TikTok vs. Chinese TikTok (Douyin): What’s the Difference?

Feb 8, 2021

Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese sister platform, is virtually identical to its international counterpart, but with a handful of key differences.

You almost certainly know a thing or two about TikTok, the short video social media platform which has exploded into the global spotlight in the past year, and found itself in President Trump’s crosshairs. You probably also know that it’s owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance. And you may have heard that it was based off its Chinese sister platform, Douyin. However, you may be a bit confused about the differences between the two platforms, which share a logo, and are very similar.

We take a look at the history behind these two platforms, and break down the similarities and differences between them.

The History

In 2012, the Chinese internet entrepreneur Zhang Yiming founded ByteDance, and launched his first app, Toutiao, which quickly gained traction in China. Then in 2016, he launched Douyin, a short video-sharing app which quickly became one of the most popular social media platforms in China, and Zhang launched TikTok, an international version of the app, in 2017. Within 2 months of TikTok’s launch, ByteDance acquired Musical.ly for US$1 billion, a Chinese lip-syncing video platform, officially merging it with TikTok in 2018.

Above: ByteDance Founder Zhang Yiming. Source: South China Morning Post

TikTok and Douyin have both grown at a shockingly fast rate since. Here are the key similarities:

  • Logo
  • Format: full-screen short videos with infinite scroll, split into ‘Following’ and ‘For You’ (suggested) pages.
  • Content creation: Both platforms equip users with an array of editing tools/filters to lower the barrier of entry to posting organic video content.
  • Virality: the platforms are open and geared towards discovery (e.g. the ‘For You’ page being the default, rather than the ‘Following’ page), and content from previously unknown creators can get millions of views overnight.

As you can see, the key principles of the platforms are the same, but there are some important differences:

1. User experience:

  • Different selection of filters and stickers: these differences cater to the Chinese vs. international audience; e.g. Douyin has a default face filter that brightens skin tones.
  • "Positive Energy" tab: In Douyin’s “For You Page”, there is an additional tab with uplifting Chinese Patriotic content.
  • Desktop accessibility: China is a mobile-first digital ecosystem, so predictably Douyin does not have a desktop/web version of the app, while TikTok does.
  • Livestream Approvals: To be allowed to livestream on Douyin, you need to be a verified user with over 50,000 followers. TikTok, on the other hand, has no approval process and allows anyone with over 1000 followers to host a livestream.

2. Business models

  • Live Streams: Douyin has a distinct livestream channel, while TikTok does not (live streams from accounts you follow show up at the top of your ‘Following’ page)
  • E-Commerce: Douyin has a much more mature e-commerce function, where users are more accustomed to making purchases directly in the platform. On TikTok, however, creators tend to direct users to other platforms, although this is changing.
  • Online payments: TikTok only allows users aged over 18 to make in-app purchases with, whereas Douyin does not have age regulations.

3. Governance

  • App Stores: Douyin is only available on the Chinese app store, and TikTok only on non-Chinese app stores.
  • Content guidelines: China’s “Great Firewall” blocks certain types of content on Douyin, whereas TikTok has its own independent set of content guidelines.

A Future Trend for Social Media Platforms?

Commentators in China have coined the phrase “Parallel Platformization” to describe the phenomenon of Douyin and TikTok as two separate platforms governed by vastly different commercial and political forces, but whose functionality, branding, and ownership is the same.

Zhang Yiming has so far been very successful in taking this approach to bring global success to a Chinese internet giant that has had to navigate its digital infrastructure at home, separated from the rest of the world’s internet by China’s Great Firewall. Other internet giants have so far attempted to use a more traditional localization strategy that keeps all its users within the same platform, without much success. However, with India’s ban on TikTok, and President Trump’s threats to close its US operations down, this strategy faces challenges.

ByteDance’s globalization approach by having Douyin and TikTok run as parallel platforms no doubt was innovative, and presents one way to negotiate the differences between the Chinese and global internet, and it will be interesting to see how the situation evolves.