- China built an internet parallel to our internet with copycat apps for the likes of YouTube and Twitter. However, as Chinese apps such as TikTok become mainstream, Silicon Valley companies are now looking to China for new ideas.
- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has spoken about the risks of Chinese apps going mainstream, but is now taking a page out of China's book and stealing their ideas.
- The knock-off, carbon copy, cheaper counterfeit mentality that typified China's industry and spurred its early development of social media, has come to the West — and it looks an awful lot like Facebook.
- Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance journalist and the author of "YouTubers: How YouTube shook up TV and created a new generation of stars", and the upcoming book "TikTok Boom: China, the US and the Superpower Race for Social Media."
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
If you manage to sneak behind the 'Great Firewall' which encircles China's internet, you're confronted with an oddly familiar environment. The Chinese internet looks similar - if not more developed - than the rest of the world's. But there are a few key differences.
You won't find YouTube - at least not officially, though virtual private networks (VPNs) enable people within China to access it - but you will find a raft of homegrown competitors that look awfully like the world's biggest video sharing website. You won't 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's not just apps and services that have been subject to outright copying; since Western companies reshored their production lines to China in the 1980s and 1990s, China has become the place to buy knock-off items. It's estimated 80% of all counterfeit goods worldwide come from China. Now, in the 2020s, the tide has turned. In the world of tech at least, we're copying China.
Times have changed
Today we're seeing the rise of the first generation of apps developed outside Silicon Valley to truly make it into the mainstream, spearheaded by TikTok - which charts its genesis in two different apps, Musical.ly (a US company run by Chinese executives) and Douyin (which has firmly had its feet within the 'Great Firewall' since its founding). This shift has the old guard of Silicon Valley tech bros - and hawkish politicians worried about the geopolitical implications of ceding control of the internet to China - concerned.
Mark Zuckerberg is chief among them. Recordings of internal meetings made public in October 2019 indicate he's all too aware of the risks to his suite of companies by upstarts from Asia.
"One of the things that's especially notable about TikTok is, for a while, the internet landscape was kind of a bunch of internet companies that were primarily American companies," Zuckerberg told his employees. "And then there was this parallel universe of Chinese companies that pretty much only were offering their services in China. TikTok, which is built by this company Beijing ByteDance, is really the first consumer internet product built by one of the Chinese tech giants that is doing quite well around the world."
Zuckerberg called it "an interesting phenomenon." And to head it off, he's decided to take a page out of China's books, unashamedly aping the most popular products produced by Facebook's competitors and passing them off as his own.
Facebook's mimicry is increasing
This isn't anything new, of course. In antitrust hearings held late in 2020, emails among Instagram's cofounders revealed they were under the impression that if they didn't sell up to Zuckerberg, his company would simply copy their idea anyway - what they deemed "destroy mode." As part of the same hearings, Zuckerberg was forced to admit Facebook had "certainly adapted features that others have led in."
But Facebook's mimicry is becoming more frequent - and alongside that, more blatant. Earlier this year, it released Reels, its Instagram bolt-on that looked an awful lot like TikTok. This was Facebook's second attempt in the last 12 months at dislodging TikTok, which has largely rewritten the norms of social media and shortform video online. A previous attempt, called Lasso, was shuttered in July 2020, after barely making a mark on the world.
To head off the popularity of platforms like Cameo, which allow celebrities to sell access to their personal lives by providing short video snippets in exchange for fans' cash, Facebook began developing Super, which shares many of the same features.
News of Super's existence was confirmed by a Facebook spokesperson just before Christmas. And around the same time, Facebook's chief technology officer unveiled TLDR, an AI assistant tool designed to summarize articles into more condensed formats. It bears more than a passing resemblance to any number of apps, including Summly, a startup launched in the early 2010s by a British teenager named Nick D'Aloisio.
In pursuit of the superapp
Feature creep, and outright copying of ideas, isn't solely Facebook's purview. As previously reported, the virus-like spread of impermanent content from Snapchat to Twitter, through Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube, demonstrates that unique features are becoming rarer. Every app is looking to become the same. But few do it as blatantly as Facebook.
In part this is because of their might: they're gunning to become a superapp, a one-stop shop for users to remain within the Facebook ecosystem. But it's also because that position atop the social media pyramid allows them to be more flagrant in cherry-picking competitors and deciding to lift opponents' key selling points wholesale, if they decline to accept Facebook's money for a buyout.
Yet it's hypocritical of Facebook - and of Zuckerberg - to do so, particularly given the way they appear to have drummed up opposition to the rise 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 looks likely to lose, or run out of time on before he is replaced by President-elect Joe Biden - was because of alarm raised by people like Zuckerberg. Politicians, Zuckerberg told an audience at Georgetown University in October 2019, face a decision about "which nation's values are going to determine what speech is going to be allowed for decades to come."
Zuckerberg was talking ostensibly about issues of censorship and oversight - areas that China fails on, and which should not be replicated elsewhere. Speaking about the rise of Chinese-based apps and services worldwide, he asked the audience: "Is that the internet we want?"
What he didn't realize was that in a way we already have a Chinese internet - and it's because of him. The knock-off, carbon copy, cheaper counterfeit mentality that typified China's industry and spurred its early development of social media, has come to the West - and it looks an awful lot like Facebook.