TikTok was the most downloaded app in the Android and iPhone stores, according to research firm Sensor Tower Inc.
The story sounds a lot like the rise of other social media powers such as Instagram and Snapchat, both of which pitched themselves as alternatives to Facebook’s big blue app. But TikTok wasn’t created by Stanford students Mark Zuckerberg could buy off or spend into the ground.
It’s a subsidiary of a Beijing startup, Bytedance Ltd.,that’s built a collection of valuable apps in China powered by vast troves of data and sophisticated Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain Technologies.
Last year, Bytedance’s investors valued the company at $75 billion, the most of any startup in the world.
Inevitably, especially in the age of Donald Trump, TikTok’s fast growth and Chinese ownership have made it the subject of scrutiny.
How Bytedance Team Working
Bytedance’s Beijing headquarters, a former aerospace museum with 50-foot glass skylights, is a celebration of the company’s frantic pace. On a January afternoon, a video in the cafeteria asked workers to share New Year’s resolutions and regrets. Most seemed to involve workaholism.
“To my ex, I’m sorry I was too busy at work,” one employee said. “I’m sorry to my kids that I’m never home,” another message lamented.
The corporate culture is intense even by the standards of Chinese startups. Employee performance goals are published internally via a mobile app the company created called Lark and are reviewed every other month. In an interview, Bytedance’s senior vice president for corporate development, Liu Zhen, mentions that founder and Chief Executive Officer Zhang Yiming likes to travel to the West when the Beijing office shuts down during Chinese holidays. “So he can keep working,” she explains. Zhang declined interview requests.
Now 36, he started Bytedance in 2012, in an apartment near Beijing’s Tsinghua University. One of its first apps, Neihan Duanzi (“implied jokes”), usedArtificial Intelligence to tailor a selection of memes to individual users’ tastes. The effect was irreverent—think of Reddit, but a little bit grosser and more personal—and the app attracted tens of millions of users.
Bytedance used the same approach to develop a news app, Jinri Toutiao (“today’s headlines”), which became China’s largest news site, with more than 700 million users.
The success prompted acquisition offers from Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, all of which Zhang declined.
Then in 2016 it launched a short-video app in China called Douyin that allowed users to add music and animations. The following year, it created an international version, TikTok. Users who open TikTok are confronted with an endless feed of short, full-screen videos, generally set to music.
Tapping on a magnifying glass icon reveals TikTok’s “Discover” page, which displays a carousel of videos under “trending hashtags.” These are internet memes such as #potatoportrait, where users apply makeup to potatoes, or #simbachallenge, which asks them to reenact an iconic Lion King scene.
Unlike on other platforms, where trends bubble up from users’ posts, many of TikTok’s trending hashtags are created by the company’s marketers.
Ahead of its U.S. launch, Bytedance hired about 40 social media celebrities to make videos—including YouTube comedian David Dobrik—paying each tens of thousands of dollars. Some contracts required the influencers to ask their YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram fans to move over to TikTok.
Bytedance still makes most of its money in China, where its short-video app charges advertisers 15 percent of what influencers get paid to promote brands. TikTok also takes a cut from the sale of digital coins that fans buy for creators during livestreamed videos.
Today, Bytedance’s AI screens videos as they’re posted, automatically removing content without waiting for user complaints.
The ambition, says Raj Mishra, TikTok’s head of operations in India,
“one-stop entertainment platform where people come to have fun rather than creating any political strife.”
He makes no attempt to defer to the freedoms of speech and expression that are written into the constitution of the world’s largest democracy. When asked if TikTok would allow criticism of, for example, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to be prominently featured in the app, Mishra answers, “No.” In mid-April, Google and Apple app stores blocked new downloads of TikTok in India after a court asked the government to ban the app over concerns about pornography. Bytedance is fighting the action.
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