s own music streaming app that could one day make its way to the U.S., as part of its global expansion efforts. It has the potential to more closely tie TikTok’s music discovery features with streaming, impacting demand for rival services.
For the time being, however, TikTok sees the potential in partnering with a U.S. music streamer.
“We are excited to work with SiriusXM on TikTok Radio and to bring TikTok creators to Pandora to make the trends, music, and creative influences that are playing such a defining role in modern culture even more accessible,” said TikTok’s Global Head of Music, Ole Obermann, in a statement. “We’re really excited to see this come to life and thank the SiriusXM team for being such an innovative and visionary collaborator,” he said.
From time to time, we see a Chinese app climbing to the top of Google Play and App Store in a host of Western countries. It might be a utility tool like a selfie beautifier or some casual video game, which has universal appeal and require little localization effort. But most of them tend to be a blip on the radar.
The latest Chinese app to top the overseas charts is from TikTok owner ByteDance. Called CapCut, the video editing app allows users to not only add a trove of stickers, filters and effects, it also has a simple-to-use green screen function, a zooming feature that works like a Ken Burns effect, and many more — which make the app like an accessible Final Cut on the go.
Users won’t have to worry about paying for music, as CapCut has a library of licensed sound clips that they can use to spice up their content. Over the past year, TikTok has been beefing up its music arsenal through efforts like scouting for musicians and signing deals with major labels.
Chinese tech giants are adept at attracting a large user base first by offering their services for free, and then exploring monetization models after users become sticky to the products. CapCut appears to have the same playbook.
CapCut’s Chinese sibling Jianying has already had success among Douyin (TikTok for China) users. Now that pattern is repeating outside China, with TikTok users taking advantage of CapCut to make their videos look sleek and professional with a few taps on their phones.
Since May 21, CapCut has been the No. 1 free app on the U.S. App Store, according to analytics company SensorTower, and it ranks 9th on Google Play in the U.S. as of writing. Across the globe, it comes in first among free iOS apps in 33 countries, according to App Annie.
All told, the app has exceeded 250 million installs globally to date from across the App Store and Google Play, and nearly 9.5 million from U.S. app stores, SensorTower says.
CapCut’s rise is reminiscent of the Chinese photo editor Meitu. The app was so popular that it became synonymous with a selfie beautifier in China, but it also had a solid base of loyal users abroad. The difference is CapCut’s rise is built on its sibling TikTok’s global dominance, whereas Meitu’s early attempt to foster a social network around its photo tool to increase user stickiness never really took off.
CapCut probably won’t be ByteDance’s last viral app. TikTok’s sprawling content empire will spawn more offshoots, whether it’s a video editor or an e-commerce service for creators to make money and for users to buy the products endorsed by their favorite influencers.
Flutter, Google’s cross-platform UI toolkit for building mobile and desktop apps, is getting a small but important update at the company’s I/O conference today. Google also announced that Flutter now powers 200,000 apps in the Play Store alone, including popular apps from companies like WeChat, ByteDance, BMW, Grab and DiDi. Indeed, Google notes that 1 in 8 new apps in the Play Store are now Flutter apps.
The launch of Flutter 2.2 follows Google’s rollout of Flutter 2, which first added support for desktop and web apps in March, so it’s no surprise that this is a relatively minor release. In many ways, the update builds on top of the features the company introduced in version 2 and reliability and performance improvements.
Version 2.2 makes null safety the default for new projects, for example, to add protections against null reference exceptions. As for performance, web apps can now use background caching using service workers, for example, while Android apps can use deferred components and iOS apps get support for precompiled shaders to make first runs smoother.
Google also worked on streamlining the overall process of bringing Flutter apps to desktop platforms (Windows, macOS and Linux).
But as Google notes, a lot of the work right now is happening in the ecosystem. Google itself is introducing a new payment plugin for Flutter built in partnership with the Google Pay team and Google’s ads SDK for Flutter is getting support for adaptive banner formats. Meanwhile, Samsung is now porting Flutter to Tizen and Sony is leading an effort to bring it to embedded Linux. Adobe recently announced its XD to Flutter plugin for its design tool and Microsoft today launched the alpha of Flutter support for Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps for Windows 10 in alpha.
TikTok will open a center in Europe where outside experts will be shown information on how it approaches content moderation and recommendation, as well as platform security and user privacy, it announced today.
The European Transparency and Accountability Centre (TAC) follows the opening of a U.S. center last year — and is similarly being billed as part of its “commitment to transparency”.
Soon after announcing its U.S. TAC, TikTok also created a content advisory council in the market — and went on to replicate the advisory body structure in Europe this March, with a different mix of experts.
It’s now fully replicating the U.S. approach with a dedicated European TAC.
To-date, TikTok said more than 70 experts and policymakers have taken part in a virtual U.S. tour, where they’ve been able to learn operational details and pose questions about its safety and security practices.
The short-form video social media site has faced growing scrutiny over its content policies and ownership structure in recent years, as its popularity has surged.
Concerns in the U.S. have largely centered on the risk of censorship and the security of user data, given the platform is owned by a Chinese tech giant and subject to Internet data laws defined by the Chinese Communist Party.
While, in Europe, lawmakers, regulators and civil society have been raising a broader mix of concerns — including around issues of child safety and data privacy.
In one notable development earlier this year, the Italian data protection regulator made an emergency intervention after the death of a local girl who had reportedly been taking part in a content challenge on the platform. TikTok agreed to recheck the age of all users on its platform in Italy as a result.
TikTok said the European TAC will start operating virtually, owing to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But the plan is to open a physical center in Ireland — where it bases its regional HQ — in 2022.
EU lawmakers have recently proposed a swathe of updates to digital legislation that look set to dial up emphasis on the accountability of AI systems — including content recommendation engines.
A draft AI regulation presented by the Commission last week also proposes an outright ban on subliminal uses of AI technology to manipulate people’s behavior in a way that could be harmful to them or others. So content recommender engines that, for example, nudge users into harming themselves by suggestively promoting pro-suicide content or risky challenges may fall under the prohibition. (The draft law suggests fines of up to 6% of global annual turnover for breaching prohibitions.)
It’s certainly interesting to note TikTok also specifies that its European TAC will offer detailed insight into its recommendation technology.
“The Centre will provide an opportunity for experts, academics and policymakers to see first-hand the work TikTok teams put into making the platform a positive and secure experience for the TikTok community,” the company writes in a press release, adding that visiting experts will also get insights into how it uses technology “to keep TikTok’s community safe”; how trained content review teams make decisions about content based on its Community Guidelines; and “the way human reviewers supplement moderation efforts using technology to help catch potential violations of our policies”.
Another component of the EU’s draft AI regulation sets a requirement for human oversight of high risk applications of artificial intelligence. Although it’s not clear whether a social media platform would fall under that specific obligation, given the current set of categories in the draft regulation.
However the AI regulation is just one piece of the Commission’s platform-focused rule-making.
Late last year it also proposed broader updates to rules for digital services, under the DSA and DMA, which will place due diligence obligations on platforms — and also require larger platforms to explain any algorithmic rankings and hierarchies they generate. And TikTok is very likely to fall under that requirement.
The UK — which is now outside the bloc, post-Brexit — is also working on its own Online Safety regulation, due to present this year. So, in the coming years, there will be multiple content-focused regulatory regimes for platforms like TikTok to comply with in Europe. And opening algorithms to outside experts may be hard legal requirement, not soft PR.
Commenting on the launch of its European TAC in a statement, Cormac Keenan, TikTok’s head of trust and safety, said: “With more than 100 million users across Europe, we recognise our responsibility to gain the trust of our community and the broader public. Our Transparency and Accountability Centre is the next step in our journey to help people better understand the teams, processes, and technology we have to help keep TikTok a place for joy, creativity, and fun. We know there’s lots more to do and we’re excited about proactively addressing the challenges that lie ahead. I’m looking forward to welcoming experts from around Europe and hearing their candid feedback on ways we can further improve our systems.”
Ever since I read thisBloomberg story about how songs are engineered to go viral on TikTok, I’ve had one thought in my head – if you can call it that – it’s more of a noise, or impression:
Yes, it’s the sound of internally screaming. Just when I thought I understood how deeply social media algorithms have hijacked our desires, tastes and preferences – WHAM! Another jab straight to the nose. I have to admit, I was blindsided by this one. It knocked me out.
Now, I understand that I work for a website called TechCrunch, emphasis on the tech, but if this story doesn’t make you feel at least a teensy bit like a Luddite, well, I don’t know what to tell you. You’re probably like that character in the Matrix, Cypher, who wants to be plugged in.
Is that harsh? I mean, companies are going to company, and partnerships with major record labels is a common sense move for a social media app all about honing the art of short, clever combinations of sound and video. And fair dues to the creators, many of them in college or high school, for jumping at the chance to make some money and get a little bit of fame.
But it’s probably not too harsh when you consider what else is possible when catchiness is weaponized. Here’s whatwe know: whether it’s internet memes or political slogans or Megan Thee Stallion’s Savage, what drives information dissemination is not the truthfulness of the content or the credibility of the speaker but 1) how easy it is to remember and 2) how quickly it sparks conversations.
And would you look at that! Those are exactly the variables music producers optimize for today. What the Bloomberg story highlights, inadvertently or not, is how a #1 pop hit and a piece of political disinformation are not all that different, aesthetically. Everyone’s an entertainer.
