Douyin and TikTok are unquestionably Bytedance’s biggest successes. As of July 2018, the two short-video apps have attracted more than 500 million monthly active users (MAU), one-third of the 1.5 billion total MAU across all platforms that the company announced in July.

The two apps are often referred to as versions of one another—Douyin is the domestic Chinese version and TikTok, the global—and they are managed by the same person. According to the company’s latest leadership shuffle in June, the team managing both TikTok and Douyin is now led by Zhu Jun, the co-founder of TikTok’s Shanghai-based predecessor Musical.ly.

Despite Bytedance’s efforts to convince people that TikTok and Douyin are the same product, they are actually two separate apps. The two share the same logo, layout, and even some stickers and filters, but they are strictly segregated in accounts and content. This means it’s impossible for a TikTok user to log in to the Douyin app using their TikTok credentials, and vice versa.

Both apps allow users to swipe down to skip the current video and be fed another one recommended by the algorithm. And you can choose from a list of options by long-pressing the screen to tell the app that you don’t like the video—an action that will also feed the algorithm.

The algorithm-driven method was first adopted by Bytedance’s news aggregator app Jinri Toutiao, a big contributor to the company’s early success.

In focus / ByteDance #13

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TechNode’s ByteDance newsletter, one of the first in-depth looks in English at the now-giant upstart startup, was published from March 13 to Oct. 23, 2019.

Content: Distribution is not always entirely dependent on algorithms, at least in regards to the Douyin app. Douyin has promoted a fair amount of content produced by state-run media and government agencies for propaganda purposes. This content features recent news or stories with “positive energy,” a phrase that describes topics that align with government policies.

In recent weeks, these “positive energy” short videos have focused on stories that discredit the protesters engaging in pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.

Conversely, on the TikTok platform, recommended content featuring news or politics-related is minimal. Everything in the app is designed to be fun. A commentary published in the New York Times said that TikTok might be “the only truly pleasant social network in existence.”

Advertising: Bytedance has started monetizing Douyin by using online ads, while TikTok remains ad-free.

On Douyin’s “Recommended” feed, a short-video ad appears after every 5-10 videos. These ads are labeled as sponsored content and contain a link to their offerings.

While TikTok currently features no ads, the app has left the possibility open in its privacy policy, which states that the app uses cookies and other technologies to collect information from users and to provide them with “targeted advertising.”

Content segregation: Bytedance’s account segregation ofTikTok and Douyin differs from the way that tech titan Tencent has constructed the domestic and international versions of its mega messaging app Weixin (known as WeChat abroad). Weixin and WeChat share the same account system and can communicate with each other. Of course, there are limits to the shared functionality. For example, international WeChat users cannot use the Wallet mobile payment function, and Chinese Weixin users don’t have “WeChat Out,” a VOIP service which allows users to call mobile phones and landlines around the world.

By comparison, TikTok and Douyin users exist in different worlds, meaning that content cannot be accessed across platforms. For example, one of TikTok’s most popular accounts is Jacob Sartorius, an American singer who has 20.9 million followers on the platform. However, the “Jacob Sartorius” found on Douyin is an “unofficial” account with 36 followers.

Regulation compliance: Separating users and content in order to comply with China’s strict internet controls has been a tricky problem for internet service providers that operate both in China and abroad. WeChat uses a system that blocks any politically sensitive messages that are sent via the app. LinkedIn, the business social network that has some 41 million users in China, also blocks content that authorities consider politically sensitive.

The short-video sector, however, is subject to special scrutiny from China’s internet watchdogs. In January, the China Netcasting Services Association—an industry group under the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television—issued a list of rules for short-video platforms, requiring them to set up review teams with a “strong political sense.”

The rules also require short-video platforms to adhere to several other measures to ensure compliance with government controls, including actively promoting accounts belonging to “mainstream” news outlets, government agencies, military agencies, and affiliates of the Communist Party of China; promoting “positive energy” content; and vetting all videos before they are published.

Under pressure from authorities, Bytedance has taken it a step further by completely segregating the TikTok and Douyin platforms, freeing the company from any potential breach of China’s internet controls while providing its international users with a relatively censorship-free platform.

Wei Sheng

Wei Sheng is a Beijing-based reporter covering hardware, smartphone, and telecommunications, along with regulations and policies related to the China tech scene. He writes a monthly newsletter tracking...

Tony Xu

Tony Xu is Shanghai-based tech reporter. Connect with him via e-mail: tony.xu@technode.com