Attack of the TikTok clones

Attack of the TikTok clones

After two years as the hot new app, TikTok is suddenly fighting for its life. The app faces a potential ban in the United States due to concerns around its Chinese ownership; if it isn’t banned, parts of the app may be sold off to Microsoft or another suitor, splintering the network that exists today. If that happens, millions of TikTokkers could suddenly be looking for a new home — and competing apps will have a rare opportunity to break into the big time.

With that window of opportunity opening, a new class of apps has elbowed into the spotlight: Byte, Triller, Zynn, Clash, Instagram, and Snapchat are all offering TikTok clones or music features designed to fill the hole TikTok might leave.

Some of those apps have racked up eye-popping numbers: Byte had 1.2 million downloads in the US during the past month, Triller had 700,000 downloads, and Zynn had 400,000 downloads, according to data compiled by App Annie. Clash said it signed up 200,000 users since launching just last week.

Left: Instagram Reels, right: TikTok.

Perhaps more significantly, the two biggest names in shortform mobile video — Instagram and Snapchat — are now launching TikTok-like features, too. Snapchat is positioning its music feature as something meant for personal messaging. But Instagram is launching a much more significant threat: a feature called Reels that lets people publish short videos set to music that others can watch and discover. It’s nearly all the key parts of TikTok, just built into Instagram, an app that touted 1 billion monthly users in 2018.

For TikTok, there’s a lot on the line. TikTok is in position to be the next big social network, a huge use of teenagers’ time and a major advertising business. Some investors see TikTok being worth $50 billion, Reuters reported last week, with the app projected to bring in $1 billion in revenue this year. It’s one of the few threats Facebook faces in a market dominated by its social media and chat apps. Now, TikTok has to contend with not only the threat of a ban, but the possibility that one or more of these apps will take its place as the home for shortform videos, potentially siphoning off its existing users in the process.

Left: Byte, right: TikTok.

Interest in TikTok clones seems to come from two places. Creators are flocking to these apps to claim usernames and get a head start building an audience in case TikTok shuts down. Triller, in particular, already has verified accounts for TikTok stars like Josh Richards and the popular media brand Flighthouse. TikTok fans seem to be following along, too, out of a concern that the video app could disappear at any moment. These apps tend to see a surge in downloads after major threats of a ban on TikTok are made. App Annie says that Triller saw “a big spike” on August 1st, the day President Trump said he would ban TikTok. (He has now set a September 15th deadline, saying it will be banned if the app isn’t sold to a company in the US.) Byte spiked on August 1st, too, and it also saw a surge on July 8th, the day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo first floated the possibility of a ban.

“We saw a huge influx of some of the most creative young people in the world in the last few weeks — signups and activity are higher than ever,” a Byte spokesperson said in an email to The Verge.

Left: Triller, right: TikTok.

These possible TikTok replacements all have some buzz around them. Triller has raised millions of dollars, Zynn bought its way to the top of the App Store, and Clash comes from Vine star Brendon McNerney. Byte, which launched in January, comes with the most cred as a legitimate TikTok replacement. The app is led by Dom Hofmann, a co-founder of Vine, the first app that really started to crack shortform video on phones. Vine ended up being shut down in 2016, but only after it had kicked off the careers of some of today’s top creators, including David Dobrik, Jake and Logan Paul, and Lele Pons.

Playing around with these TikTok-alikes, it’s hard to say how they all stand out. Triller has some celebrities on board, including Snoop Dogg, Marshmello, and Mike Tyson. Byte has a quirkier, Tumblr-esque aesthetic and is filled with colorful animations and illustrations. Zynn tried to pay users for their time spent watching videos before scrapping that mechanic after being banned on both iOS and Android. (It still plans to offer rewards for engagement, but Zynn has yet to announce what those rewards will be.) It’s not entirely fair to say these apps are all clones — Triller has been around since 2015, and Zynn is based on a popular Chinese app — but one way or another, they’ve all landed on essentially the same formula: short videos, an endless feed, often paired with music.

Left: Zynn, right: TikTok.

As you might expect, the scariest competitor is Facebook — particularly the company’s history of using Instagram as a platform for stealing new mechanics pioneered by other apps. When Instagram launched a clone of Snapchat’s stories feature in 2016, it seemed to effortlessly steal its competitor’s momentum, surpassing the app’s usage numbers in less than a year. Reels now dominates Instagram’s Explore page, and on launch day, it featured videos from huge stars, including Mindy Kaling and Will Smith. Reels’ success is far from a sure thing, though. Users may not accept yet another new feature crammed into Instagram, as people have largely rejected the YouTube-esque IGTV.

TikTok has proven that short music-covered videos are a successful formula, and one app or another is going to be home to them going forward. But frenzies around new social apps have happened in the past, and it’s not evident what will help these upstarts avoid becoming the next Peach or Ello — a fun replacement for a day, forgotten just as quickly.

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