China’s King of Internet Fluff Wants to Conquer the World

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By then, Bytedance had another rising star in its stable.

Douyin was not even Bytedance’s first video app when it was released in 2016. But in the somewhat arbitrary, mildly mysterious way in which these things happen, it became huge.

The app is engineered for swift, maximal addictiveness.

Open Douyin or TikTok and you are plunged right into a video. Swipe up to get another, each refresh of the screen providing a dopamine jolt. The videos fill your phone display entirely, blocking the clock at the top and preventing you from seeing how many hours you have spent watching puppies and comedy skits and synchronized dancing.

Satsuki Hatashita, a 20-year-old college student in western Japan, has been hooked for months. She now knows not to use the app before taking a shower. “I wouldn’t be able to shower for a long time, until I finally stopped watching TikTok,” she said.

She, too, was surprised to learn that the app was Chinese.

People like Ms. Hatashita have given Bytedance confidence in its march overseas. The company has opened offices in Japan, Brazil, India, the United States and beyond.

Still, Chinese staff stationed in China oversee significant aspects of Bytedance’s international apps. They even produce some culturally specific content, such as push notifications suggesting videos to watch. The company is hiring speakers of more than a dozen languages, including Portuguese, Polish, Malay and Arabic, for positions in China, according to an online posting.

An episode this year points to the importance, for Bytedance, of having people on the ground in at least one area: government relations.

In July, the authorities in Indonesia temporarily blocked TikTok for hosting what they called “pornography, inappropriate content and blasphemy.” The Indonesian government had contacted TikTok’s Singapore office to give a few days’ warning. But it didn’t receive a response until after the app was shut down, Rudiantara, Indonesia’s minister of information, said in an interview.

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