Now read to the end of the Bloomberg story. Get to the part where it’s revealed that ByteDance (the Chinese company that owns TikTok), in response to threats of a U.S. ban on the app, recruited creators to orchestrate a seemingly grassroots lawsuit against the proposed ban. And I think: damn. Attention really is the most precious commodity in the world. And we’re just…giving it away.
Pearpop, the marketplace for social collaborations between the teeming hordes of musicians, craftspeople, chefs, clowns, diarists, dancers, artists, actors, acrobats, aspiring celebrities and actual celebrities, has raised $16 million in funding that includes what seems like half of Hollywood, along with Alexis Ohanian’s Seven Seven Six venture firm and Bessemer Venture Partners.
The funding was actually split between a $6 million seed funding round co-led by Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary’s Sound Ventures and Slow Ventures, with participation from Atelier Ventures and Chapter One Ventures and a $10 million additional investment led by Ohanian’s Seven Seven Six with participation from Bessemer.
TechCrunch first covered pearpop last year and there’s no denying that the startup is on to something. It basically takes Cameo’s celebrity marketplace for private shout-outs and makes it public. Allowing social media personalities to boost their followers by paying more popular personalities to shout out, duet, or comment on their posts.
“I’ve invested in pearpop because it’s been on my mind for a while that the creator economy has resulted in a lot of not equitable outcomes for creators. Where i talked about the missing middle class of the creator economy,” said Li Jin, the founder of Atelier Ventures and author of a critical piece on creator economics, “The creator economy needs a middle class“.
“When I saw pearpop I felt like there was a really big potential for pearpop to be the one of the creators of the creative middle class. They’ve introduced this mechanism by which larger creators can help smaller creators and everyone has something of value to offer something to everyone else in the ecosystem.”
Jin discovered pearpop through the TechCrunch piece, she said. “You wrote that article and then i reached out to the team,” said Jin.
The idea was so appealing, it brought in a slew of musicians, athletes, actors and entertainers, including: Abel Makkonen (The Weeknd), Amy Schumer, The Chainsmokers, Diddy, Gary Vaynerchuk, Griffin Johnson, Josh Richards, Kevin Durant (Thirty 5 Ventures), Kevin Hart (HartBeat Ventures), Mark Cuban, Marshmello, Moe Shalizi, Michael Gruen (Animal Capital), MrBeast (Night Media Ventures), Rich Miner (Android co-founder) and Snoop Dogg.
“Pearpop has the potential to benefit all social media platforms by delivering new users and engagement, while simultaneously leveling the playing field of opportunity for creators,” said Alexis Ohanian, Founder, Seven Seven Six, in a statement. “The company has created a revolutionary new marketplace model that is set to completely reimagine how we think of social media monetization. As both a social media founder and an investor, I’m excited for what’s to come with pearpop.”
Already Heidi Klum, Loren Gray, Snoop Dogg, and Tony Hawk have gotten paid to appear in social media posts from aspiring auteurs on the social media platform TikTok.
Using the platform is relatively simple. A social media user (for now, that means just TikTok) sends a post that exists on their social feed and requests that another social media user interacts with it in some way — either commenting, posting a video in response, or adding a sound. If the request seems okay, or “on brand”, then the person who accepts the request performs the prescribed action.
Pearpop takes a 25% cut of all transactions with the social media user who’s performing the task getting the other 75%.
The company wouldn’t comment on revenue numbers, except to say that it’s on track to bring in seven figures this year.
Users on the platform set their prices and determine which kinds of services they’re willing to provide to boost the social media posts of their contractors.
Prices range anywhere from $5 to $10,000 depending on the size of a user’s following and the type of request that’s being made. Right now, the most requested personality on the marketplace is the TikTok star, Anna Banana.
These kinds of transactions do have impacts. The company said that personalities on the platform were able to increase their follower count with the service. For instance, Leah Svoboda went from 20K to 141K followers, after a pearpop duet with Anna Shumate.
If this all makes you feel like you’ve tripped and fallen through a Black Mirror into a dystopian hellscape where everything and every interaction is a commodity to be mined for money, well… that’s life.
“What I appreciate most about pearpop is the control it gives me as a creator,” said Anna Shumate, TikTok influencer @annabananaxdddd. “The platform allows me to post what I want and when I want. My followers still love my content because it’s authentic and true to me, which is what sets pearpop apart from all of the other opportunities on social media.”
Talent agencies, too, see the draw. Early adopters include Talent X, Get Engaged, and Next Step Talent and The Fuel Injector, which has added its entire roster of talent to pearpop, which includes Kody Antle, Brooke Monk and Harry Raftus, the company said.
“The initial concept came out of an obvious gap within the space: no marketplace existed for creators of all sizes to monetize through simple, authentic collaborations that are mutually beneficial,” said Cole Mason, co-founder & CEO, pearpop. “It soon became clear that this was a product that people had been waiting for, as thousands of people rely on our platform today to gain full control of their social capital for the first time starting with TikTok.”
TikTok today is doubling down on its roots as a music-backed creation app with the launch of a half dozen new music effects for creators. The effects, which offer interactivity, visualizations, animations and more, will roll out over the next few weeks, starting with the launch of Music Visualizer. This effect is now available to TikTok’s global user base and runs real-time beat tracking to animate a retro greenscreen landscape, the company says.
The effect was added to TikTok’s Creative Effects tray yesterday and there are already over 28,000 videos created using the new feature. The effect results in videos featuring a purple sky with multiple moons (or planets?) in the background, where the grid on the ground pulses up and down with the music.
Music Visualizer works with any sounds in TikTok’s music library and has also been adopted by the electronic dance music duo AREA21 who used Music Visualizer to tease their new track “La La La.” Unfortunately, their use of the effect hides the animation behind one of their own. But severalothercreators showcase the effect better.
Other effects on the way include:
Music Machine, which offers an interactive set of tools that will allow users to control the real-time rendering of MIDI loops for different music layers. There will also be a BPM slider for real-time adjustments; five, one-shot sound effects; and dynamic visual responses for the video of your recorded music.
Delayed Beats, which recreates the freeze-frame effect that’s already popular on TikTok while aligning transitions to the beat of the music
Text Beats, which allows creators to add animated text overlays to their video that transition in sync with the beat of any sound from TikTok’s library.
Solid Beats, which add visual effects that sync to the beat of any song.
Mirror Beats, which align display transitions with the beat of any song from TikTok’s library.
The launch of the new features follow arrival of several new TikTok competitors from major social networks, including Instagram (Reels), Snapchat (Spotlight), and YouTube (Shorts). The additions of the features help to demonstrate how far behind these rivals are in terms of competing on on the product experience. While the newcomers to the short-form video space may have launched their own set of basic creation tools, they’re lacking the larger libraries of creative effects that make TikTok fun to use, as well as appealing to those who are more specifically interested in its music features.
All the new effects will be rolled out to the dedicated “Music” tab within TikTok’s Creative Effects tray, as they become globally available.
Competition in China’s gaming industry is getting stiffer in recent times as tech giants sniff out potential buyouts and investments to beef up their gaming alliance, whether it pertains to content or distribution.
Bilibili, the go-to video streaming platform for young Chinese, is the latest to make a major gaming deal. It has agreed to invest HK$960 million (about $123 million) into X.D. Network, which runs the popular game distribution platform TapTap in China, the company announced on Thursday.
Dual-listed in Hong Kong and New York, Bilibili will purchase 22,660,000 shares of X.D.’s common stock at HK$42.38 apiece, which will grant it a 4.72% stake.
The partners will initiate a series of “deep collaborations” around X.D.’s own games and TapTap, without offering more detail.
Though known for its trove of video content produced by amateur and professional creators, Bilibili derives a big chunk of its income from mobile games, which accounted for 40% of its revenues in 2020. The ratio had declined from 71% and 53% in 2018 and 2019, a sign that it’s trying to diversify revenue streams beyond distributing games.
Tencent has similarly leaned on games to drive revenues for years. The WeChat operator dominates China’s gaming market through original titles and a sprawling investment portfolio whose content it helps operate and promote.
X.D. makes games, too, but in recent years it has also emerged as a rebel against traditional game distributors, which are Android app stores operated by smartphone makers. The vision is to skip the high commission fees charged by the likes of Huawei and Xiaomi and monetize through ads. X.D.’s proposition has helped it attract a swathe of gaming companies to be its investors, including fast-growing studios Lilith Games and miHoYo, as well as ByteDance, which built up a 3,000-people strong gaming team within six years.
Bilibili’s investment further strengthens X.D.’s matrix of top-tier gaming investors. Tencent is conspicuously absent, but it’s no secret that ByteDance is its new nemesis. The TikTok parent recently outbid Tencent to acquire Moonton, a gaming studio that has gained ground in Southeast Asia, according to Reuters. Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, is also vying for user attention away from content published on WeChat.
For the last few years, ByteDance, the parent company of short video app TikTok, has been working to diversify its revenue streams beyond advertisement and find more ways to monetize its hundreds of millions of users. One area it is targeting is gaming, which has historically been a lucrative business in China’s internet economy.
China is the world’s largest gaming market, generating revenues of $40.85 billion in 2020, according to market research firm Newzoo. The United States trailed behind at $36.92 billion.
