But these troubles shouldn’t distract from what the app, and by extension its operator, ByteDance, has accomplished since it debuted back in 2016. At a time when many American tech giants had soured on user-generated content (UGC) — Twitter shuttered its own short-video service, Vine, in 2017 — ByteDance leveraged its highly addictive algorithm to become one of the first Chinese tech firms with a truly global reach. Within China, where TikTok is known as Douyin, revenues from short videos are projected to reach $30 billion by 2021, and ByteDance’s success has kicked off what Chinese investors call a “wind tunnel” of investment.
How did short video get so big in China? I might be biased, but as a researcher of media history, I like to find answers in the past. The internet has a way of distorting memories of our contemporary cultural life. Although the country’s internet infrastructure developed mostly over the last two decades, what happened in the early 2000s already feels like ancient history. Yet I often find that today’s success stories have their roots in the not-so-distant past — the founder of a livestreaming website who first attempted to incorporate livestreaming into his newly established video-sharing business in the mid-2000s; the online video star who started making flash animations in the internet’s early days. Sometimes the technologies, business models, or user practices that didn’t thrive at the time but were later rediscovered tell us most about how an industry emerges.
China’s first major video-sharing site, Tudou, went online in 2005, just months after YouTube. Tudou, along with competitor Youku and other similar sites, benefitted from the Web 2.0 investment mania of the mid-2000s by promising users the ability to upload and share videos of varying lengths, from short to long.
The advantages of a UGC-dominated ecosystem were not always immediately apparent, however. In 2008, as China’s video-sharing websites were struggling to monetize the vast traffic brought by user content, Tudou founder Gary Wang scornfully dismissed UGC as “industrial waste.” Part of the problem was how difficult sites found it to moderate this content — a must in a tightly regulated media environment like China — and screen for copyrighted material. One of the industry leaders at the time, 56.com, innovated an instant online recording and publication business that closely resembles today’s livestreaming, but the site couldn’t commercialize it due to the immense challenges posed by moderation.
These problems were compounded by the tremendous pressure streaming placed on service providers’ bandwidth. All while advertisers, wary of copyright infringements, kept their distance.
Ultimately, China’s video-streaming industry moved away from the reliance on UGC, which continues to characterize a site like YouTube, in favor of their own professionally produced intellectual property. Early market leaders Youku and Tudou were also among the first to make the switch, before eventually merging in March 2012 to survive increasingly stiff competition. New market entrants like Tencent Video and iQiyi also opted for the professional content model. Backed by internet giants, they quickly came to dominate the market. These video giants still made attempts to foster user content, largely in order to distinguish themselves and their products from their competitors and thus make their websites stickier to users, but it wasn’t a priority.
Still, UGC never faded away. The kind of vernacular creativity embodied by the UGC creators of the mid-2000s descended from a piracy-friendly culture and widespread consumption of pirated content by young Chinese, which in turn can be traced back to the longer history of what’s known in China as “unofficial culture.” Since the late 1970s, this cultural sphere has enjoyed a relatively independent and uninterrupted path of development parallel to the country’s official culture, whether through tabloids, popular fiction, clapper tales, or any other kind of popular culture that resurged at the beginning of the “reform and opening-up” period.
Indeed, China’s creative community has continuously adapted itself to the challenges as well as opportunities opened up by new technologies. Even when the video industry downplayed the importance of UGC, creators managed to utilize the remaining limited openings provided by video websites to continue distributing their work. The community has also been evolving with the influx of a new generation of creators. The resilience of user content is what laid the foundation of short-video platforms’ rise.
Meanwhile, the challenges that once hampered UGC’s development in China have now largely been solved. Armed by a perceptive image recognition system and an algorithm-driven monitoring system, leading short-video platforms can effectively moderate content within seconds. And the nature of short videos generally precludes the possibility of infringement against established — and litigious — copyright holders, thereby exempting the platforms from potential liabilities. The rapid expansion of mobile broadband coverage has also helped.
In short, when Gary Wang wrote off UGC as garbage, he probably didn’t envision how soon trash would become treasure. Yet I wonder whether all this newfound enthusiasm toward user content is truly a blessing to creators. Today’s internet ecology is drastically different from that of a decade ago. Cutthroat commercialism, an increasingly competitive and exploitative environment in which only the top creators can succeed, and the growing domination of algorithms are all putting pressure on creators and their creativity. TikTok may be fighting for its life; I hope the same isn’t true for UGC itself.
Editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A man checks his Douyin account in Qingdao, Shandong province, June 28, 2019. People Visual)