- China has built an Internet parallel to our Internet with copy applications for YouTube and Twitter. However, as Chinese apps like TikTok become mainstream, companies in Silicon Valley are now looking to China for new ideas.
- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has spoken of the risks of Chinese apps going mainstream, but now he’s taking a page out of the Chinese book and stealing their ideas.
- The cheaper, carbon copy, and cheaper counterfeit mentality that characterized the Chinese industry and spurred its early social media development has arrived in the West – and it looks a lot like Facebook.
- Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance journalist and author of “YouTubers: How YouTube Rocked Television and Created a New Generation of Stars” and the upcoming book “TikTok Boom: China, the United States, and the Superpower Race for social media”.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit the Business Insider homepage for more stories.
If you manage to squeeze behind the “ great firewall ” that surrounds the internet in China, you are faced with an eerily familiar environment. The Chinese Internet appears to be similar – if not more developed – than the rest of the world. But there are a few key differences.
You won’t find YouTube – at least not officially, although virtual private networks (VPNs) allow people in China to access it – but you will find a slew of local competitors that look horribly like the biggest video-sharing site in the world. world. You won’t find Twitter, but you will find Weibo, which looks alike.
A parallel internet was generated from China’s unique social and political demands, but it raised key concepts and stole ideas from the early social media giants of Silicon Valley.
It is not just the applications and services that have been the subject of outright copying; Since Western companies relocated their production lines to China in the 1980s and 1990s, China has become the place to buy counterfeit items. It is estimated that 80% of all counterfeit products in the world originate from China. Now, in the 2020s, the tide has turned. In the tech world at least, we are copying China.
The times have changed
Today we are witnessing the rise of the first generation of apps developed outside of Silicon Valley to truly become mainstream, led by TikTok – which traces its genesis in two different apps, Musical.ly (a American company run by Chinese leaders) and Douyin (who has been firmly anchored in the “Great Firewall” since its founding). This change worries the old guard of Silicon Valley techies – and hawkish politicians concerned about the geopolitical implications of ceding control of the Internet to China.
Mark Zuckerberg is the leader of them. The internal meeting tapes made public in October 2019 indicate that he is far too aware of the risks his business suite faces for newcomers from Asia.
“One of the things that’s particularly noteworthy about TikTok is that, for a while, the Internet landscape was sort of a group of Internet companies that were mostly American companies,” Zuckerberg told his employees. “And then there was this parallel universe of Chinese companies that basically only offered their services in China. TikTok, which is built by this Beijing ByteDance company, is truly the first consumer internet product built by one of China’s tech giants. is doing quite well in the world. “
Zuckerberg called it an “interesting phenomenon”. And to top it off, he decided to remove a page from Chinese books, shamelessly singing about the most popular products produced by Facebook’s competitors and passing them off as his own.
Facebook mimicry is increasing
This is not something new, of course. In antitrust hearings held in late 2020, emails among Instagram’s co-founders revealed that they felt that if they didn’t sell to Zuckerberg, his company would simply copy their idea anyway – this which they called a “mode of destruction”. In the same hearings, Zuckerberg was forced to admit that Facebook “certainly had suitable features that others introduced”.
But Facebook mimicry is more and more common – and beside it, more blatant. Earlier this year, he posted Reels, his Instagram Bolt-on that looked a lot like TikTok. It was Facebook’s second attempt in the past 12 months to oust TikTok, which has extensively rewritten the standards for social media and abbreviated online videos. A previous attempt, called Lasso, was shut down in July 2020, after barely making a mark on the world.
To avoid the popularity of platforms like Cameo, which allow celebrities to sell access to their personal lives by providing short video clips in exchange for fan money, Facebook has started developing Super, which many shares. of the same functionality.
News of Super’s existence was confirmed by a Facebook spokesperson just before Christmas. And around the same time, Facebook’s CTO unveiled TLDR, an AI assistive tool designed to summarize articles in more condensed formats. It has more than a fleeting resemblance to a number of apps, including Summly, a startup started in the early 2010s by a British teenager named Nick D’Aloisio.
In pursuit of the superapp
The creeping of features and outright copying of ideas isn’t just Facebook’s job. As previously reported, the viral spread of impermanent content from Snapchat to Twitter, via Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube, demonstrates that unique features are increasingly scarce. Each application seeks to become the same. But few do it as openly as Facebook.
Part of it is because of their power: they want to become a superapp, a one-stop-shop for users to stay in the Facebook ecosystem. But it’s also because this position at the top of the social media pyramid allows them to be more blatant in the selection of competitors and to decide to broadly lift the main selling points of their opponents, if they refuse to ‘accept the money from Facebook for a buyout.
Still, it’s hypocritical of Facebook – and Zuckerberg – to do so, especially given how they seem to have sparked opposition to the rise of apps like TikTok earlier this year. Part of the reason the incumbent US President pursued a vendetta against TikTok in court – a vendetta he seems likely to waste or run out of time before being replaced by President-elect Joe Biden – was because of the alarm raised by people like Zuckerberg. Politicians, Zuckerberg told an audience at Georgetown University in October 2019, must decide “what values of the nation are going to determine what speech will be allowed for decades to come.”
Zuckerberg was pointedly talking about issues of censorship and surveillance – areas where China is failing and which should not be replicated elsewhere. Speaking about the rise of China-based applications and services around the world, he asked the audience, “Is this the Internet we want?”
What he didn’t realize was that in a way we already have a Chinese internet – and that’s because of him. The cheaper, carbon copy, and cheaper counterfeit mentality that characterized the Chinese industry and spurred its early social media development has arrived in the West – and it looks a lot like Facebook.