Internet & Tech

Digital silk road

After WeChat’s setback, Bytedance and Bigo are making inroads in India


TikTok takes Holi festival online

Soon after clocking off work as a kitchen hand in Delhi, 20 year-old Chote Paswan grabs his mobile phone and starts to broadcast social media updates to friends and family back home in his village in eastern India.

But his go-to apps are not Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram or Twitter. Instead, he and hundreds of millions of other Indians are turning to Chinese social media platforms such as Bytedance’s TikTok and Helo, and Bigo Inc’s Like and Bigo Live. These apps are becoming increasingly popular in India, especially among non-English speakers like Paswan, and now threaten to erode the American social media giants’ share of the world’s biggest untapped technology market.

Chinese social media apps were downloaded more than 950 million times in India last year, three times as many as in 2017, the Wall Street Journal cited mobile-data firm Sensor Tower as calculating.

Paswan, who is from the eastern state of Bihar, says one of his favourite apps is TikTok, which allows users to create and share short videos that can be set to music and enhanced with filters and other special effects (see WiC437).

“It’s easy to use,” he says, tapping on the cracked screen of his secondhand phone (made by Oppo, another Chinese company making inroads in India). “And it’s a good way to meet new people.”

A recent video clip he posted shows him, through changing colour filters, turning slowly on a rooftop in a rundown Delhi neighborhood, miming the lyrics to a song by the Indian rap star Yo Yo Honey Singh.

The posting is typical for these Chinese apps, whose appeal lies largely in their relatively simple interface and their emphasis on short, sometimes racy videos, but also in more culturally specific features, industry experts say.

For Paswan, another big attraction of TikTok is that he can use it to send specialised greetings for festivals such as Holi, which marked the start of spring for Hindus on March 20.

Hindus in many parts of India mark Holi by throwing brightly coloured powder at each other and TikTok encouraged users to send their contacts a greetings “banner” accompanied by an animated puff of colour.

TikTok now has about 250 million users in India – not far off the number who use Facebook in the subcontinent – according to Sensor Tower. Its parent Bytedance, which runs the popular apps Toutiao and Douyin in its home market, is paying particular attention to local language speakers in smaller cities who are new to the internet and who access it almost exclusively on smartphones.

Last year, Bytedance launched a new app just for India called Helo, which allows users to choose from 14 Indian languages, but not English, and then offers them a simple, continuously scrolling feed of viral video clips and images, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Since launching in June, Helo has racked up more than 60 million downloads, and boasts 25 million monthly users, putting it almost on a par with Twitter in India.

Bigo Inc, the Chinese company that developed the Like app and the video-streaming app Bigo Live, does not disclose how many Indian users it has, but said in February it would invest $100 million, and hire 1,000 staff to expand its business there. Bigo was founded in 2016 by David Xueling Li, chairman of Chinese livestreaming company (see WiC175).

Factor Daily, an Indian technology news site that has documented the Chinese apps’ popularity in India, contrasted their success with the failure of Tencent’s WeChat, the dominant social media platform in China.

Tencent spent lavishly on marketing when it launched WeChat in India in 2012, enlisting Bollywood stars as brand ambassadors, but after a promising start, its growth tanked. By 2015 its team in India had been wound up, according to Factor Daily.





Keeping track, Apr 12, 2019: We reported in WiC448 on the success of Chinese social media apps in India. However, a setback followed for Bytedance as an Indian court last week ordered Apple and Google to pull its popular TikTok app from their stores – a move designed to prevent new downloads. The concern was that pornographic content was finding its way onto the short-video app with one government minister in Tamil Nadu wanting a full ban on the grounds that it encouraged teens to participate in “cultural degradation”. A TikTok representative told The Verge that it was hiring a ‘chief nodal officer’ to protect users against misuse and “better coordinate with law enforcement agencies” in India. On Wednesday the Madras High Court then reversed its April 3 decision and lifted the ban on assurances that safety would be improved. TikTok says it has 120 million monthly active users in India.

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