But competition is also intense. Giants Tencent and NetEase have long dominated and smaller players like Mihoyo and Lilith are making breakthroughs. According to market research firm Analysys, Tencent occupied over half of the Chinese gaming market in 2019, while NetEase and 37 Interactive respectively commanded around 16% and 10%, leaving little breathing room for smaller rivals.
Regardless, ByteDance is forging ahead, giving a brand name, Nuversegame, and a website to its gaming business for the first time last month. Its strategy consists of a genre-spanning portfolio, a hiring spree, a proven monetization scheme, and a focus on both the domestic and overseas markets. During his short-lived stint with ByteDance, Kevin Meyer was put in charge of multiple overseas businesses, including gaming.
ByteDance, the David when it comes to games, seems undeterred by the Goliaths. As one of the company’s gaming executives Yan Shou wrote in a social media post a year ago: “Gaming is a content business. A monopoly is difficult to maintain [in this industry] as long as there is patience.”
Battle for talent
In recent years, ByteDance has hired a large number of ex-employees from the BAT, the acronym for three of the most prominent tech firms in China: Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent. Yan himself worked on strategy at Tencent for over two years before joining ByteDance in 2015. While poaching and job-hopping are common in China’s fast-changing tech industry, ByteDance is known for doling out generous paychecks and many tech workers are lured by the prospects of receiving employee options before the firm goes public someday.
Ambitious staff may also feel stagnant after a long period at Alibaba and Tencent, which are both over 20 years old and where room for career advancement is limited. ByteDance, in comparison, is merely nine years old and is still in a fast-growth phase, a Beijing-based headhunter for technology firms tells TechCrunch.
“The current stage of ByteDance and the new businesses it is incubating provide the right platform for these people to achieve their ambitions,” the headhunter says.
In gaming, too, ByteDance has gone on a recruiting spree. The company’s gaming headcount numbers nearly 3,000 today, up from only 1,000 last year, according to a person with knowledge. These employees are scattered across China’s major tech hubs, from Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou to Shenzhen, working in various gaming studios under ByteDance.
How big is a 3,000-person team? 37 Interactive, the third-largest gaming firm in China, had around 4,000 gaming staff as of January, according to a company executive. It took the company 10 years to reach this scale. ByteDance began exploring games only around five years ago.
ByteDance declined to comment on the story.
Factory of games
Being late to the game could bring advantages. Having seen how Tencent and other predecessors tackle the gaming market allows ByteDance to learn. For one, ByteDance is working on a diverse range of genres simultaneously, from disposable mobile games to indie titles with unorthodox design or topics. This makes ByteDance different from Tencent, says Daniel Ahmad, a gaming analyst at Niko Partners. Tencent, the world’s largest gaming firm, cut its teeth on board and card games in the 2000s before gradually expanding into other genres.
Of course, only a deep-pocketed upstart like ByteDance could strive for a diverse portfolio from day one. With a well-oiled advertising business built upon its short video app Douyin and news aggregator Toutiao, as well as over $7 billion raised from equity funding over the years, ByteDance has been able to fund its horizontal expansions in not just games but also education and SaaS.
Aside from hunting down talent from other tech giants, ByteDance also relies on swallowing smaller companies to boost its workforce. Since 2018, ByteDance has invested in at least 11 gaming companies, six of which were full acquisitions, according to public disclosures. The acquired assets and talent were subsequently incorporated into ByteDance’s gaming studios. Acqui-hiring is an old and proven formula at ByteDance. Kelly Zhang, the product manager credited for taking Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, off the ground, also joined after her photo-sharing startup was bought by ByteDance.
Like many gaming firms, ByteDance’s monetization scheme is two-pronged: distribution of third-party titles and original creation. Quality games don’t come overnight, so the strategy allows its gaming unit to have some revenue as it bets on one of its own works to be a cash cow. Casual games are great for ads, which are normally placed between levels. More complex games rely on user loyalty and the natural way to make money is through in-app purchases.
A number of ByteDance’s licensed casual games have so far made it into the Top 10 iOS free games in China, including car racing game Drift Race, music game Yinyue Qiuqiu, and puzzle game Brain Out. While these collaborations don’t make big bucks yet, the initial traction proves the viability of ByteDance’s traffic strategy.
ByteDance said in 2019 it had 1.5 billion monthly users across its app family (there can be user overlap between apps). One way ByteDance is marketing games is by inserting native ads into users’ content feeds. Videos, says Niko Partners’ Ahmad, are “interactive, easy to use, easy to click through and can get much higher conversion than traditional ads.”
In some cases, the ad may prompt users to download a standalone gaming app. But like WeChat and most of China’s popular apps, Douyin and Toutiao support third-party “mini apps” within their own platforms. Users can, for instance, play a lite game on Douyin just as they can on WeChat.
With hundreds of millions of monthly users, ByteDance already has a good grasp of people’s tastes and behavior, so it knows what games to recommend. In theory, the more people see and react, the more accurate its predictions become.
“Through targeted ‘recommendations’, our ‘algorithms’ will automatically show users mini games presented in various forms,” explains ByteDance’s gaming developer handbook. “All games have a fair and equal chance of getting initial exposure.”
What if we no longer needed cameras to make videos and can instead generate them through a few lines of coding?
Advances in machine learning are turning the idea into a reality. We’ve seen how deepfakes swap faces in family photos and turn one’s selfies into famous video clips. Now entrepreneurs with AI research background are devising tools to let people generate highly realistic photos, voices, and videos using algorithms.
One of the startups building this technology is China-based Surreal. The company is merely three months old but has already secured a seed round of $2-3 million from two prominent investors, Sequoia China and ZhenFund. Surreal received nearly ten investment offers in this round, founder and CEO Xu Zhuo told TechCrunch, as investors jostled to bet on a future shaped by AI-generated content.
Prior to founding Surreal, Xu spent six years at Snap, building its ad recommendation system, machine learning platform, and AI camera technology. The experience convinced Xu that synthetic media would become mainstream because the tool could significantly “lower the cost of content production,” Xu said in an interview from Surreal’s a-dozen-person office in Shenzhen.
Surreal has no intention, however, to replace human creators or artists. In fact, Xu doesn’t think machines can surpass human creativity in the next few decades. This belief is embodied in the company’s Chinese name, Shi Yun, or The Poetry Cloud. It is taken from the title of a novel by science fiction writer Liu Cixin, who tells the story of how technology fails to outdo the ancient Chinese poet Li Bai.
“We have an internal formula: visual storytelling equals creativity plus making,” Xu said, his eyes lit up. “We focus on the making part.”
In a way, machine video generation is like a souped-up video tool, a step up from the video filters we see today and make Douyin (TikTok’s Chinese version) and Kuaishou popular. Short video apps significantly lower the barrier to making a professional-looking video, but they still require a camera.
“The heart of short videos is definitely not the short video form itself. It lies in having better camera technology, which lowers the cost of video creation,” said Xu, who founded Surreal with Wang Liang, a veteran of TikTok parent ByteDance.
Some of the world’s biggest tech firms, such as Google, Facebook, Tencent and ByteDance, also have research teams working on GAN. Xu’s strategy is not to directly confront the heavyweights, which are drawn to big-sized contracts. Rather, Surreal is going after small and medium-sized customers.
Surreal’s face swapping software for e-commerce sellers
Surreal’s software is currently only for enterprise customers, who can use it to either change faces in uploaded content or generate an entirely new image or video. Xu calls Surreal a “Google Translate for videos,” for the software can not only swap people’s faces but also translate the languages they speak accordingly and match their lips with voices.
Users are charged per video or picture. In the future, Surreal aims to not just animate faces but also people’s clothes and motions. While Surreal declined to disclose its financial performance, Xu said the company has accumulated around 10 million photo and video orders.
Much of the demand now is from Chinese e-commerce exporters who use Surreal to create Western models for their marketing material. Hiring real foreign models can be costly, and employing Asian models doesn’t prove as effective. By using Surreal “models”, some customers have been able to achieve 100% return on investment (ROI), Xu said. With the multi-million seed financing in its pocket, Surreal plans to find more use cases like online education so it can collect large volumes of data to improve its algorithm.
The technology powering Surreal, called generative adversarial networks, is relatively new. Introduced by machine learning researcher Ian Goodfellow in 2014, GANs consist of a “generator” that produces images and a “discriminator” that detects whether the image is fake or real. The pair enters a period of training with adversarial roles, hence the nomenclature, until the generator delivers a satisfactory result.
In the wrong hands, GANs can be exploited for fraud, pornography and other illegal purposes. That’s in part why Surreal starts with enterprise use rather than making it available to individual users.
Companies like Surreal are also posing new legal challenges. Who owns the machine-generated images and videos? To avoid violating copyright, Surreal requires that the client has the right to the content they upload for moderation. To track and prevent misuse, Surreal adds an encrypted and invisible watermark to each piece of the content it generates, to which it claims ownership. There’s an odd chance that the “person” Surreal produces would match someone in real life, so the company runs an algorithm that crosschecks all the faces it creates with photos it finds online.
“I don’t think ethics is something that Surreal itself can address, but we are willing to explore the issue,” said Xu. “Fundamentally, I think [synthetic media] provides a disruptive infrastructure. It increases productivity, and on a macro level, it’s inexorable, because productivity is the key determinant of issues like this.”
