YouTube is planning on launching a feature within its app to directly compete with video sharing app TikTok, reports The Information. ‘Shorts,’ which is set to launch at the end of 2020, is the most serious attempt by a Silicon Valley tech company to rival the Chinese-owned app, which has become hugely popular over the past year.
Shorts will allow users to upload brief videos into a new feed inside YouTube’s mobile app. Users will be able to create videos using licensed music that the platform has in its catalog. YouTube did not respond to requests for comments, but it’s possible that, like YouTube’s ‘Stories’ feature, Shorts could be initially limited to YouTubers with a certain number of subscribers.
As the top dog in mobile video technology, it makes sense that YouTube would be jumping on the pithy video bandwagon. According to an App Annie January report, TikTok saw 125% growth over the last two years, with 842 million first time downloads in the last 12 months, giving it a 15% year over year increase.
YouTube is constantly looking for ways to compete with other tech platforms, but it doesn’t always succeed in driving new audiences away from the brands they know and love. YouTube Stories didn’t really take off in the way that Instagram Stories did, and YouTube Premium, which originally launched as YouTube Red in 2015 as a response to Netflix and Hulu’s meteoric rise, only boasts 20 million subscribers, or 1.5% of its user base. For comparison, Netflix has about 167 million subscribers, and Hulu has 30.4 million subscribers in the U.S. alone.
Will Shorts succeed in a way that YouTube’s other attempts to imitate the competition have not? It would certainly have a better chance at success were it to launch sooner rather than later, while the world is still socially distancing and trying to connect and create digitally. Both apps have a younger demographic set, with TikTok more popular among female users, and YouTube more popular among male users. The top three most popular types of YouTube videos are product review videos, how-to videos and vlogs, whereas the most popular content creators on TikTok generally engage in sharing music, dancing and lip-syncing, suggesting that users engage with the apps in different ways.
However, users might be interested in engaging more with YouTube Shorts over TikTok due to the controversies surrounding TikTok as a Chinese-owned app.
“TikTok’s moderators have tremendous power to not only remove or downplay certain content, but also to promote and amplify other content,” said Sarah Cook, senior research analyst for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at Freedom House, a NGO that researches and advocates for democracy, political freedom and human rights. “Within China, we’ve certainly seen TikTok’s parent company ByteDance do both at the behest of the Chinese government. And while the legal jurisdiction is different outside of China, the political pressure to follow the party line is the same and the potential ramifications personally for company executives can still be very serious.”
TikTok has pushed back on allegations that they use or manipulate data, saying that it keeps all U.S. user data within the U.S., with a backup server in Singapore. According to a blog post published in October, 2019: “Let us be very clear: TikTok does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China. We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period. Our US moderation team, which is led out of California, reviews content for adherence to our US policies – just like other US companies in our space.”
However, Cook said that part of the concern with platforms like TikTok going global is that they gain a foothold in the information infrastructure of other countries. “Even if that influence isn’t being used now to manipulate the conversation in politically problematic ways, it is likely only a matter of time before that changes.” Cook cited WeChat’s various examples of content manipulation and censorship on topics like the Hong Kong protests and the coronavirus outbreak, or the use of Twitter by Chinese diplomats, state media and Twitter bots to push blatantly false disinformation related to the coronavirus.
But the question remains, will the average Gen Z user with the attention span worthy of TikTok (about 60 seconds) care about interests of national security enough to pivot to a new platform? Probably not. YouTube might have to pull off a poach (a lá Microsoft Mixer stealing video game commentator Ninja from Amazon’s Twitch) compelling enough to convince the droves out of their brand loyalty. We heard Charli D’Amelio is the biggest star on TikTok. Maybe YouTube could lure her, and her audience.
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