- China built an internet in parallel with our internet with copycat apps like YouTube and Twitter. However, as Chinese apps like TikTok become commonplace, Silicon Valley companies are now looking to China for new ideas.
- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has talked about the risk of Chinese apps going ordinary, but is now taking a page out of China’s book and stealing their ideas.
- The relaxation, carbon copy, cheaper counterfeit mentality that characterized China’s industry and spurred its early development of social media, has come to the West – and it looks very much like Facebook.
- Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance journalist and author of “YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars”
- This is a column of opinion. The thoughts expressed are the author’s.
- Visit the Business Insider website for more stories.
If you manage to sneak behind the ‘Great Firewall’ that surrounds China’s internet, you will be confronted with a strangely familiar environment. The Chinese Internet looks – if not more developed – than the rest of the world. But there are a few important differences.
You will not find YouTube – at least not officially, although virtual private networks (VPNs) allow people in China to access it – but you will find a number of homemade competitors that look very much like the world’s largest video sharing site. You will not find Twitter, but you will find Weibo, which looks similar.
A parallel internet was generated out of China’s unique social and political demands, but it lifted key concepts and stole ideas from the early social media giants of Silicon Valley.
It is not only apps and services that have been the subject of direct copying; Since western companies reshorted their production lines to China in the 1980s and 1990s, China has become the place to buy shutdown products. It is estimated that 80% of all counterfeit goods worldwide come from China. Now, in the 2020s, the tide has turned. At least in technology, we copy China.
Times have changed
Today, we see the emergence of the first generation of apps developed outside Silicon Valley to truly make it mainstream, led by TikTok – which charts its origins in two different apps, Musical.ly (a US company run by Chinese executives) and Douyin (who has had his feet in the “great firewall” since its foundation). This shift has the old guard of Silicon Valley tech staff – and Hawkish politicians worried about the geopolitical implications of relinquishing control of the internet to China.
Mark Zuckerberg is the boss among them. Recordings of internal meetings published in October 2019 indicate that he is far too aware of the risk of the company’s selection of start-ups from Asia.
“One of the things that is particularly remarkable about TikTok is that for a while, the internet image was a kind of bunch of internet companies that were primarily American companies,” Zuckerberg told his staff. “And then there was this parallel universe of Chinese companies that mostly only offered their services in China. TikTok, which was built by this company Beijing ByteDance, is actually the first consumer Internet product built by one of the Chinese technology giants that does it. pretty good around the world. “
Zuckerberg called it “an interesting phenomenon.” And to tackle it, he decided to take a page out of China’s books, without being ashamed of the most popular products produced by Facebook’s competitors and publishing them as his own.
Facebook’s imitation is increasing
Of course, this is nothing new. In antitrust hearings held in late 2020, emails from Instagram co-founders revealed that they were under the impression that if they did not sell up to Zuckerberg, his company would simply copy their idea anyway – what they considered a “mode of destruction.” As part of the same hearing, Zuckerberg was forced to admit that Facebook had “absolutely adapted features that others have introduced.”
But Facebook’s imitation is becoming more frequent – and next to that, more blatant. Earlier this year, it released Reels, its Instagram bolt-on that looked very much like TikTok. This was Facebook’s second attempt in the last 12 months to remove TikTok, which has largely rewritten the norms for social media and short-form video online. An earlier experiment, called Lasso, was closed in July 2020, after barely marking the world.
To ward off the popularity of platforms like Cameo, which allow celebrities to sell access to their personal lives by offering short video clips in exchange for fans’ cash, Facebook began developing Super, which shares many of the same features.
The news of Super’s existence was confirmed by a Facebook spokesman just before Christmas. And at about the same time, Facebook’s chief technology officer TLDR unveiled, an AI assistant tool designed to summarize articles in more condensed formats. It looks more like any amount of apps, including Summly, a startup that was launched in the early 2010s by a British teenager named Nick D’Aloisio.
In search of the super app
Feature creep, and direct copying of ideas, is not just Facebook’s purpose. As previously reported, the virus-like spread of impermanent content from Snapchat to Twitter, through Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube, shows that unique features are becoming rarer. Every app seems to be the same. But few make it as obvious as Facebook.
In part, this is because of their power: they’re going to be a superapp, a one-stop shop for users to stay within the Facebook ecosystem. But it’s also because that position at the top of the social media pyramid allows them to be more obvious when it comes to throwing cherry-picking competitors and deciding to lift opponents’ main selling points wholesale, if they refuse to accept Facebook’s money for a buyout.
Still, it’s hypocritical of Facebook – and Zuckerberg – to do so, especially considering how they seem to have drummed up opposition to the emergence of apps like TikTok earlier this year. Part of the reason the outgoing US president pursued a vendetta against TikTok through the courts – a vendetta he seems to lose or runs out of time before being replaced by President-elect Joe Biden – was due to an alarm from people like Zuckerberg. Politicians, Zuckerberg told an audience at Georgetown University in October 2019, are facing a decision on “which nation values to decide which speech to allow for decades to come.”
Zuckerberg apparently talked about issues of censorship and supervision – areas in which China fails and which should not be replicated elsewhere. Speaking about the rise of Chinese-based apps and services around the world, he asked the audience, “Is this the Internet we want?”
What he did not realize was that in a way we already have a Chinese internet – and that is because of him. The relaxation, carbon copy, cheaper counterfeit mentality that characterized China’s industry and spurred its early development of social media, has come to the West – and it looks very much like Facebook.