We have covered Chinese Internet success stories rather diligently here on ChinaFund.com, anything from referring to the (in)famous Chinese BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent) to explaining why domestic Internet companies are beneficiaries of China’s oftentimes controversial (from a human rights or let’s say freedom perspective, if you will) legislative action.
For the most part, the average Western observer understood that Chinese Internet companies are here to stay for various reasons but always assumed that success stories are pretty much exclusively local. In other words, Chinese Internet users use Baidu to search, whereas everyone else… well, doesn’t. The same way, Chinese Internet users pay via WeChat and Alipay, whereas Western Internet user… not so much. The list could go on and on.
However, that is just no longer the case.
Just like with many other industries, trends that start out as purely domestic success stories end up expanding. For example, while pretty much nobody from the proverbial West had a Chinese phone let’s say ten years ago, that is no longer the case thanks to companies like Huawei (leaving controversial elements aside, since they do not pertain to our discussion). The same way, while the idea of B2C Chinese success stories would have seemed far-fetched two decades ago (yes, Western markets were flooded with Chinese products but for the most part, Western consumers purchased from Western companies that imported them rather than buying directly from the Chinese business), that is no longer the case, with quite a few Westerners choosing to save money by making purchases directly from Chinese merchants through platforms like AliExpress.
The exact same principle is valid when it comes to social media.
Perhaps the most popular recent success story is represented by the TikTok platform, a social media project that has gained tremendous traction among children and very young people, with even Western social media experts such as Gary Vaynerchuk climbing on board the proverbial train and establishing a long-term presence there.
A few years ago, such scenarios would have been perceived as nothing short of preposterous… yet here we are.
For quite a few reasons such as:
- There being a lot of money on the table in China, money which is finally finding its way to social media projects, with “unicorns” as they tend to be called in the Western world becoming a common presence in China as well. Make no mistake, it takes impressive amounts of money to ensure that a social media platform gains critical mass and at this point in time and beyond, China is able to provide just that
- Believe it or not… less censorship in some cases. Obviously, we are not referring to political topics that China frowns upon, let us not even go there. However, let’s just say Chinese social media platforms are more willing than their Western counterparts to tolerate content that is more “politically incorrect” and for this reason, various content creators who are considered too “edgy” by Western standards are able to carve a niche of their own through platforms such as TikTok
- A “saturation” with respect to Western social media platforms. While it is hard to put ones finger on the exact pulse of this topic, any social media expert worth his salt can confirm that social media consumers want something new. Not necessarily new in terms of how edgy the content is, as explained with #2, but rather new as in “fresh” for lack of a better term. It just so happens that non-Western platforms are in some cases able to find the right balance between being easy enough to use to satisfy Western consumers and different enough to represent an appealing alternative
However, there are most definitely problematic aspects associated with Chinese social media platforms such as TikTok:
- Yes, “edgier” content is sometimes more tolerated than with Western platforms but the same way, other types of content are far more likely to be censored than in the West. Those who think Chinese policy in this respect experienced a turn of 180 degrees and that let’s say publishing controversial Taiwan or Hong-Kong-related material is more than fine couldn’t be more wrong… pick your poison, at the end of the day
- While impressive progress has been made with respect to let’s say the user-friendliness of the interface, Chinese social media projects can still be “rough around the edges” by Western standards. While the public can sometimes end up considering this something that makes a platform more human/relatable, oftentimes it is just… well, annoying
- The absence of a meaningful longevity track record for many Chinese social media platforms. As referred to in a previous example, yes, even Western personalities such as Gary Vaynerchuk are embracing Chinese social media platforms like TikTok but they are taking a chance. While social media longevity is an issue with Western projects as well (in that there is always the risk of spending time/energy producing content on a platform that then goes belly-up, with Vine being an eloquent example to that effect), it tends to be even more problematic with the yet-unproven Chinese dimension of social media
As a conclusion, yes, Chinese social media platforms are most definitely gaining traction and through this article, we have provided a few reasons as to why. Unless game-changing developments end up taking place, our team finds it hard to believe that this trend will not persist but as always when it comes to Internet-related projects in general and social media platforms in particular, occasional hiccups are to be expected. From legislative ambiguity to inevitable growing pains, challenges abound but opportunities even more so.