LOT Network, the non-profit that helps businesses of all sizes and across industries defend themselves against patent trolls by creating a shared pool of patents to immunize themselves against them, today announced that TikTik parent ByteDance is joining its group.
ByteDance has acquired its fair share of patents in recent years and is itself embroiled in a patent fight with its rival Triller. That’s not what joining the LOT Network is about, though. ByteDance is joining a group of companies here that includes the likes of IBM, the Coca-Cola Company, Cisco, Lyft, Microsoft, Oracle, Target, Tencent, Tesla, VW, Ford, Waymo, Xiaomi and Zelle. In total, the group now has over 1,300 members.
As LOT CEO Ken Seddon told me, the six-year-old group had a record year in 2020, with 574 companies joining it and bringing its set of immunized patents to over 3 million, including 14% of all patents issued in the U.S.
Among the core features of LOT, which only charges members who make more than $25 million in annual revenue, is that its members aren’t losing control over the patents they add to the pool. They can still buy and trade them as before, but if they decide to sell to what the industry calls a ‘patent assertion entity,’ (PAE) that is, a patent troll, they automatically provide a free licence to that patent to every other member of the group. This essentially turns LOT into what Seddon calls a ‘flu shot ‘ against patent trolls (and one that’s free for startups).
“The conclusion that people are waking up to is, is that we’re basically like a herd, we’re herd immunization, effectively,” Seddon said. “And every time a company joins, people realize that the community of non-members shrinks by one. It’s like those that don’t have the vaccination shrinks — and they are, ‘wait a minute, that makes me a higher risk of getting sued. I’m a bigger target.’ And they’re like, ‘wait a minute, I don’t want to be the target.’”
ByteDance, he argues, is a good example for a company that can profit from membership in LOT. While you may think of patents as purely a sign of a company’s innovativeness, for corporate lawyers, they are also highly effective defense tools (that can be used aggressively as well, if needed). But it can take a small company years to build up a patent portfolio. But a fast-growing, successful company also becomes an obvious target for patent trolls.
“When you are a successful company, you naturally become a target,” Seddon said. “People become jealous and they become threatened by you. And they covet your money and your revenue and your success. One of the ways that companies can defend themselves and protect their innovation is through patents. Some companies grow so fast, they become so successful, that their revenue grows faster than they can grow their patent portfolio organically.” He cited Instacart, which acquired 250 patents from IBM earlier this month, and Airbnb, which was sued by IBM over patent infringement in early 2020 (the companies settled in December), as examples.
ByteDance, thanks to the success of TikTok, now finds itself in a situation where it, too, is likely to become a target of patent trolls. The company has started acquiring patents itself to grow its portfolio faster and now it is joining LOT to strengthen its protection there.
“[ByteDance] is being a visionary and trying to get ahead of the wave,” Seddon noted. “They are a successful global company that needs to develop a global IP strategy. Historically, PAEs were just a US problem, but now ByteDance has to worry about PAEs being an issue in China and Europe as well. By joining LOT, they protect themselves and their investments from over 3 million patents should they ever fall into the hands of a PAE.”
Lynn Wu, Director and Chief IP Counsel, Global IP and Digital Licensing Strategy at ByteDance, agrees. “Innovation is core to the culture at ByteDance, and we believe it’s important to protect our diverse technical and creative community,” she said in today’s announcement. “As champions for the fair use of IP, we encourage other companies to help us make the industry safer by joining LOT Network. If we work together, we can protect the industry from exploitation and continue advancing innovation, which is key to the growth and success of the entire community.”
There’s another reason companies are so eager to join the group now, though, and that’s because these patent assertion entities, which had faded into the background a bit in the mid- to late-2010s, may be making a comeback. The core assumption here is a bit gloomy: many companies seem to assume we’re in for an economic downturn. If we hit a recession, a lot of patent holders will start looking at their patent portfolios and start selling off some their more valuable patents in order to stay afloat. Since beggars can’t be choosers, that often means they’ll sell to a patent troll if that troll is the highest bidder. Last year, a patent troll sued Uber using a patent sold by IBM, for example (and IBM gets a bit of a bad rap for this, but, hey, it’s business).
That’s what happened after the last recession — though it typically takes a few years for the effect to be felt. Nothing in the patent world moves quickly.
Now, when LOT members sell to a troll, that troll can’t sue other LOT members over it. Take IBM, for example, which joined LOT last year.
“People give IBM a lot of grief and criticism for selling to PAEs, but at least IBM is giving everybody a chance to get a free license,” Seddon told me. “IBM joined LOT last year and what IBM is effectively doing is saying to everybody, ‘look, I joined LOT.’ And they put all of their entire patent portfolio into LOT. And they’re saying to everybody, ‘look, I have the right to sell my patents to anybody I want, and I’m going to sell it to the highest bidder. And if I sell it to a patent troll and you don’t join LOT — and if you get sued by a troll, is that my fault or your fault? Because if you join LOT, you could have gotten a free license.’”
The insane saga of a potential forced sale of TikTok’s US operations is reportedly ending — another victim of the transition to methodical and rational policymaking that appears to be the boring new normal under the Presidency of Joe Biden.
Last fall, the U.S. government under President Donald Trump took a stab at “gangster capitalism” by trying to force the sale of TikTok to a group of buyers including Oracle and Walmart.
While the effort was doomed from the start, with TikTok’s parent company ByteDance winning most of the legal challenges to the government effort, a Rubicon had effectively been crossed where the U.S. government appeared willing to spend political capital to stymie the growth of a successful foreign business on its shores for the flimsiest of security reasons.
Now, The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the efforts by the U.S. government to push the deal forward “have been shelved indefinitely”, citing sources familiar with the process.
However, discussions between TikTok and U.S. national security officials are continuing because there are valid concerns around TikTok’s data collection and the potential for manipulation and censorship of content on the app.
In the meantime, the U.S. is taking a look at all of the potential threats to data privacy and security from intrusions by foreign governments or using tech developed overseas, according to Emily Horne, the spokeswoman for the National Security Council.
“We plan to develop a comprehensive approach to securing U.S. data that addresses the full range of threats we face,” Horne told the WSJ. “This includes the risk posed by Chinese apps and other software that operate in the U.S. In the coming months, we expect to review specific cases in light of a comprehensive understanding of the risks we face.”
ByteDance is bringing its battle with archrival Tencent to the court at a time when the Chinese government moves to curve the power of the country’s internet behemoths.
The Beijing Intellectual Property Court has permitted a ByteDance lawsuit brought against Tencent to proceed, a ByteDance spokesperson confirmed with TechCrunch. Upstart new media company ByteDance alleged that Tencent’s restrictions on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, are in violation of China’s anti-monopoly draft rules. Douyin is headquartered in Beijing while Tencent’s base is in Shenzhen.
For three years, Tencent has blocked Douyin from its flagship networking apps WeChat and QQ, which bans users from viewing or sharing content from the short video app. Tencent’s behavior “no doubt” constitutes “monopolistic behavior achieved by abusing market domination to exclude and limit competition,” which the proposed anti-monopoly law prohibits, Douyin, said.
“We believe that competition is better for consumers and promotes innovation. We have filed this lawsuit to protect our rights and those of our users.”
Tencent said in response the accusation is false and malicious defamation. It further asserted that Douyin, which is used by 600 million users every day, uses illegal and anti-competitive methods to access WeChat’s user data, and it’s planning to sue ByteDance for harming its platform ecosystem and user rights.
ByteDance and Tencent each covet the other’s turf. ByteDance debuted a chat app to take on Tencent’s dominance in social networking, while Tencent countered Douyin’s popularity by introducing a slew of short video apps. Neither has managed to threaten the other’s dominance in their respective field.
Early signs show that the Chinese government is increasingly willing to rein in monopolistic behavior on the Chinese internet following two decades of relatively lax regulations.
In November, the country’s top market regulator unveiled the draft version of its first anti-monopoly law, opening a floodgate to lawsuits and investigations. In December, regulators launched an antitrust probe into Alibaba for forcing vendors to sell exclusively on its platform. Just this month, a court in Beijing imposed a 3 million yuan ($464,000) fine on fashion e-commerce site Vipshop over anti-competitive behavior. It won’t be surprising to see more Chinese internet giants getting hit by anti-trust actions in the upcoming months.
Chinese internet giant ByteDance has told employees in India that it will be reducing the size of its team in the country after New Delhi retained ban on TikTok and other Chinese apps last week, a source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.
The company shared the news with employees in the country at 10am local time and said only critical jobs will be retained in the country. ByteDance said it was left with no choice because the Indian government, which banned the app late June, has offered no clear direction on when TikTok could make return in the nation, the source said on the condition of anonymity.
ByteDance, which employed more than 2,000 people in the country last year, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
This is breaking news. Check back for more information.
The set of draft rules, designed to regulate non-bank payments and released by the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) this week, said any non-bank payments processor with over one-third of the non-bank payments market or two companies with a combined half of the market could be subject to regulatory warnings from the anti-monopoly authority under the State Council.
Meanwhile, a single non-bank payments provider with over one half of the digital payments market or two companies with a combined two-thirds of the market could be investigated for whether they constitute a monopoly.
The difference between the two rules is nuanced here, with the second stipulation focusing on digital payments as opposed to non-bank payments in the first.
