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China technology

Video app Douyin brings Chinese out of their shells, beats YouTube, Facebook in download charts

Developed by Beijing-based tech firm, latest mobile must-have tops App Store’s global ranking for non-gaming apps

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2018, 7:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 May, 2018, 11:07am

Chinese are often known for being shy and reserved, but when using a 19-month-old China-developed app for people to produce and share 15-second videos with background audio and special effects, everybody turns into a genius performer with a good sense of humour.

The short-form video app Douyin, named Tik Tok outside China, has helped to reveal some of Chinese people’s lesser-known characteristics as it has become the latest mobile internet fad domestically and abroad, hitting the top of the Apple App Store’s global non-game download chart for the first quarter of 2018.

Internationally it was downloaded 45.8 million times between January and March, leaving better-known apps such as Instagram and Facebook well behind, according to app intelligence firm Sensor Tower. YouTube ranked second in the period, with 35.3 million downloads, and WhatsApp third with 33.8 million.

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Developed and launched by Beijing-based tech company ByteDance, which also owns news platform Toutiao, Douyin has grown to about 154 million monthly active users. China’s Asian neighbours, including Thailand, Japan, Indonesia and Vietnam, accounted for the bulk of international downloads.

At home, the app has shone a spotlight not only on the country’s people but also places, such as Xian and Chongqing, with videos filmed in the cities attaining great popularity.

On the negative side, people have been copying some of the antics seen on the platform and getting into trouble or hurting others.

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Despite criticism of its lowbrow content, the app has stimulated Chinese people’s desire to act, users and experts have said, by teaching them how to entertain with easy tools.

“The videos are funny, and some are just beyond my imagination, so I’ve often found myself still watching it more than an hour after I opened the app,” said Hao Jingyi, a 19-year-old college student in Shanghai.

“And another important thing is that I can see many pretty boys and girls there,” she said.

According to consulting firm BigData-Research, Douyin had the most active users among China’s booming short video sector during the first three months of the year, with each user opening the app 4.7 times a day on average.

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Targeted at people in their twenties and younger, typical videos feature users, often good-looking, singing or dancing comically to a piece of music or dubbing funny lines of a famous film.

In one popular clip, made on the street, a man approaches a woman and says: “I want to give you something. Do you want it?” When the woman holds out a hand, he takes it and says: “Me – what do you think?”

But in Zhejiang province earlier this month, two men received 15-day detentions for a fight that ensued after they imitated the video on Douyin by trying to flirt with a woman who was dining with another man beside them, reported.

In an earlier case, in March, a Wuhan father caused his two-year-old daughter to injure her spine by copying a stunt he saw in a Douyin video in which a girl was flipped into a backward somersault.

Lu Peng, a researcher specialising in communication at Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said the platform has a responsibility to supervise its content.

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Douyin was recently ordered to delete hundreds of videos that involved selling counterfeit commodities, after Chinese authorities last month launched a crackdown on short-form video apps for featuring content that was illegal or deemed morally questionable.

“Most of the stuff only shows what is popular among those born after 1995,” Lu said. “They are mostly eye-catching but without much intrinsic value.

“It emphasises what is entertaining, although as a commercial media platform this is an inevitable choice.”

Although the content is not as extreme as that on its rival Kuaishou, what is shown on Douyin is “limited” and “shallow”, Lu said.

In response to rising concerns over its addictive nature, Douyin last month added two new functions. If someone uses the app for 90 minutes non-stop, a reminder will pop up, and if they use it for two hours in total within the same day, the app will be locked and require a preset password to unlock it.

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A healthier effect of the app, according to Chen Jing, research and development director of Shenzhen-based artificial intelligence company Asia Vision Technology, is that it encourages people to make original videos and show off their talents.

“Not everybody has the gift to act,” he said, “but this app lowers the threshold in performing, giving everyone the possibility of being humorous and seen by others.

“The length is also very important in its success – 15 seconds is short enough to keep people’s attention until the end, yet long enough to make a point.”

The app may have contributed to Xian and Chongqing becoming web “hotspots”, with many popular clips made in famous locations in those cities.

Over the recent May Day holiday, the southwestern municipality of Chongqing’s tourism revenue rose by 30 per cent compared with the same period last year. Tourists flocked to places such as Hongyadong, a commercial area which used to be little-known but frequently appears in Douyin clips.

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Chongqing had always been an attractive place for spicy food lover He Bin, because of its famous hot pots.

But it was watching Douyin clips that persuaded the 36-year-old from Zhejiang province to finally visit the city this month.

“I have always been interested in Chongqing’s cuisine,” He said, “but after watching particular scenes on Douyin, it’s more attractive to me. So I made the trip.”

As for dismissals of the app as bring reliant on meaningless jokes, He said this was part of its appeal.

His 10-year-old daughter and 66-year-old mother love the app too, He said, adding: “I can always find what I like, such as the fascinating jokes about food and exercises.

“It’s really fun and relaxing watching the videos when I’m tired or bored.”