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TikTok in China: How Does It Compare With the International App?

TikTok: The Social Network of The Future?

TikTok is surely one of the most famous apps of the last years. Millions of people have already downloaded it and its growth has never been slowed since the first international release. But what is exactly TikTok? Most superficial people will surely answer something like 'an app for children', 'an app for dancing and pretending you are a new influencer' and other things. Reality is totally different and can be seen even by watching at the true origins of this app. First of all, TikTok is a social network, just like Facebook, Instagram and even YouTube (which is nowadays more than a simple video sharing platform). TikTok has all the elements of a social network service: everyone has a profile, can follow other users, can message them. Compared to Instagram it has nothing different (with the exception that Instagram is mainly based on sharing photos), while Facebook has still more features like the ability to create groups. Anyway, this is the best description for TikTok: a social network. Still, some people undervalue this service, which has surely more potential than what they believe. The true origins of this app are also a key to understand why TikTok is more than 'an app for children'.

The TikTok logo can be seen in two ways. You can see it as a musical note, otherwise it may be seen as a “D”. The “D” is the initial letter for ‘Douyin’, the name of TikTok app in China.

The TikTok logo can be seen in two ways. You can see it as a musical note, otherwise it may be seen as a “D”. The “D” is the initial letter for ‘Douyin’, the name of TikTok app in China.

TikTok in China: A Main Social Network

Essentially, the TikTok app everyone uses today is something which has been created after the revamp of the old service. 2017 is the year when ByteDance, the Chinese company which owns the service, managed to launch TikTok. Before this, in 2016, another service was launched just in China: Douyin, which is still TikTok, but made for the Chinese users. What does this mean? It means that when everyone outside China started to know this app, in China it was already launched. Despite being Douyin and international TikTok two completely different services, hosted also on different servers, the technology and the structure of the apps are essentially the same. There are still many differences between the two platforms: Douyin has surely more features than the international TikTok, but it is also how the social network is used in China that makes it a completely different platform.

Predicting New TikTok Features By Looking At Douyin

Being Douyin app richer in features than TikTok, one can easily guess potential new features that will be released in the international service just by looking at what you can do within the Chinese app. These are essentially the most interesting features you can find in Douyin and you cannot find yet in TikTok:

  • Ability to set up an online shop: have you ever seen online stores launched on Facebook or Instagram? Surely you have never seen a similar feature on TikTok. Despite this, in China many creators are making short videos essentially in order to promote products in a funny way and with music (just like you would make an ordinary TikTok). When you open channel pages of these creators you are be able to access an online shop and purchase the advertised products. Plus, every promotional video has a link at the bottom from which you can directly access the shop and purchase the item. This first feature lets you understand an important thing: TikTok may be used for business. It is true that this is still TikTok in China and that in the international version of the app you cannot set up an online shop, but this has more to do with how the service is culturally welcome in China: an app which can be useful and which is not only meant for entertainment.
The page of an online shop in Douyin

The page of an online shop in Douyin

  • Ability to add captions to short videos: people who regularly upload videos to YouTube are most probably aware of the fact they can add captions in order to let people without speakers turned on (or who speak another language) to understand the content of the video. Still, TikTok does not yet allow to add captions to short videos, while in China the app supports this feature.
Editing a video in Douyin app: you can notice the ‘Captions’ button at the right

Editing a video in Douyin app: you can notice the ‘Captions’ button at the right

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  • Adding location to the videos: this is a very basic feature one could be wondered why it is not yet available on international TikTok app. You can add a location to a Facebook post or to an Instagram picture, but not yet to a TikTok video. In China, instead, you can add a location to your videos and you have also access to a section which allows you to see videos recorded in the nearby.
A Douyin section showing videos posted in the nearby

A Douyin section showing videos posted in the nearby

How is TikTok Used in China?

As written before, Douyin in China is used in various ways. The ability to set up an online shop makes the app very popular for business uses. This is not the only case: in China many companies regularly use Douyin in order to promote themselves, the same, also people make short videos about every topic. You can find dance, food recipes, educational videos, trivial and funny videos, short dramas and much more.

Compared to Chinese Douyin, international TikTok seems much more tied to dancing videos: although you can find videos of different topics also here, dancing remains the main one. Plus, the same internet users still associate TikTok to dancing. This has automatically created the myth of an app born only to entertain people, especially the youngest ones, despite TikTok is and will always be a social network, and not just a ‘funny app’. By being open minded, one could start to use TikTok in order to promote their business, just like it happens in China. Still, many companies here do not give TikTok a chance. The real question is if also entrepreneurs in Western countries will start in the future to think like the Chinese ones, who already value TikTok as a fully functional social network, or if they will still look at it like if it is ’an app for children’. Time will give us the answer.

Chinese TikTok Features More Original Content

A final consideration about how TikTok is used in China regards the nature of the videos. We have already stated that Douyin in China is used for nearly everything while here is more relegated to be simply an ’entertaining app’, but there is another important point to highlight: originality of content. There are many international TikTok channels featuring original content, still, many creators are simply copying trends launched by other ones. International TikTok is working more or less in this way: an influencer (mostly coming from the USA, a country which may be seen as ‘the mother of TikTok trends‘) tries something. It can be a new effect, challenge or simply dancing to a new song. After the video becomes viral, it becomes a ‘trend’ other users in the rest of the world can follow. In China, content seems to be more ‘home made’: also songs are mostly Chinese, confirming that videos and music are mostly coming from the same country and not influenced by creators living in other parts of the world (with the exception of some trends and songs which may be coming from near Asian countries).


TikTok and Douyin are two apps that share many similarities. Still, there are some differences in how these apps are perceived: in China Douyin is considered a social network at all effects, targeted mainly to teenagers but still used by everyone, while outside China it is considered more an entertainment app than a ‘real’ social service which can be used for more than just posting dance videos. Content hosted on the two platforms may be very different too. One can try Douyin even outside China just by downloading the APK from the official site, while for iPhone users the only way to get it is to have an Apple ID registered with a Chinese address. Have your ever tried Douyin? What do you prefer between the international TikTok app and the Chinese one?

© 2020 Alessio Ganci

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