Furthermore, the rules did not specify how authorities measure an organization’s market share, say, whether the judgment is based on an entity’s total transaction value, its transaction volume, or other metrics.
Alipay processed over half of China’s third-party payments transactions in the first quarter of 2020, according to market researcher iResearch, while Tencent handled nearly 40% of the payments in the same period.
Industry experts told TechCrunch that PayPal won’t likely go after the domestic payments giants but may instead explore opportunities in cross-border payments, a market with established players like XTransfer, which was founded by a team of Ant veterans.
Ant and Tencent also face competition from other Chinese internet firms. Companies ranging from food delivery platform Meituan, e-commerce platforms Pinduoduo and JD.com, to TikTok’s parent firm ByteDance have introduced their own e-wallets, though none of them have posed an imminent threat to Alipay or WeChat Pay.
The comprehensive proposal from PBOC also defines how payments processors handle customer data. Non-bank payments services are to store certain user information and transaction history and cooperate with relevant authorities on data checks. Companies are also required to obtain user consent and make clear to customers how their data are collected and used, a rule that reflects China’s broader effort to clamp down on unscrupulous data collection.
Tencent’s WeChat Pay and Alibaba’s affiliate Alipay have long dominated digital payments in China, but they have always faced new challengers. The latest entrant in online payments is Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese version.
The short video app recently added “Douyin Pay” to its list of existing payment options, which have included Alipay and WeChat Pay.
“The set-up of Douyin Pay (Douyin Zhifu) is to supplement the existing major payment options, and to ultimately enhance user experience on Douyin,” a Douyin spokesperson said.
Payment is a natural step for Douyin, which has a growing e-commerce business. Users can be directed to a product link while watching a video of an influencer reviewing, say, a lipstick. Instead of the ubiquitous WeChat Pay and Alipay, they may opt for Douyin Pay one day, if the incentives are great enough.
Other internet giants, such as e-commerce giant JD.com and food delivery service Meituan, have also tried luring people to use their own payment methods, though the market duopoly is hard to break. All in all, Alipay and WeChat Pay handle about 90% of China’s electronic payments.
Like other internet firms, Douyin parent ByteDance snapped up a coveted payments license by acquiring a third-party payments firm. Last September, a company controlled by ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming bought out a payments solution provider called Wuhan Hezhong Yibao Technology Co. The license, in turn, allows Douyin, Toutiao and other ByteDance services to offer payment features.
Users can, for instance, receive a cash-filled electronic red packet from a Douyin campaign and deposit that cash to their bank accounts.
The rollout of Douyin Pay seems well-timed with the upcoming Chinese New Year holiday, a time when families and friends gift each other red packets. Over the past decade, WeChat has been popularizing electronic versions of these auspicious money-filled envelopes, which helped WeChat Pay take off in the early days.
Douyin inked a deal with Chinese state broadcaster CCTV to be its red envelope technology provider for the Spring Festival Gala, traditionally a major advertising event of the year, according to Chinese business news provider LatePost. Alibaba’s young rival Pinduoduo had a similar deal last year in an attempt to grow its own payments users.
TikTok announced today it’s making changes to its app to make the experience safer for younger users. The company will now set the accounts for users ages 13 to 15 to private by default, as well as tighten other controls for all users under 18, in terms of how they can interact with other users and TikTok content itself. TikTok is also announcing a partnership with nonprofit Common Sense Networks, an education and advocacy group that helps parents and educators navigate today’s media landscape, including children’s use of technology.
The partnership will see Common Sense Networks working with TikTok to provide additional guidance on the appropriateness of its content for users under 13.
The social video app in 2019 had been fined $5.7 million by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for violating U.S. children’s privacy laws. The FTC had begun looking into the app back when it was known as Musical.ly. The earlier version, prior to its acquisition by ByteDance, had collected personal information for children under 13 without parents’ consent.
As a result of that ruling, TikTok created a new, legally compliant experience for younger users in the U.S. with age-appropriate content and no ability to publish videos.
Now, TikTok will restrict the experience for other minors using the app who are over 13, too.
For children ages 13 to 15, accounts will be set to private by default and TikTok will turn the setting “Suggest your account to others” to Off. This will allow users’ videos to only be seen by those they approve as a follower and limits their account from being recommended to others elsewhere in the app.
Commenting controls are also being locked down for these users.
They’ll now be able to choose between “Friends” or “No One” in terms of who can comment on their videos, and the “Everyone” option will be removed. The Dueting and Stitching features will also be removed, which limits how these younger users can engage with other TikTok users and their content. They won’t be able to make their videos downloadable either.
For those ages 16 to 17, the default setting for Duet and Stitch will be set to “Friends,” and they’ll only be able to download videos created by users 16 and over as a result of the lockdowns for younger users. Downloads for their own videos will also be set to Off by default, but they can enable this, if they choose.
TiTok had already restricted younger users’ accounts before today in various ways, including not only through the under-13 age gated experience, but also by restricting direct messaging and hosting live streams to accounts 16 and over, and restricting virtual gifts to users over 18. Parents additionally have had the option to control their child’s experience through the Family Pairing feature, which offers parental controls and screen time limits, among other things.
Of course, any of these restrictions can be worked around for those who lie about their age upon sign-up. But it’s still fairly unusual for a large social network to do more than look the other way when it knows that minors are on its app.
In TikTok’s case, however, it has a large underage user base — some estimates had said that 41% of TikTok is between ages 16 and 24. But in the U.S., TikTok has attracted a particularly large teenage userbase. The company said in 2020 that 60% of its 26.5 million monthly active users in the U.S. were between 16 and 24. Even some of TikTok’s biggest stars, like Charli D’Amelio, are still just teenagers.
The attention to minor safety and parental controls gathered TikTok praise from notable youth safety experts, which the company also shared.
Today, TikTok is touting praise it’s received from the National PTA, ConnectSafely, NCMEC, Family Online Safety Institute, and WeProtect Global Alliance. The groups believe the changes will help teens be able to use the app more safely, responsibility, and without the further risk of exploitation.
“We couldn’t be more pleased about partnering with TikTok to develop better content experiences for users under the age of 13,” added Eric Berger, CEO of Common Sense Networks, in reference to his organization’s partnership with the social video platfrom. “At Common Sense Networks, we see this engagement as an opportunity to double down on our commitment to elevate the quality of children’s digital media so that age-appropriate content is the rule in our industry and not the exception,” he said.
ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese parent company, is entering the health industry as it seeks to diversify a business dependent on advertising and livestreaming sales. The company, which prides itself on content algorithms, has started seeking talent in AI drug discovery across Mountain View, Shanghai and Beijing, its recruiting page shows.
“We are looking for candidates to join our team and conduct cutting-edge research in drug discovery and manufacturing powered by AI algorithms,” one of the job postings said.
The drug discovery team, which is looking to fill at least five roles including interns, falls under the ByteDance AI Lab. The AI-focused research and development arm was first established in 2016 to serve ByteDance’s content services like TikTok’s Chinese version Douyin, but it’s unsurprising to see the lab extending its reach to pharmaceuticals, which can similarly benefit from the machine learning technologies that power short video feeds.
“Given the number of research fields in AI, the applications of these new technologies can be found across every segment of our product portfolio,” said a description on the ByteDance AI Lab website.
All five drug discovery research positions require a PhD degree in relevant disciplines, such as computer science, mathematics, computational biology and computational chemistry. Candidates will be working on drug development such as design, identification and simulation, according to the postings.
ByteDance cannot be immediately reached for comment.
Other Chinese tech behemoths have made similar moves into the health space. Tencent’s own AI-powered drug team, also under the firm’s AI Lab, has been actively publishing findings since at least August 2019. Baidu planned to raise $2 billion for a new biotech startup focusing on drug discovery and AI-powered diagnosis, Reuters reported in September. Huawei has also made endeavors in drug discovery as well as medical imaging through its cloud computing unit.
Spotify users have Wrapped and Instagram users havetheir Top 9. And now TikTok users will have their own year-in-review feature, too. The company today announced the launch of its first personalized annual recap feature with the launch of “Year on TikTok,” a video highlight reel that showcases individual users’ own top TikTok moments. This includes things like how long you’ve been on TikTok, what sort of videos you watched most, your favorite tracks and creative effects, metrics on how often you commented and shared videos, and more.
The feature will also identify your favorite “vibes” — meaning, the sort of videos you like best, such as crafts, cooking, animals, travel, cottagecore, or any of the now numerous communities that have sprung up on the social video platform.
If users haven’t been on TikTok long enough to have developed their own “vibe,” TikTok says their “Year on TikTok” will include other top videos from its “Year on TikTok: Top 100” list instead.
Image Credits: TikTok
The content for the recap is presented in a familiar way. You’ll vertically scroll down through a video that details your 2020 interests and activities. You then have the chance to share that video directly to your own TikTok profile in order to receive a special profile badge that puts a “2020” on top of your profile photo.
The app’s “Year on TikTok” page also includes other TikTok highlights to browse through, including top memes, top creators, top viral videos, most impactful creators, top celebs, top songs, and other year-end trends.
TikTok users can access their “Year on TikTok” by tapping the icon on their For You feed — a prominent placement — or by scrolling to the banner at the top of the app’s Discover page.
