The Race to Be the Next TikTok
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Apps are like weeds: When one leaves, another one sprouts to take its place.
- With TikTok losing its biggest market, India, and threatened in the U.S. amid geopolitical tensions, a pack of rival apps — old and new — is wooing its users and investors, pitching themselves as alternatives.
- TikTok had 315 million downloads in Q1 of 2020 — the best quarter ever for any app — pointing to a market that’s up for grabs.
TikTok has rapidly become synonymous with pop culture. Music executives strategize dances to premiere for the platform’s 800 million monthly users, it’s where to find the freshest and hottest talent, and it’s become the truest measuring stick for tastemakers. The app, owned by Beijing-based firm ByteDance, had 315 million downloads in Q1 of 2020 — the best quarter for any app, ever. But at the moment, its previously jealous rivals are salivating.
Growing threats and bans from multiple governments are leaving the world’s fastest-growing social media platform vulnerable. India, its largest market, banned TikTok in June after border clashes with Chinese troops. The U.S., its second-largest market, under President Donald Trump has threatened to do the same, amid rising tensions with Beijing over everything from trade and the pandemic to China’s controversial new security law for Hong Kong. That’s creating the possibility of TikTok’s sizable markets with proven users opening up — and similar apps, old and new, are now racing to position themselves as its replacement.
New York-based Triller launched in 2015, but failed to gain much traction in India. That’s changed over the past month, when it has become the country’s most-downloaded iOS app. Other TikTok users — India had 200 million before the ban — are navigating to Mitron (which means “friends” in Hindi), which launched only two months ago, but has gained 25 million downloads already.
Instagram is launching its TikTok competitor, Reels — which lets users record 15-second videos and share them as stories — in the U.S. in August. And Chingari (which means “spark”), another Indian app, has announced they’re expecting to conclude $10 million in fundraising soon. The allure is obvious: The estimated $6 billion market that TikTok is poised to lose in India is up for grabs, and if the U.S. and other Western countries impose similar bans, that pie becomes ever larger.
“If an app is outright blocked, users will reinvent themselves elsewhere,” says New York-based tech and data strategist Annalisa Nash Fernandez, citing past instances when this has happened. After the UAE banned WhatsApp and other voice-over IP services earlier this decade, a new app ToTok — no relation to TikTok — quickly grabbed that audience in the Gulf nation, though it was subsequently blacklisted from major app stores because of concerns that it might be a spying device.
That shift away from TikTok since it was banned on June 29 is already visible in India. Apps Roposo and Zili from India, and the older New York-based Dubsmash are others searching for a bite at TikTok’s market.
When an ex-TikToker comes to Chingari … he feels at home.
Sumit Ghosh, co-founder, Chingari
But to be the next TikTok, you have to be the best TikTok. That’s what Chingari co-founder Sumit Ghosh believes. His app is witnessing nearly 100,000 downloads and 2 million views every hour and is trending at the top spot on Google Play Store since the government ban. He prides Chingari on its user experience and camera technology, and tells me the key difference between them and their competitors is how well prepared they already are for this moment.
“When an ex-TikToker comes to Chingari, he doesn’t have to spend time learning the database,” Ghosh says. “He feels at home.” Chingari has also followed TikTok’s secret sauce and built a personalized recommendation engine, he says.
To be sure, ByteDance and TikTok aren’t going quietly. On Tuesday, they announced plans to hire 10,000 staff in the U.S. over the next three years, mimicking a model used by American firms such as Google, which pledged $10 billion in investments earlier this year, as it faces antitrust investigations. TikTok is also looking to move its headquarters away from China to distance itself from the country. But its efforts to shift to London have hit a roadblock because of tensions between China and the U.K.
And should the U.S., like India, choose to ban the company, the blow could be one that TikTok struggles to recover from. Yet it won’t be easy for any one app to replace the Chinese platform’s success story. Even when governments ban an app, they need to then ensure that operators and service providers actually block access and that app stores pull it down.
“Ultimately users may be forced back to domestic apps, but it isn’t an on/off switch,” says Fernandez.
Still, TikTok’s troubles could shape the future of platforms like Chingari, Triller and Instagram’s Reels — and indeed, of our collective social media experience.