How Rediscovering User Creativity Fueled China’s Short-Video Revolution

Chinese entrepreneurs once dismissed user-generated content (UGC) as “industrial waste.” Now that waste is powering their global ambitions.

These are trying times for TikTok. Already banned in India, the wildly popular short-video service is now waging a legal battle to avoid the same fate in the United States.

But these troubles shouldn’t distract from what the app, and by extension its operator, ByteDance, has accomplished since it debuted back in 2016. At a time when many American tech giants had soured on user-generated content (UGC) — Twitter shuttered its own short-video service, Vine, in 2017 — ByteDance leveraged its highly addictive algorithm to become one of the first Chinese tech firms with a truly global reach. Within China, where TikTok is known as Douyin, revenues from short videos are projected to reach $30 billion by 2021, and ByteDance’s success has kicked off what Chinese investors call a “wind tunnel” of investment.

How did short video get so big in China? I might be biased, but as a researcher of media history, I like to find answers in the past. The internet has a way of distorting memories of our contemporary cultural life. Although the country’s internet infrastructure developed mostly over the last two decades, what happened in the early 2000s already feels like ancient history. Yet I often find that today’s success stories have their roots in the not-so-distant past — the founder of a livestreaming website who first attempted to incorporate livestreaming into his newly established video-sharing business in the mid-2000s; the online video star who started making flash animations in the internet’s early days. Sometimes the technologies, business models, or user practices that didn’t thrive at the time but were later rediscovered tell us most about how an industry emerges.

China’s first major video-sharing site, Tudou, went online in 2005, just months after YouTube. Tudou, along with competitor Youku and other similar sites, benefitted from the Web 2.0 investment mania of the mid-2000s by promising users the ability to upload and share videos of varying lengths, from short to long.

The advantages of a UGC-dominated ecosystem were not always immediately apparent, however. In 2008, as China’s video-sharing websites were struggling to monetize the vast traffic brought by user content, Tudou founder Gary Wang scornfully dismissed UGC as “industrial waste.” Part of the problem was how difficult sites found it to moderate this content — a must in a tightly regulated media environment like China — and screen for copyrighted material. One of the industry leaders at the time,, innovated an instant online recording and publication business that closely resembles today’s livestreaming, but the site couldn’t commercialize it due to the immense challenges posed by moderation.

These problems were compounded by the tremendous pressure streaming placed on service providers’ bandwidth. All while advertisers, wary of copyright infringements, kept their distance. Continue to read the full article here


– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.