The accuracy of TikTok’s recap is debatable. For example, even though every other video in my For You feed is related to politics and news (go figure!), TikTok informed me my top “vibes” were things like home, travel, and animal videos. That’s true too, but it’s an incomplete list and doesn’t match up with the majority of my past “likes.” It seems that TikTok may be curating the experience to focus on more positive “vibes” — and political videos and themes didn’t make the cut.
Regardless of its attempts at spin, social features that offer users a personalized retrospective of how they engaged with an app through the year have proven to be fairly popular — and a good marketing mechanism, as well.
Spotify’s Wrapped, for instance, has been so well-received that people began to complain that people’s Wrapped shares were dominating and overwhelming their social feeds at year-end. Spotify this year partially addressed this problem by offering new customization options for its 2020 Wrapped that let users adjust the color of their Wrapped card before sharing. This way, the flood of Wrapped shares wouldn’t look quite as homogenous as in prior years, and may be perceived as less of an annoyance.
The “Year on TikTok” feature will likely do well, too, though it’s hard to track. The hashtag #YearOnTikTok is up to 5.4 billion views, thanks to users who are adopting the tag in hopes of propelling their videos to a wider audience or getting on the For You page. The real test will be how many creators end up with the 2020 badge stuck on their profile in the days to come.
While TikTok’s feature is fun, if you find it somewhat lacking there are third-party alternatives.
One app, Retroplay, launched its own 2020 TikTok Year in Review this month. The app does more than just round-up your own stats and metrics. Users can also vote for their favorite creators and videos through Retroplay’s “Superlatives” awards, collect cards from favorite creators, and customize their own highlight reel. But the app is brand-new and struggling with bugs — the highlight reel is currently down while it’s being fixed, for instance, and the app couldn’t resolve a username that began with a period instead of a letter, we found.
Image Credits: Retroplay
But the app’s design is catchy and the interactive features are engaging, so hopefully the developer can address the other issues soon — and before year-end!
The FTC is ordering the companies behind many of the largest social and video platforms to explain how they use the treasure troves of data they harvest from users. Amazon, TikTok owner ByteDance, Facebook, WhatsApp, Discord, Reddit, Snap, Twitter and YouTube were all sent the order, with a deadline set 45 days from now.
The FTC’s focus is on how these companies “collect, use, and present personal information, their advertising and user engagement practices, and how their practices affect children and teens.” Four of the FTC’s commissioners voted in favor of the order, with Commissioner Noah Joshua Phillips dissenting.
“Despite their central role in our daily lives, the decisions that prominent online platforms make regarding consumers and consumer data remain shrouded in secrecy,” Commissioners Rohit Chopra, Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and Christine S. Wilson said in a joint statement.
“… Policymakers and the public are in the dark about what social media and video streaming services do to capture and sell users’ data and attention. It is alarming that we still know so little about companies that know so much about us.”
The FTC’s new fact-finding mission is the latest federal action to put tech in its crosshairs, following last week’s news that the agency would sue Facebook over antitrust violations. The new order was issued under Section 6(b) of the FTC Act as a study of tech industry practices. It isn’t coupled with any law enforcement action, but that doesn’t preclude the agency from pursuing enforcement options with what it finds.
Last year the FTC signaled a deeper interest in tech, particularly on antitrust issues. The agency launched a purpose-built tech task force to monitor acquisitions and other potential competition-crushing behavior that raises red flags. In early 2020, the FTC launched an extensive separate study examining nearly a decade’s worth of acquisitions made by Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft.
This means startups will have to compete more aggressively for talent. But having a diverse cluster of big tech companies helps the ecosystem by providing more resources, including mentorship and early funding opportunities, say Singapore-based investors. In the long term, the presence of global tech giants, coupled with homegrown unicorns like Grab, Sea (formerly known as Garena) and Trax, may also mean more exit opportunities for startups.
The Singaporean government continues to create new initiatives that make it attractive to tech companies and entrepreneurs.
While the United States-China trade war may have prompted Chinese companies like Tencent and ByteDance to move more of their operations to Singapore, it’s not the only reason, said AppWorks partner Jessica Liu, who oversees the venture firm and accelerator’s programs in Southeast Asia.
Many already had investments in Southeast Asian companies and were eyeing markets there as well, particularly Indonesia. “Some of it is probably due to the trade war over the past two years and other difficulties they’ve faced in the States,” she told Extra Crunch. “Strategically, they also have to find another big market with long-term potential for growth, and I think that’s why they are targeting Southeast Asia.”
Government policy pays off
Proximity to important growth markets isn’t the only reason tech companies find Singapore desirable. Regulations also play a role. Liu said, “The Singaporean government has already done a good job, from a policy and tax perspective, for startups and big tech companies to set up and incorporate in Singapore,” making the country an “intuitive” choice for regional headquarters.
A lot of what makes Singapore attractive to tech companies today can be credited to government initiatives that have been in play for more than a decade, said Kuo-Yi Lim, co-founder and managing partner at early-stage investment firm Monk’s Hill Ventures.
Before Monk’s Hill Ventures, Lim served as chief executive officer of Infocomm Investments from 2010 to 2013. Infocomm Investments is backed by the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) of Singapore, a government agency that is responsible for promoting the IT industry in Singapore.
“One of its explicit mandates was to look at bringing in top-tier tech companies to set up shop in Singapore, and ideally focus on product development activities, in addition to marketing activities like sales,” said Lim. “That’s always been a very explicit part of the government’s strategy to grow the tech industry.”
Over the past few years, companies like Google and Facebook have set up substantial operations in Singapore, along with fast-growing startups like Twilio, which came in after receiving investment from Infocomm.
“That strategy has been in play for almost 10 years, even longer, and I think we’re seeing the fruits of that now, with ByteDance, as well as Tencent, et cetera,” Lim said. “In terms of impact, I would say in general it has been very positive in terms of the vibrancy of the ecosystem, bringing in more depth of talent across multiple functional areas and bringing more richness in the different types of players across different verticals.”
Other factors made Singapore an attractive base for tech companies, including the fact it is a primarily English-speaking country, has a large number of international schools and was already filled with other multinational companies.
Timing was also crucial.
“Between 2010 and 2020, Southeast Asia went through a sea change, a lot of mobile first, which made it more meaningful for companies to set up local operations,” said Lim. “All those dovetailed nicely during that time.”
All this means that the pool of tech talent in Singapore, which has a population of 5.6 million, is in especially high demand. Moving teams of employees to Singapore can be expensive, said Liu, and as a result, many companies have satellite engineering teams in Vietnam, India and Taiwan, especially for front-end engineers.
Another federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction against U.S. government restrictions that would have effectively banned TikTok from operating in the United States.
The ruling (embedded below) was made by U.S. District Court Judge Carl Nichols in a lawsuit filed by TikTok and ByteDance against President Donald Trump, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and the Commerce Department. Judge Nichols wrote the government “likely exceeded IEEPA’s [the International Emergency Economic Powers Act] express limitations as part of an agency action that was arbitrary and capricious.”
This is the second time a federal judge has issued an injunction against Trump administration restrictions that would have prevented U.S. companies, including internet hosting services, from transactions with TikTok and ByteDance. The first injunction was granted in October by U.S. District Court Judge Wendy Beetlestone, in a separate lawsuit brought against the President Trump and the U.S. Commerce Department by three TikTok creators.
In today’s ruling, Judge Nichols wrote TikTok and ByteDance are likely to succeed in their claims that Secretary Ross’ prohibitions against TikTok and ByteDance, which were originally supposed to go into effect on November 12, violated limits in the IEEPA and the Administrative Procedures Act.
ByteDance is also facing a divestiture order that would force it to sell TikTok’s U.S. operations. While it has reached a proposed agreement with Oracle and Walmart, ByteDance also asked the federal appeals court to vacate the order last month. On November 26, the Trump administration extended the order’s deadline to December 4, but allowed it to lapse without setting a new one.
In an email to TechCrunch, a TikTok spokesperson said, “We’re pleased that the court agreed with us and granted a preliminary injunction against all the prohibitions of the Executive Order. We’re focused on continuing to build TikTok as the home that 100 million Americans, including families and small businesses, rely upon for expression, connection, economic livelihood, and true joy.”
TechCrunch has also contacted the Commerce Department for comment.
To keep track of the often overlapping developments in ByteDance and TikTok’s fight with the U.S. government, we have compiled a comprehensive timeline and will keep it updated.
TikTok’s rise in the West is unprecedented for any Chinese tech company, and so is the amount of attention it has attracted from politicians worldwide. Below is a timeline of how TikTok grew from what some considered another “copycat” short video app to global dominance and eventually became a target of the U.S. government.
2012-2017: The emergence of TikTok
These years were a period of fast growth for ByteDance, the Beijing-based parent company behind TikTok. Originally launched in China as Douyin, the video-sharing app quickly was wildly successful in its domestic market before setting its sights on the rest of the world.
Zhang Yiming, a 29-year-old serial engineer, establishes ByteDance in Beijing.
Chinese product designer Alex Zhu launches Musical.ly.
ByteDance launches Douyin, which is regarded by many as a Musical.ly clone. It launches Douyin’s overseas version TikTok later that year.
