TikTok, the internet’s current favorite app for watching manic videos of teens doing nonsense things, is in the hot seat. On Tuesday, representatives of the Chinese-owned app were no-shows for a Senate crime and terrorism subcommittee hearing on whether the company shares data on U.S. citizens with China; the subcommittee chairman, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, suggested that he now might issue a subpoena. TikTok is also now the subject of a national security probe after Sen. Marco Rubio and others sent letters to intelligence agencies raising questions around privacy and the possibility that the app was censoring content in order to appease the Chinese government. According to reporting in the Washington Post this week, former TikTok employees say that managers based in Beijing often blocked content that U.S. moderators felt should be allowed go online.
It isn’t just lawmakers who are concerned about TikTok’s rise. As the New York Times reported over the weekend, U.S. tech giants have been eyeing the company for opportunities to steal away at least some of its 1 billion monthly active users, many of them kids and teens. While platforms like YouTube and Instagram have been looking to incorporate TikTok-esque features, there have also been a number of efforts to create outright TikTok knockoffs. Meanwhile, some already-existing short-form video apps have been trying to make themselves more TikTok-like. (TikTok itself might be considered a knockoff—it’s similar to the now-defunct video app Vine.)
Unless TikTok’s teen users suddenly become national security hawks and decide that they can no longer use the platform because of the Chinese Communist Party’s censorship and invasive attitude toward user data, there’s no real reason for them to migrate to any of these competing apps unless the interface and content are clearly superior. But that won’t stop other companies from trying. Here’s a brief look at TikTok’s rivals—and how they compare to the not-quite-original.
One of Facebook’s most notorious tactics is to create clones of fledgling social media apps. Previous efforts have had mixed success; Facebook launched two unsuccessful Snapchat imitators in 2012 and 2014, but it did manage to make the Snapchat-like Instagram Stories twice as popular as Snapchat. Lasso, which Facebook quietly launched as a stand-alone app last November, is the social media giant’s attempt to mimic TikTok. It’s been downloaded fewer than 500,000 times in the past year.
Lasso’s interface—the endless vertical swiping, the separate “For You” and “Following” feeds, the specific layout of the buttons along the bottom and side of the screen—is a clear mirror of TikTok’s. The users also seem to take their cues from what’s popular on TikTok, uploading videos of lip-syncing, sketches, and stunts. But while all the ingredients are there, it lacks TikTok’s oddball charm. The videos tend to be lower quality in terms of both content and image resolution, and the app is prone to buffering and crashing, at least from my experience. On several occasions I ran into accounts that just upload old viral videos, like the one in which a man punches a kangaroo in order to save his dog. My “For You” feed started exclusively serving Spanish videos after a few hours of use, which honestly was far more interesting than anything else I’d seen on the platform.
Firework, a 30-second video app launched in 2018 by executives from the likes of Snap and LinkedIn, is meant to appeal to an older set of users. It’s made enough of a splash that Google considered, but ultimately decided against, acquiring the platform. The interface, which notably has a horizontal instead of vertical video scroll, is also fairly similar to TikTok’s. However, there is a nifty feature that allows you to rotate your phone to view some videos through a wider lens. At first glance, it’s tough to tell why the content on Firework would necessarily appeal to older users; a lot of it again just looks like what you’d see on TikTok. However, trending hashtags as of Wednesday included #womenempowerment and #mybodymychoice, which is considerably more serious-minded than TikTok’s usual fare.
In 2015, music video director Colin Tilley launched Triller, a short video app that’s meant to focus on lip-syncing videos. One of the app’s selling points is an algorithm that can edit videos through audio and facial analysis. CEO and co-founder David Leiberman once told TechCrunch, “We’re giving people the opportunity to make a video that doesn’t look like a bad bar mitzvah video.” Triller has gained traction with music industry figures like DJ Khaled and YG, and late last month it raised $28 million in a Series B round. Scrolling through the feed, it seems like roughly every other video stars a big-time musician. I saw Tyga do the Macarena, Billie Eilish eat curly fries, Smino clean a pool, and Trippie Redd try on some Rick and Morty slippers. Although celebrities like Steve Harvey and Reese Witherspoon also show up on TikTok, users are for the most part amateur content creators—and that, in part, is the charm.
The main competitor to TikTok’s sister app, Douyin, in China is Kauishou. The app is reportedly popular in China’s rural areas and blue-collar cities, and common video themes include street vendors making food and farmers pranking each other. While concerns over TikTok’s data and censorship policies likely also apply here, Kauishou is by far my favorite alternative. Whimsy is the reason why I use TikTok, and Kauishou goes heavy on the whimsy. Popular figures include a farmer from Hebei who has just recently become popular on Twitter for breaking bricks with his hands and chugging alcohol that’s been set aflame, and a man in Xiamen who jokes with vendors at his local meat market. Relatable content!