China’s king of Internet fluff wants to conquer the world

BEIJING—A Chinese Internet company that serves up homemade break-dancing videos, dishy news bites and goofy hashtag challenges has become one of the planet’s most richly valued start-ups, with a roughly $75-billion price tag. And it has big plans for storming phone screens across the rest of the globe, too.

You may not have heard of the company, Bytedance. You may never have used any of its breezy, colorful apps. But your nearest teenager is probably already obsessed with Musical.ly, the video-sharing platform that Bytedance bought for around $1 billion last year and folded into its own video service, TikTok.

“Frankly, it’s meaningless stuff,” said Dong Yaxin, 20, a college student in Beijing who says he is active every day on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. Bytedance says that more than half a billion people worldwide use Douyin or TikTok at least once a month.

Cute pet videos. Lip-syncing to pop ear worms. Glossy digital effects.

“There isn’t such a strong sense of purpose on Douyin,” Dong said. “That’s actually what’s so good about it.” But even for a purveyor of fluff, crossing the tech world’s most treacherous divide will not be carefree. There are two major Internets right now: China’s and the rest of the world’s. Beijing’s tough rules on content and operations have long made China difficult, even impossible, terrain for US Internet companies.

Those rules have also largely penned in homegrown titans like Tencent, whose overseas expansion plans have been hamstrung by the unique demands of catering to China’s online population.

So far, Bytedance—which recently secured $3 billion in new funding from SoftBank and other heavyweight investors—has found a rare measure of success in both Internets by doing things a little differently.

For one, it is making no pretense to be bridging the two digital realms.

Users of Douyin are entirely walled off from users of TikTok and vice versa; the better to manage the material that people in China can see. Beijing’s tightening controls have made these decidedly un-fun times to be in the business of fun.

Video game companies, celebrity gossip bloggers and livestreaming stars have all been through the wringer recently as the government works harder to stamp out cultural content that it deems unhealthy or unwholesome. The crackdown has not spared Bytedance—authorities ordered the company’s joke-sharing app offline in April this year.

The company has also crossed borders with relative ease by focusing on light, affirming fare and on attracting young—very young—users. But the Chinese Communist Party is not alone in having discovered a sordid side to Bytedance’s platforms.

Both before the company bought Musical.ly and since, horrified parents and others have reported finding adolescent users showing off suggestive dance moves on the app, mouthing lyrics about rough sex and worse. Police in Britain have investigated reports of adults propositioning children through Musical.ly.

 

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