2017-2019: TikTok takes off in the United States
TikTok merges with Musical.ly and and launches in the U.S., where it quickly becomes popular, the first social media app from a Chinese tech company to achieve that level of success there. But at the same time, its ownership leads to questions about national security and censorship, against the backdrop of the U.S.-China tariff wars and increased scrutiny of Chinese tech companies (including Huawei and ZTE) under the Trump administration.
ByteDance buys Musical.ly for $800 million to $1 billion. (link)
TikTok merges with Musical.ly and becomes available in the U.S. (link)
TikTok surpassed Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube in downloads. (link)
The first half of 2020: Growth amid government scrutiny
The app is now a mainstay of online culture in America, especially among Generation Z, and its user base has grown even wider as people seek diversions during the COVID-19 pandemic. But TikTok faces an escalating series of government actions, creating confusion about its future in America.
A man wearing a shirt promoting TikTok is seen at an Apple store in Beijing on Friday, July 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
Revived Dubsmash grows into TikTok’s imminent rival. (link)
TikTok lets outside experts examine its moderation practices at its “transparency center.” (link)
Senators introduce a bill to restrict the use of TikTok on government devices. (link)
TikTok brings in outside experts to craft content policies. (link)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the U.S. is looking to ban TikTok. (link)
TikTok announced a $200 million fund for U.S. creators. (link)
Trump told reporters he will use executive power to ban TikTok. (link)
The second half of 2020: TikTok versus the U.S. government
After weeks of speculation, Trump signs an executive order in August against ByteDance. ByteDance begins seeking American buyers for TikTok, but the company also fights the executive order in court. A group of TikTok creators also file a lawsuit challenging the order. The last few months of 2020 become a relentless, and often confusing, flurry of events and new developments for TikTok observers, with no end in sight.
Reports say ByteDance agrees to divest TikTok’s U.S. operations and Microsoft will take over. (link)
Trump signals opposition to the ByteDance-Microsoft deal. (link)
Microsoft announces discussions about the TikTok purchase will complete no later than September 15. (link)
Trump shifts tone and says he expects a cut from the TikTok sale. (link)
TikTok broadens fact-checking partnerships ahead of the U.S. election. (link)
August 7: In the most significant escalation of tensions between the U.S. government and TikTok, Trump signs an executive order banning “transactions” with ByteDance in 45 days, or on September 20. (link). TikTok says the order was “issued without any due process” and would risk “undermining global businesses’ trust in the United States’ commitment to the rule of law.” (link)
August 9: TikTok reportedly plans to challenge the Trump administration ban. (link)
Oracle is also reportedly bidding for the TikTok sale. (link)
August 24: TikTok and ByteDance file their first lawsuit in federal court against the executive order, naming President Trump, Secretary of State Wilbur Ross and the U.S. Department of Commerce as defendants. The suit seeks to prevent the government from banning TikTok. Filed in U.S. District Court Central District of California (case number 2:20-cv-7672), it claims Trump’s executive order is unconstitutional. (link)
TikTok reaches 100 million users in the U.S. (link)
August 27: TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer resigns after 100 days. (link)
Kevin Mayer (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney)
Walmart says it has expressed interest in teaming up with Microsoft to bid for TikTok. (link)
August 28: China’s revised export laws could block TikTok’s divestment. (link)
China says it would rather see TikTok shuttered than sold to an American firm. (link)
September 13: Oracle confirms it is part of a proposal submitted by ByteDance to the Treasury Department in which Oracle will serve as the “trusted technology provider.” (link)
September 18: The Commerce Department publishes regulations against TikTok that will take effect in two phases. The app will no longer be distributed in U.S. app stores as of September 20, but it gets an extension on how it operates until November 12. After that, however, it will no longer be able to use internet hosting services in the U.S., rendering it inaccessible. (link)
On the same day as the Commerce Department’s announcement, two separate lawsuits are filed against Trump’s executive order against TikTok. One is filed by ByteDance, while the other is by three TikTok creators.
The one filed by TikTok and ByteDance is in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (case number 20-cv-02658), naming President Trump, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and the Commerce Department as defendants. It is very similar to the suit ByteDance previously filed in California. TikTok and ByteDance’s lawyers argue that Trump’s executive order violates the Administrative Procedure Act, the right to free speech, and due process and takings clauses.
The other lawsuit, filed by TikTok creators Douglas Marland, Cosette Rinab and Alec Chambers, also names the president, Ross and the Department of Commerce as defendants. The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (case number 2:20-cv-04597), argues that Trump’s executive order “violates the first and fifth amendments of the U.S. Constitution and exceeds the President’s statutory authority.”
September 19: One day before the September 20 deadline that would have forced Google and Apple to remove TikTok from their app stores, the Commerce Department extends it by a week to September 27. This is reportedly to give ByteDance, Oracle and Walmart time to finalize their deal.
On the same day, Marland, Rinab and Chambers, the three TikTok creators, file their first motion for a preliminary injunction against Trump’s executive order. They argue that the executive order violates freedom of speech and deprives them of “protected liberty and property interests without due process,” because if a ban goes into effect, it would prevent them from making income from TikTok-related activities, like promotional and branding work.
September 20: After filing the D.C. District Court lawsuit against Trump’s executive order, TikTok and ByteDance formally withdraw their similar pending suit in the U.S. District Court of Central District of California.
September 21: ByteDance and Oracle confirm the deal but send conflicting statements over TikTok’s new ownership. TikTok is valued at an estimated $60 billion. (link)
September 22: China’s state newspaper says China won’t approve the TikTok sale, labeling it “extortion.” (link)
September 23: TikTok and ByteDance ask the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to grant a preliminary injunction against the executive order, arguing that the September 27 ban removing TikTok from app stores will “inflict direct, immediate, and irreparable harm on Plaintiffs during the pendency of this case.” (link)
September 26: U.S. District Court Judge Wendy Beetlestone denies Marland, Rinab and Chambers’ motion for a preliminary injunction against the executive order, writing that the three did not demonstrate “they will suffer immediate, irreparable harm if users and prospective users cannot download or update” TikTok after September 27, since they will still be able to use the app.
TikTok says it’s enforcing actions against hate speech. (link)
TikTok partners with Shopify on social commerce (link)
October 13: After failing to win their first request for a preliminary injunction, TikTok creators Marland, Rinab and Chambers file a second one. This time, their request focuses on the Commerce Department’s November 12 deadline, which they say will make it impossible for users to access or post content on TikTok if it goes into effect.
October 30: U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone grants TikTok creators Marland, Chambers and Rinab’s second request for a preliminary injunction against the TikTok ban. (link)
November 7: After five days of waiting for vote counts, Joe Biden is declared the president-elect by CNN, followed by the AP, NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox News. With Biden set to be sworn in as president on January 20, the future of Trump’s executive order against TikTok becomes even more uncertain.
November 10: ByteDance asks the federal appeal court to vacate the U.S. government’s divestiture order that would force it to sell the app’s American operations by November 12. Filed as part of the lawsuit in D.C. District Court, ByteDance said it asked the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States for an extension, but hadn’t been granted one yet. (link)
November 12: This is the day that the Commerce Department’s ban on transactions with ByteDance, including providing internet hosting services to TikTok (which would stop the app from being able to operate in the U.S.), was set to go into effect. But instead the case becomes more convoluted as the U.S. government sends mixed messages about TikTok’s future.
The Commerce Department says it will abide by the preliminary injunction granted on October 30 by Judge Beetlestone, pending further legal developments. But, around the same time, the Justice Department files an appeal against Beetlestone’s ruling. Then Judge Nichols sets new deadlines (December 14 and 28) in the D.C. District Court lawsuit (the one filed by ByteDance against the Trump administration) for both sides to file motions and other new documents in the case. (link)
November 25: The Trump administration grants ByteDance a seven-day extension of the divestiture order. The deadline for ByteDance to finalize a sale of TikTok is now December 4.
This timeline will be updated as developments occur.
TikTok announced today it is rolling out a new feature that will allow people with photosensitive epilepsy to automatically skip videos that can trigger seizures.
The “Skip All” option will be introduced to all users over the next few weeks and comes a few months after TikTok began automatically warning creators if a video contains effects, like flashing lights or certain visual patterns, that can be harmful to people with photosensitive epilepsy. If they upload those videos, TikTok automatically prefaces them with a warning screen.
Once a user turns on the “Skip All” option, they won’t see any videos TikTok has identified as potential triggers.
TikTok’s warning for videos with content that can trigger epileptic seizures
According to the Epilepsy Foundation, one of several organizations TikTok consulted with, the condition affects about 65 million people worldwide.
While advocates have called on social media platforms, including YouTube and Facebook, to place warnings before content with potential triggers, the task often falls to individual creators. For example, if a video has flashing lights, they might mention that at the beginning or in its description. But not all creators are aware of photosensitive epilepsy or its triggers.
Furthermore, online trolls have posted harmful content on purpose, sometimes tagging them with keywords related to epilepsy. The Epilepsy Society, another organization that worked with TikTok, has called for malicious posts to be covered by the United Kingdom’s Online Harms bill.
In a statement published with TikTok’s announcement, Nicola Swanborough, the Epilepsy Society’s acting head of external affairs, said “social media can be a lifeline for many people with epilepsy, allowing them to connect with others with the condition from around the world,” and that the organization hopes “other platforms will follow TikTok’s lead in ensuring greater inclusivity.”
