Short Videos, Big Ambitions
By Coco Feng
A video is made of Chinese tourists smashing their bowls after finishing their drinks at the Yongxingfang Food Court in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, on April 6. Photo: IC
(Beijing) — Short-video app Douyin now has more daily downloads in China than any other free app.
It took just two years for Douyin to hit the jackpot. It had taken four years for its biggest rival, Kuaishou, which means “deft hand,” to become the top video app in 2017 before being overtaken by Douyin.
Both feature videos less than 60 seconds long — sometimes entertaining, sometimes educational, sometimes neither — uploaded by celebrities and ordinary users alike. The content is as varied as lip-syncing to pop music; sleepy toddlers’ nodding off while walking; recipes; and Excel spreadsheet formulas.
Kuaishou, which launched in 2013 and first became popular among villagers and residents of smaller Chinese cities, raised $350 million in its latest fundraising, led by internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. Douyin, which was launched in September 2016 by Beijing-based internet company Bytedance, first took off among more-educated users in larger cities and is now trying to push into Kuaishou’s turf.
In April, Douyin had 95 million daily active users who spent an average of 51.96 minutes on the app every day, while Kuaishou had 104 million daily users who used the service for 51.7 minutes, according to data service provider QuestMobile.
The video app Kuaishou is used to broadcast a public-square dance in Zhengzhou, Henan province, in April 2017. Photo: Chen Liang/Caixin
As the pair’s battle for attention seems to have reached a stalemate in China, they are trying to move their competition overseas, where they face competition from not only each other, but also established short-video giants such as Instagram and Snapchat.
Douyin, known abroad as Tik Tok, is now one of the top apps in markets that include Thailand and Japan. Kuaishou, branded as Kwai outside China, was once the dominant short-video app in Russia but has since declined in the country and is seeking to tap into East Asian markets as well.
Battle in China
From its parent company, Beijing Bytedance Technology Co. Ltd., Douyin has inherited the trait of learning its users’ preferences. Bytedance’s first hit app was news aggregator Toutiao, which recommends articles based on users’ location, interests and reading record.
Unlike Kuaishou and other competitors, which ask users to click on what they want to watch, Douyin has a “swipe” interface — similar to Tinder — in which users are bombarded with content from the moment they turn on the app and simply swipe up to switch to the next video if they don’t like what they are given. If they do like the clips, they can stay longer on the page or even hit the “like” button.
The app promotes a content producer’s new video to their followers first. If it’s a hit, it will then be recommended to nonfollowers. If they stay on the video and like it, Douyin will keep showing it to more viewers until it doesn’t attract more positive swipes, said Nie Yangde, co-founder of startup Onion Video, which has incubated several popular online personalities.
As Douyin’s “swipe” model is nearly identical to that used by Musical.ly — a Chinese video community launched in 2014 that is popular in countries that include the U.S., Canada and the U.K. — Bytedance acquired it last year. This gives the company total ownership of the business model in which users produce and browse videos with preset filters, speed options, video effects and popular music.
Kuaishou hasn’t adopted the crowd-led curation of the “swipe” interface. Every video has a chance to show up on the front page, no matter how popular it has been. Instead of highlighting videos of pop songs and sleepy toddlers, Kuaishou has a reputation of being something of an online freak show, including the woman who eats glass and a man who drinks a huge bowl of fiery Chinese liquor.
Douyin is like a theater while Kuaishou is a public square, one Kuaishou employee said.
But despite their different models, both face similar risks in hosting huge amounts of user-generated content in the restrictive Chinese media landscape. Kuaishou made headlines earlier this year when it was found to have allowed mothers allegedly as young as 13 to live-broadcast their daily lives, which some claimed could promote teenage pregnancy.
In order to nip any such future problems in the bud, both firms have hired large teams of content reviewers, with Kuaishou employing 5,000 people in this role and Bytedance taking on 10,000 to monitor its roster of four video platforms.
Other online companies have also sought to get a piece of the short-video pie. Tencent launched its own platform, Weishi, in 2013, only to abandon it in March 2017. A year later, around the same time it decided to pour cash into Kuaishou, Tencent revived Weishi, updating it with a few functions similar to those used by Douyin, as Tencent may have felt the market was about to take off.
Since sparking a bitter fight in the domestic market, their expansions overseas have each focused on different regions, with some initial success.
Tik Tok, Douyin’s overseas brand, has been one of the top two apps on Apple’s App Store in Thailand since early April, and has been a top-five app in Japan since mid-May, according to App Annie, a website that tracks the performance of apps.
Thai mother Natalie Jakob, 37, said that her 10-year-old daughter became hooked to Tik Tok after seeing her classmates play with it four months ago, and that the child now checks the app twice a day and has even uploaded some singing videos onto the platform.
Tik Tok’s current focus is on East and Southeast Asia, avoiding its sibling Musical.ly’s home turf of Europe and North America. In April, Douyin President Zhang Nan said that the monthly active users of Tik Tok and Musical.ly combined had reached 100 million.
The app still lags behind some of its foreign rivals, though. Facebook-owned Instagram said in September that its daily active users reached 500 million, while Snapchat in the first quarter had 191 million daily active users. Both apps are blocked in China.
Kuaishou has taken a different approach. Its first destination overseas was Russia, followed by other Slavic countries, including Ukraine and Belarus. Later, it entered East Asian markets, including South Korea and Vietnam.
Kwai emerged as the top app on Google Play in Russia in late April, but its momentum faded in May. It once rose to the top three in the Android market in South Korea, in early May, but has now been overtaken by Tik Tok.
Caixin learned from Kuaishou that the monthly active users of Kwai have approached 20 million.
Jason Tan and Qu Yunxu contributed to this report.
Contact reporter Coco Feng (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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