Teenagers are gaga for TikTok. That's why Silicon Valley is so worried about it.
TikTok, which is run by a seven-year-old company in Beijing called ByteDance, allows people to create short, snappy videos and share them around the world. That simple concept has fuelled its rise to quickly become one of the world's largest social networks and mount the most direct incursion yet by a Chinese company into Silicon Valley's turf.
Now US internet companies are pushing back. Through knockoffs, potential acquisitions and not-so-subtle references to Chinese censorship, TikTok's competitors have been trying to protect their home turf from the service's advancement. They haven't had much luck so far.
Over the past 12 months, TikTok's app has been downloaded more than 750 million times, compared with 715 million for Facebook, 450 million for Instagram, 300 million for YouTube and 275 million for Snapchat, according to the research firm Sensor Tower.
But TikTok's US competitors could still get some help from their government. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a federal panel that reviews foreign acquisitions of US firms, is now reviewing ByteDance's two-year-old acquisition of Musical.ly, the US company that became TikTok, The New York Times and Reuters reported Friday. Members of Congress had asked for a review last month.
A government intervention would probably be welcome news to TikTok's competitors, who have been working from their usual crush-the-upstart playbook.
Late last year, Facebook launched a TikTok clone called Lasso. That app has been downloaded fewer than 500,000 times, mostly in Mexico, according to Sensor Tower. While many videos in TikTok's endless feed of 15- to 60-second clips have hundreds of thousands of "likes," the videos in Lasso's nearly identical feed typically have a few dozen.
At YouTube, executives are also considering ways to imitate TikTok, including adding similar video-editing software within the YouTube app, according to a person familiar with the conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the plans are private.
Google, which owns YouTube, also held acquisition talks with Firework, a TikTok imitator that is aiming for older users, according to three people close to the talks who requested anonymity because the negotiations were confidential. One of those people said Google decided against acquiring Firework.
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Firework, which has less than 3 million downloads, has also received interest from Baidu, China's biggest search engine company, and Weibo, which runs the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, according to two people close to the talks. The Wall Street Journal first reported Google's and Weibo's interest in Firework.
"They see that TikTok right now is having a moment, and they have natural concern when any other app gains share in attention," Eugene Wei, a longtime tech and media executive who now tracks the industries, said of the big tech companies. "And we haven't seen another consumer app make that much headway in attention market share in recent history."
At Snap, which some analysts believe is most threatened by TikTok's rise because both target young people, the chief executive, Evan Spiegel, has argued that the companies don't compete.
TikTok largely gives people entertainment from strangers while Snapchat connects friends, he said. When asked by an analyst during an earnings call last month whether TikTok is a "friend or foe," he responded that TikTok advertises on Snapchat and has also built services for the app. "I think at a high level, looking at TikTok, we definitely consider them a friend," he said.
In April, Snap began listing TikTok as a competitor in its regulatory filings.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive, told employees in July that TikTok "is really the first consumer internet product built by one of the Chinese tech giants that is doing quite well around the world," according to a transcript of the meeting published by The Verge.
He noted that it was popular with young Americans and had surpassed Instagram in India. "It's a very interesting phenomenon," he said. "So we have a number of approaches that we're going to take towards this."
Lasso isn't Facebook's only hedge against TikTok. In September, an app researcher in Hong Kong named Jane Manchun Wong noticed some computer code in Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, that revealed the app was testing a feature called Clips. The feature allows users to edit videos much like TikTok, splicing clips together and adding music.
Copying fast-growing upstarts has been a successful playbook for Facebook. Instagram's popular "Stories" feature, which lets users post short, ephemeral videos, closely resembles Snapchat's main function.
Zuckerberg suggested those short "Stories" videos are a way Facebook can compete. In response to a question about Facebook's "plan of attack" against TikTok, Zuckerberg told employees in the July meeting that Facebook was making Stories an even more central part of Instagram.
And last month, Zuckerberg seized on TikTok's Chinese roots to criticise it publicly. In a speech at Georgetown University in which he promoted Facebook as a U.S. company eager to protect free speech, he said, "China is building its own internet focused on very different values and is now exporting their vision of the internet to other countries."
As evidence, he cited reports that there were few signs of the Hong Kong protests on TikTok.
"While our services, like WhatsApp, are used by protesters and activists everywhere due to strong encryption and privacy protections, on TikTok, the Chinese app growing quickly around the world, mentions of these protests are censored, even in the US," he said. "Is that the internet we want?"
Josh Gartner, a ByteDance spokesman, said that the Chinese government does not request that TikTok censor content and that the app's content policies are led by a team in the United States and are not influenced by any government.
"We have said clearly that these accusations are false," he said in a statement. "This is an unfortunate attempt by Mark Zuckerberg to redirect scrutiny onto a competitor that he's failed to copy."
Tiktok's has faced earlier scrutiny. In February, ByteDance agreed to pay a US$5.7 million ($8.9 million) fine to the Federal Trade Commission to settle allegations that Musical.ly illegally collected information on users under the age of 13.
While they plot to take on TikTok, tech executives have also tried to play down the threat. Zuckerberg told employees in July that Facebook research shows TikTok is spending a lot to acquire users, who then don't stick around for long.
Independent estimates suggest TikTok does retain fewer users than rivals. In June, about 26 per cent of new TikTok users were still using the app a week later, according to estimates from App Annie, an app data firm. Facebook's retention rate was 45 per cent, Instagram's was 44 per cent and Snapchat's 32 per cent. By September, TikTok's rate had risen to 39 per cent.
"It is growing, but they're spending a huge amount of money promoting it. What we've found is that their retention is actually not that strong after they stop advertising," Zuckerberg said. "So the space is still fairly nascent, and there's time for us to kind of figure out what we want to do."
Written by: Jack Nicas
Photographs by: Jenice Kim
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES