In December 2018, a short video posted by David Kasprak on the fledgling app TikTok went viral.
The video begins with a close-up of a red gummy bear. Standing solo atop a makeshift cardboard stage, the gummy launches into the opening bars of ‘Someone Like You’.
Or appears to … a live performance of Adele’s classic tune sounding out in the background.
Soon a crowd joins in, chanting along to the song’s familiar refrain, and the camera pans outward, proving the show to be a sell-out.
The adorable clip drew in millions of views within a matter of weeks, catalysing TikTok’s rapid growth. Since then, the social media platform which allows users to create, watch and share 15 second videos set to catchy music and sound bites, has seen a steady rise in popularity.
In September 2021, TikTok announced that over 1 billion monthly users were actively engaging with its content. This puts it in the elite company of social media veterans Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook.
But while TikTok reached social media ascendency only two years after its first viral video, creators had been ruminating on the concept for the app far longer.
In 2014, Musical.ly was created by Alex Zhu and Luyu Yangan in Shanghai. Its short form lip-synching videos were an instant hit with Gen Z, and the platform amassed seventy million downloads in just two years.
Then, in September 2016, Chinese tech giant ByteDance launched Douyin – or “shaking sound” – a similar service for sharing short videos which achieved a 100 million user base in its first year.
By 2018 ByteDance had bought Musical.ly, remodelling it off of Douyin, and TikTok as we know it was born.
But Douyin remains active to this day, a thriving branch of ByteDance targeted at a solely Chinese audience. So how does it compare to its sister app TikTok?
Homepage and E-Commerce
While TikTok and Douyin share the same straight-to-video opening screen format, TikTok’s homepage is slightly more basic.
Both display banner ads, trending hashtags and hyperlinks to external videos, but Douyin also features rankings of the most popular accounts in a variety of different categories. For example, celebrities, luxury brands, electronics and beauty.
Douyin also strives to integrate e-commerce. It directs users to links which encourage them to shop at the online store Taobao Marketplace, or directly through the app’s shopping cart feature.
Though TikTok lags behind in this area, its announcement in October 2020 of a partnership with e-commerce site Shopify suggests it plans to follow in Douyin’s footsteps.
The videos that attract the most views for Douyin centre around cute animals, food hacks, funny jokes and talk shows. By contrast, TikTok’s most popular videos focus on internet memes, punch lines, challenges and viral dances.
Douyin also prioritises educational content like science experiments, museum exhibitions and historical facts in line with its Youth Mode.
As part of this program, use of the app is also limited for children under 14, who are restricted to 40 minutes per day within the hours of 6am to 10pm.
Such restrictions are an extension of the mandatory pauses in place for all users, which aim to mitigate the addictive lure of the app’s ‘infinite scroll’ feature.
In a blog post published with the launch of Douyin’s Youth Mode, a spokesperson for the app claimed it was the first short-video platform in the industry to have enforced such limitations.
Censorship and Security
In September 2020, TikTok made headlines for causing a potential security breach in the West. Former President of America, Donald Trump, pronounced the platform to be a threat to ‘the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States’.
Trump ordered ByteDance to divest ownership of the app and announced his intention to shut down its US operations through executive action should the company not comply. Two years later, it seems his concern may have been a false alarm.
In July 2021, the Biden Administration rescinded Trump’s order and TikTok reaffirmed its commitment to protecting its users’ privacy, stating ‘We are not political, we do not accept political advertising and have no agenda’.
TikTok also revealed plans to launch two physical Transparency Centres in LA and Washington DC to showcase its moderation practices.
China’s Douyin, on the other hand, keeps its content moderation in the shadows. But this hasn’t stopped speculation from its critics.
A 2019 Washington Post article noted the strange absence of the Hong Kong Protests from the platform, and pointed to the kind of systematic censorship detailed by a number of the company’s former employees.
In an anonymous interview with Protocol, one employee described an ‘army of about 20,000 content moderators’ who ‘helped shield ByteDance from major political repercussions and achieve commercial success’.
This kind of organised censorship has not been verified by the app, but such rumours make clear a major benefit of ByteDance’s decision to keep TikTok and Douyin separate, any impingement upon the freedom of political expression unlikely to rest so easy with TikTok’s chief audience in the US.