ByteDance is, in many ways, different to the classical Chinese tech giant. Unlike many local companies that looked up to the West for inspiration, ByteDance decided to export Chinese products, most notably with short videos.

But ByteDance has achieved more than that: It made Facebook copy them, after the social giant launched the short video app Lasso -- aimed at ByteDance’s TikTok.

Facebook has reasons to be jealous. As of October 2018, ByteDance was on its way to challenging Uber as the world’s highest-valued tech startup. At one point it was even reported that ByteDance tried to buy Reddit.

Not bad for a company that only started up in 2012.

CEO of ByteDance Zhang Yiming started his company when he was 29. (Picture: ByteDance)

Around that time, ByteDance’s brain and founder Zhang Yiming noticed something. He saw that there were more and more people staring at their phones instead of reading newspapers – an observation that looks obvious now, but less so in 2012. So he created Jinri Toutiao – Today’s Headlines, an AI-powered news aggregation app that tailors articles towards individual readers, much like Facebook does with its feed.

The company then decided to become the king of content, offering rewards of up to US$1400 for quality content. That created new writing stars, like “Swineherd Baba”, who writes about – you guessed it – herding pigs. (Chinese people and Chinese tech companies really like their pork).

ByteDance’s news app kingdom quickly grew, first by launching TopBuzz in the US in 2015 and Helo in India in 2018. They invested in Dailyhunt in India and bought US video editing app Flipagram, as well as moving into Indonesia with BaBe and News Republic in France. They also put money into Cheetah Mobile’s live streaming app Live.me.

And while that was going on... Douyin happened. Short video apps have been around for some time, starting from the now deceased Vine. But Douyin and its international version TikTok (which merged in 2018) made it into a craze. In China, 600 million people actively use short video apps – almost 80% of the country’s mobile internet users, according to the 2018 China Internet Report.

After TikTok merged with Musical.ly in August 2018, the app combined users from everywhere including stars like Ariana Grande and Jimmy Fallon. Zhang Yiming inched closer to his declared goal of having its half of its users from overseas by 2020.

At home, ByteDance wasn’t resting either. It owns local short video platforms Xigua Video (Watermelon Video) and Vigo Video (Huoshan or Volcano Video). 

The Lady Gaga challenge is just one of the things that made TikTok go viral. (Picture: SCMP)

But ByteDance’s success does seem to get on some people’s nerves – particularly that of Pony Ma, the founder and CEO of Tencent. In May 2018, Ma was caught bickering with Zhang Yiming on WeChat Moments, a function similar to Facebook’s wall. That’s the equivalent of seeing Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page having a public quarrel on Facebook.

Unlike the majority of Chinese internet companies, ByteDance never accepted investment from either Alibaba or Tencent, China’s two biggest tech companies. This has put it in odds with the biggest content mogul in China, Tencent, which has been pushing its own video apps. Its social platform WeChat has been blocking ByteDance’s short video apps, leading to lawsuits from both sides.

ByteDance has also thrown in a couple of lawsuits against Baidu for good measure. (Incidentally, Baidu is also experimenting with short video apps.)

Despite all its success, it has not been smooth sailing for ByteDance, at least in Chinese waters. The company has faced many crackdowns on undesirable content from Chinese regulators, with Toutiao taken offline for 24 hours for spreading pornography, and later temporarily removed from Android app stores.

Screenshots of Jinri Toutiao reveal how the app customizes content for different users. (Picture: ByteDance)

Douyin and ByteDance’s insanely popular joke app Neihan Duanzu also got in trouble with China’s censorship machine. The latter was even permanently shut down – only to be resurrected in a new app called Pipi Xia (inspired by a shrimp). CEO Zhang responded with a lengthy and dramatic apology and vowed to hire thousands of censors.

But ByteDance isn't just fighting problems inherent in China’s strict grasp on online content. Much like Facebook and other media giants, ByteDance has been struggling to fight clickbait, misinformation, and fake news. Both Toutiao and TopBuzz have been criticized for sub-par content. Helo has even been accused of being used as a platform to spread religious hate and instigate violence.

TikTok has also been criticized for not doing enough to protect its young users, and was temporarily banned in Indonesia over accusations of allowing content harmful to youth. More recently, ByteDance was fined half a million US dollars for medical ads deemed misleading and harmful.

This is unlikely to stem the company’s growth. In fact, ByteDance may even upend our expectations entirely. In 2018, the company set up its own AI lab with US chipmaker Intel and announced it will work on its own AI chip.