There’s no shortage of TikTok coverage in the news today as the app’s fate in the U.S. hangs in the air.
What the press doesn’t always address is how TikTok gets here — how did a Chinese startup seize the lucrative short-video market in the West before Google and Facebook? What did it do differently from its Chinese predecessors who tried global expansion to little avail? Matthew Brennan’s new book “Attention Factory” set out to answer these questions by tracing ByteDance’s trajectory from an underdog despised by Chinese tech workers and investors to the envy of Silicon Valley and the target of the White House.
Matthew has spent years working closely with China’s tech firms, not only analyzing them but also using their products as a curious local, experiences that informed his meticulously researched and entertaining book. Interwoven with captivating anecdotes of TikTok, rare photos of ByteDance’s original team, incisive analysis and telling infographics, “Attention Factory” is an essential read for those looking to understand how ideas in the American and Chinese internet worlds collided, coincided and converged throughout the 2010s.
TikTok is a rare example of a Chinese internet service that has gained worldwide success. Before expanding overseas, ByteDance had already proven the short-video model in China through Douyin, the homegrown version of TikTok.
The excerpt below follows a high-growth period of Douyin, detailing how it gained around 200 million daily active users within a year: a loyal creator community, viral memes, algorithmic recommendation and aggressive ad spending.
Before long, the Chinese startup would replicate that growth playbook in the rest of the world, tweaking it here and there to make it work.
Hundreds of fashionably dressed young people were arriving at 751 D.PARK, an expanse of industrial plants redeveloped into a hip culture venue in northeast Beijing. They were clad in baseball caps, brightly colored dresses, loose-fitting hip-hop style streetwear and limited-edition sneakers. The site had been transformed into something akin to the stage of the talent competition “American Idol,” spanning two floors filled with strobe lighting, high-volume music and trendy backdrops. This was an exclusive party — three hundred top Douyin creators coming together to celebrate the app’s one-year anniversary.
The online stars, billed as the “new generation of internet celebrities,” weren’t there to just socialize and enjoy themselves. Every influencer was aware of the unspoken competition to derive the best content from that night. They were all fighting to achieve a higher level of superstardom and the medium of battle was short video.
The influencers who knew each other gathered in small groups as their assistants tirelessly captured fifteen-second videos of their carefully crafted skits. Loners roamed around the dance floor, absorbed in finding the ideal lighting for their lip-syncing selfie videos. Lesser-known influencers nervously approached more famous ones, proposing to record a dance together to potentially tap into their peers’ following. Loud hip-hop music kept playing in the background as creators hurried to touch up the videos they had just shot. Once the editing was done, they uploaded their works and anxiously waited for the app’s algorithms to judge who would grab more eyeballs.
Dance teams took to the stage to display their skills. The crowd bopped their heads back and forth as rappers attempted to impress with clever lyrics. Later as the hosts were midway through giving out awards, a wave of noise erupted from the back of the crowd interrupting the proceedings.
It was Yiming. Dressed in a black baseball cap and gray T-shirt and accompanied by Lidong. The audience went wild — the CEO had decided to drop in unannounced! Immediately he was bombarded with requests to take pictures and videos. As those around him whooped and cried out wildly, the entrepreneur simply smiled and kept his hands calmly by his side, an awkward 34-year-old engineer type among the hyper fashionable, mostly teenage hip-hop crowd.
Yiming and Lidong appear at a Douyin promotional event marking the app’s first anniversary in Sept 2017.
He already knew from looking at the data, but this was confirmation in the flesh — Douyin had built a robust community, with powerful momentum and was on the verge of doing something special.
October 1st marks the beginning of “Golden Week,” a seven-day-long official Chinese national holiday. Periods like these are big opportunities for China’s internet industry. People’s behaviors change for a week; many find more time for entertainment and to try new things.
Over October, Douyin’s daily users doubled from seven to 14 million; two months later, they reached 30 million. Over those three months, the 30-day retention rates jumped from eight to over 20%, the average time spent in the app soared from 20 to 40 minutes. It was as if some magic rocket fuel had suddenly been added, boosting every key metric. What had changed?
The answer was Zhu Wenjia. Zhu Wenjia, hired from Baidu in 2015, was widely considered to be one of the top-three best people in the entire company when it came to algorithm technology. He ran one of ByteDance’s most capable engineering teams and had recently been assigned to work on Douyin. The team’s work harnessing the full power of ByteDance’s content recommendation back end led directly to the astounding October results.
The better the metrics, the more resources ByteDance placed behind the app as it now had good retention and was fast-tracked into becoming a strategically important product. Suddenly support was coming in from all over the company — people, money, user traffic, celebrity endorsements, brand collaborations, and most importantly, full integration and optimization of ByteDance’s powerful recommendation engine. Chinese stars with massive fan bases such as Yang Mi, Lu Han, Kris Wu, and Angelababy opened accounts, joining in publicity campaigns, and a nationwide “Douyin Party” event roadshow was planned. Douyin had become the hottest upcoming app in China.
ByteDance ramped up the investment in all three short-video products, including Douyin. People, resources and advertising budget were all raised, leading an industry insider to comment later: “The sudden rise of Douyin wasn’t without good cause. Yiming threw more money at this than anyone and dared to hunt down and grab the best people.”
Commercialization began with the first three brand ad campaigns paid for by Airbnb, Harbin Beer and Chevrolet. Douyin’s advertising business would soon make rapid progress. ByteDance already had hundreds of sales and marketing staff who would shortly be able to add Douyin’s advertisement inventory to their sales targets.
Yiming revealed in a later interview that the company had made it compulsory for everyone on the management team to make their own Douyin videos with goals to gain a certain number of likes or suffer forfeits such as doing push-ups. It wasn’t good enough to just look at charts and data; management needed to understand short videos from a creator’s perspective also. Yiming had watched Douyin videos for a long time but creating his own was “a big step for me,” he admitted.
Yiming’s personal Douyin account (3277469). Seventeen videos at the time of writing, including clips from his global travels.
‘Oh well … karma’s a bitch’
The video opened to a young woman yawning, dressed in pajamas with messy morning hair. Wearing glasses and with no signs of makeup, she casually lip-syncs the line, “Oh well … karma’s a bitch” and throws a silk scarf into the air. Suddenly loud background music explosively begins. In an instant, she transforms into a glamorous fashion model, almost unrecognizable from a second before. A new meme had taken hold of Douyin.
“Karma’s a bitch” was a new version of the original “Don’t judge me” challenge that had propelled Musical.ly to top the U.S. app store three years earlier. The meme was another breakthrough for Douyin; People loved watching the shocking transformations. Compilations of the meme’s videos started popping up online. In particular, the makeup skills of some women left many men in disbelief. “Karma’s a bitch” left an impact on mainstream culture and gained widespread recognition and publicity, even making waves out into English language global media.
Douyin was also increasingly hypercharging the popularity of catchy pop songs with strong hooks. In late 2017, a track known as the “Ci-li-ci-li song” exploded on Douyin. The song’s catchy energy was undeniably infectious. Yet, it was the novel set of dance moves that had become associated with the track’s hook that turned the music into a meme and dramatically amplified its success.
The track had actually been released back in 2013 by Romanian reggae and dancehall artist Matteo, under the name “Panama.” Four years after its debut, the song’s unexpected and explosive spike in popularity led the singer to hastily organize an Asia tour to capitalize on his track’s sudden fame. A YouTube video shows him meeting Chinese fans at the Hangzhou airport who demonstrate their moves to him in the arrivals hall. With the dance having been created entirely in China, the bewildered artist finds himself in the awkward situation of not knowing how to follow the moves to the song for which he is famous.
Perhaps the most reliable indicator of the platform’s increasing influence on society was how the name, Douyin, had started to enter everyday colloquial vernacular, becoming synonymous with short video. The meaning of “Let’s shoot a Douyin!” needed no explanation.
Make it rain
ByteDance knew they now had a winning formula. Retention was good, word of mouth was excellent, a large, vibrant community of video creators had been fostered. The recommendation engine was doing its job of surfacing the best content. Douyin’s fire was already burning bright; now, it was time to pour gasoline on things and spend, spend, spend.
The holiday week of Chinese New Year is another unique annual opportunity for app promotions. Hundreds of millions travel home to be reunited with their families and find themselves with free time to relax. An entertainment app like Douyin was the perfect way to pass the time; word of mouth spread naturally between family members.
To step up its efforts further, Douyin directly gave out money to users by running a Chinese New Year “lucky money” campaign. Users could collect small cash amounts in special videos by tapping on the “red packet” icons — a digital manifestation of cash-filled envelopes people give to each other during the holiday. ByteDance also went all out, spending wildly, buying adverts and promotions across major online channels to acquire users, spending about 4 million yuan a day (over half a million dollars). The combination of all these effects sent Douyin to the top of the Chinese app store charts. Various reports stated Douyin’s daily users jumped from around 40 to 70 million over the February to March period covering Chinese New Year, with some of the top accounts seeing their follower numbers quadruple.
A chart mapping the progress of Douyin, from zero to 200 million daily active users, during the first two years of operation.
This article is an excerpt from “Attention Factory: The Story of TikTok and China’s ByteDance,” which was written by Matthew Brennan and edited by TechCrunch reporter Rita Liao, who wrote the introduction to this post.