Internet & Tech

One billion daily views

Douyin shines but sister firm Toutiao hits regulatory wall


The stage is yours, you have 15 seconds

American artist Andy Warhol once said: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

On China’s social media fame can be even more fleeting.

We first wrote about the short video phenomenon in our Talking Point in WiC383, and Douyin has become the latest internet darling by providing a platform for users to showcase their talent in short videos which last no more than 15 seconds.

Its parent firm Bytedance also operates Toutiao, the popular news aggregator that is valued at $20 billion by private equity investors. Douyin may soon grow into another Chinese unicorn. In less than a year, the mobile app has racked up as many as 100 million users with more than one billion videos viewed every day. It is now China’s second-largest short-video app focused on user-generated content, trailing only Tencent-backed Kuaishou.

While Kuaishou’s simple interface attracts mostly men from less developed areas of the country, the core demographic for Douyin are young women from larger, richer cities who are drawn to its powerful editing tools, which make adding catchy music and special effects to videos easy.

Compared with Kuaishou, content on Douyin is generally more polished and smoothly crafted. Young users of Douyin are often seen performing coordinated dance moves and lip-syncing to music. Last year, videos that featured users transforming their appearance in a flash while lip-syncing to “Karma’s a bitch,” a line from US teen soap Riverdale, went especially viral.

“Douyin is a lot like Snapchat not only in terms of product and design features: both products are equally confusing for the middle-aged brain,” says Entertainment Capital, a blog. “Users under 24 years-old accounted for more than three quarters of Douyin’s user base. Meanwhile, female users accounted for nearly two-thirds. This explains why there are so many cute and good-looking girls on Douyin.”

Thanks to this coveted demographic, Douyin has become hugely appealing to advertisers. The app already sells ads in between video feeds, and users with large follower counts can make over Rmb100,000 ($16,000) for a promotional post, one of the highest among Chinese social media platforms.

More high-profile users – usually celebrities – with more than five million followers can command as much as Rmb1 million a post, says China Entrepreneur, a magazine.

But Douyin’s meteoric growth could soon hit a wall. Its sister company Toutiao has just been attacked by the country’s censors for publishing vulgar content on Neihan Duanzi, an app for sharing jokes and silly videos.

Last week, SAPPRFT, China’s top media regulator, ordered Bytedance to shut down Neihan Duanzi. Vulgar content on the app had “caused strong dislike among internet users,” according to a statement published by the regulator. As punishment, Bytedance’s flagship news app Jinri Toutiao (which means ‘today’s headlines’) has been suspended from app stores until the end of April (meaning that new users won’t be able to download it till next month).

“Intensely competing for attention, some streamers and video providers have resorted to provocative content while service operators indulge them due to clicks and advertisements,” Xinhua lambasted, also quoting a professor at Fudan University: “Cyberspace is not a lawless place, and every step taken online should comply with the law and social morality.”

The crackdown suggests that the country’s regulators are increasingly wary about the growing popularity of short video sites. With apps and internet platforms adding content at such a breakneck pace, the authorities are finding it hard to keep up.

Last week, Kuaishou was taken off app stores too after CCTV criticised the platform for featuring videos made by teenage mothers – some as young as 14 – who were championing themselves as the “youngest mom on the site”. During the news segment, the state-run broadcaster blamed the short video site for “normalising” teen pregnancy. In response, Kuaishou apologised on its weibo account and promised to increase the size of its content-monitoring team to 5,000 from 2,000. It has also announced plans to set up a research institute with Tsinghua University to improve its algorithm to automatically recognise emotive content so as to avoid offensive or violent material appearing.

Although Douyin was not named in the latest controversy, it has removed livestreaming and disabled the comment function on its platform, describing the moves as a “system upgrade”. It has also pledged to increase manpower in its content review department and post more positive material.

Critics reckon that the real reason for the heavy-handed crackdown is that the authorities did not want frivolous content online distracting the public from some key announcements made by China’s leadership.

“The government will do whatever it takes to remove [those things] that take people’s attention away from President Xi [Jinping],” a Beijing-based news editor told the South China Morning Post. “Neihan Duanzi was mainly based on user-generated content from the working classes, so one can imagine why it wouldn’t meet with the approval of middle-aged bureaucrats.”

According to consulting firm iResearch, China’s short video market (not including livestreaming) was worth about Rmb5.7 billion in 2017, up 184% from a year earlier. It reckons that the sector may exceed Rmb30 billion in revenues by 2020.

Kuaishou’s plan to go public in Hong Kong, where it is expected to seek a valuation as high as $18 billion, could now be derailed, warns Sohu Tech.

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