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Inside the company you’ve never heard of: Behind TikTok, Gen Z’s biggest app

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

Caitlin’s Masters cohort in ByteDance’s office in Shanghai. Photo by Caitlin Cassidy.

In August of last year, I stood in the lobby of a skyscaper amongst skyscrapers in Shanghai’s sweeping startup district with my Masters cohort, waiting for a representative to give us a tour of ByteDance’s office. Back then, I had never heard of ByteDance, nor its most successful global app - TikTok - which has more downloads than Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp, and had over 315 million downloads in the first quarter of 2020 alone. Very little of our time at Byte Dance was spent openly discussing what we were there to analyse - social media in China and the West, and how it is changing the way we operate, communicate, and organise. Though our professor tried to interrogate TikTok’s notoriously secretive algorithm, the representatives remained tight lipped.

Inside ByteDance HQ’s chill-out space. Photo by Caitlin Cassidy.

Instead, an over enthusiastic ByteDance employee hurried us out of the lobby into an elevator that spat us straight into a very ‘Google-esque’ chill-out space - fitted with Karaoke machines, foosball, a swathe of gaming consoles and table tennis.

“Our employees can come here whenever they like,” he beamed, signalling to the chill-out space and a nearby gym. Interesting then, I noted, that the floor was completely empty. After being given full reign of the chill-out space, we were then taken to an (also empty) rooftop - that boasted a breathtaking view of Shanghai’s skyline of high-rises. In a place like Shanghai, it can be difficult to tell where the city ends and urban areas begin.

Like many Silicon Valley counterparts, ByteDance was founded in 2012 in a ‘four bedroom apartment’ in China. Today, the company has products in over 150 markets and offices in 126 cities, with 60,000 employees worldwide. ByteDance measures everything by ‘milestones’ to highlight their rapid and continual growth. In its Shanghai office, these ‘milestones’ were displayed commandingly in the lobby, right upon entrance, spanning from 2012 to now.

Back in China, ByteDance is best known for its 2016 app Douyin, a short-form mobile video app that is basically the Chinese version of TikTok. But it also owns a swathe of other apps, including a social media platform in India, Helo, and, more recently, Lark and BaBe, Indonesian news and content apps.

Yiming Zhang, the founder and CEO of ByteDance, is no stranger to success.

He used to own Kuxun, a travel and transportation engine in China, which was later acquired by TripAdvisor, and was named one of the Time’s 100 most influential people of the year in 2019. But it was Tiktok’s merger with American company in 2018 that really catapulted ByteDance’s reach in the West, arguably the first Chinese app to successfully do so.

TikTok says its mission is to “inspire creativity and bring joy”.

When I look at what's trending on TikTok’s ‘For You’ page, I see an endless rabbit hole of innocuous videos; teenagers dancing, a lot of cats, a pigeon spinning on a tree to the tune of ‘you spin me right round,’ a man with a bouquet giving flowers to strangers. Wholesome content, right?

Well, maybe. TikTok is primarily used for viral dances and lip-syncs, comedic challenges and visual demonstrations of interesting or surprising content, like makeup tutorials or big ‘reveals’. But, as often happens with social media sites, what began as an entertainment app has evolved into something deeper with time.

Now, activists, often young people, have taken the affordances of the app to spread political messages.

19-year-old Canadian Aleysha downloaded TikTok in 2018, the day joined with ByteDance. She downloaded it for “the memes” and rarely posted, except for the occasional funny video. But then she noticed a growing amount of educational and political content amongst Gen Z users, and started to join them.

“Generation Z has had a lot to do with these movements in the past month,” she told me.

Pasta express (@pastaboii) has created a short video on TikTok with music Vibe (If I Back It Up). be careful we don't want to accidentally get all the tickets and have an empty rally :( #greenscreen #fyp #rodrick #dojacat

“Other generations often describe us as ‘fearless’. We have a huge responsibility to help shape the world and the future generations.”

Aleysha was one of the Gen Z’s who posted a sarcastic TikTok about buying tickets to Trump’s rally, which ended up going viral.

“My video quickly blew up, I think within three days I surpassed 100 thousand likes and thousands of people were commenting about how they got tickets and can’t show up,” she said.

“The K-Pop stans came in my comments to let me know they were spreading the word to their fan base and we all worked together to inconvenience him. That was really all I wanted, to embarrass and inconvenience Trump and I am ecstatic to say it worked.”

After posting the video, Aleysha has been hounded with threats from Trump supporters, telling her they’re going to find where she lives and where she goes to school.

“I had one lady find my Facebook and comment on my only two public posts that she will find my address and burn my house down,” she told me.

Despite this, Aleysha remains ‘fearless,’ and is continuing to post on TikTok alongside her peers.

RMIT Associate Professor Haiqing Yu told me TikTok has “made headways” with the younger generation, with the majority of its user base between 12 and 35. But despite this, in her research, she found very few users are aware TikTok is made in China, and have never considered censorship when using the platform.

And some academics, like Penny Andrews, have argued there is a danger to ‘vigilante fandom’ on platforms like TikTok, which can also be harnessed to spread misinformation and conspiracy theories.

TikTok is not without notoriety. It has come under fire for its ties to the Chinese Communist Party and questionable suppression tactics on the platform, including squashing BIPOC creators and videos.

In March of this year, the Intercept found TikTok instructed moderators to suppress posts created by users deemed to be ugly, poor or disabled according to internal documents. It also found moderators were told to censor certain political speech in TikTok live streams that may be defamatory towards the Chinese government. Perhaps confirming this, some TikTok users have even gushed about China on the app in a tactic to boost their views.

The Intercept argued TikTok was having to navigate using the same tools from Silicon Valley startups in the West whilst also dealing with heavy-handed censorship in Beijing - particularly prevalent on apps like Weibo and Douyin.

Leaked documents released by the Guardian late last year also confirmed this. The documents suggested TikTok’s site guidelines instruct moderators to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong, a strong suggestion the advancement of Chinese foreign policy aims are upheld by ByteDance and the app.

But Haiqing Yu told me TikTok had “never been designed for the Chinese market,” and used a “totally different strategy” from other Chinese platforms. She labelled TikTok a “completely different cultural product,” to heavily censored apps like ByteDance’s Douyin. Instead, she said TikTok used non-Chinese business models and “localisation strategies” to target the global market, now available in 75 languages worldwide.

ByteDance said the leaked documents don’t reference specific countries or issues, suggesting they may not apply to nations outside of China, and that the policy was retired in May of last year.

“Today we take localised approaches, including local moderators, local content and moderation policies, local refinement of global policies, and more,” it told the Guardian.

This past week, TikTok finally opened up about the algorithm behind its coveted ‘For You’ page - the main scrolling page that pops up on your home screen when using the app - in a blog post. Wired reported the blog post was part of a “wider transparency push” in response to company backlash from the West.

Supposedly, the algorithm is powered by a “recommendation system that delivers content to each user that is likely to be of interest to that particular user,” in a way similar to Facebook or YouTube, while also acknowledging the problem of filter bubbles.

This backpedal comes alongside a host of ‘for good’ campaigns launched on TikTok, like #edutok, #petbff, which celebrated International Homeless Animals Day, #forclimate, #MyEarthHour and #DanceforChange.

ByteDance even engaged in COVID philanthropy, donating $250 million worldwide to frontline and community relief efforts, including a $2 million donation to the Doherty Institute for COVID research. In doing so, ByteDance joined a horde of big Chinese companies donating money globally, perhaps tactically, to fight the pandemic.

Whatever the reasoning behind the recent efforts, one thing is clear. TikTok is here to stay. And ByteDance’s reach is only going to grow.


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