With the latest Lemon8 hit, ByteDance learns again from the Chinese playbook
The app looks a lot like Xiaohongshu, a Chinese social media platform with 260 million MAUs
In the middle of a wave out of a heated debate over whether to ban TikTok, another ByteDance product, Lemon8, emerged and quickly rose to the top 10 app stores in the US.
The sudden rise of Lemon8 is reminiscent of the initial growth of TikTok. At the time, Vine had already pioneered the sharing of short videos in the United States, but TikTok took the media format to the next level with its content recommendation algorithms, a system that had has had huge success in China for its sister app, Douyin.
Some industry observers now describe Lemon8 as something at the crossroads of Instagram, Pinterest and Amazon, but those familiar with China’s internet ecosystem would immediately recognize the app as an example of “copy from China”.
For much of China’s early Internet history, entrepreneurs found inspiration in high-momentum trends in the United States and built something comparable in China, giving rise to the country’s responses. to Google, Facebook and others. This practice is still there, as indicated by the number of companies expressing their ambitions to become the OpenAI of China; but a reversal of the trend is also taking shape as Chinese technological talents become more sophisticated and offer increasingly innovative services that do not yet exist abroad.
At a glance, Lemon8’s photo-rich layout and peer-to-peer ratings look a lot like Xiaohongshu, China’s social commerce platform with 260 million monthly active users. Xiaohongshu, which means “little red book,” has over the past decade become the go-to online community for young Chinese to learn life hacks in areas ranging from maternal health and central quarantine in China to the search for the best Chinese restaurants in Dusseldorf.
Bike sharing, live shopping and social commerce are just some of the Chinese internet business models that have found users overseas. Xiaohongshu launched into other Asian markets through Uniik and Spark, but neither took off. Now, ByteDance is taking Xiaohongshu’s playbook west, mirroring TikTok with learning Douyin’s model at home.
The little red book
Founded as an overseas shopping guide sharing platform, Xiaohongshu mainly focused on collecting practical information. Posts are organized in a Pinterest-like grid, but ranked in part by how many “saves” they get. And unlike Instagram, there’s little competition to post the most glamorous photos. The images are instead used to contextualize notes posted by users, such as a COVID-19 PCR result needed to board a flight to China.
Rather than favoring professional influencer posts, the app encourages long-tail content discovery and emphasizes relevance over entertainment. When users are on Xiaohongshu, they experience what is called “zhongcao”, literally “planting grass”, a concept popularized by the platform to convey the effect of wanting to buy something after seeing someone else, be it a friend or an influencer, to recommend it.
Of Xiaohongshu’s 260 million MAUs, 69 million of them are content creators, the company said at a recent event. Seventy percent of its users are women and were born after 1990. Most of its users live in the most prosperous and prestigious Chinese cities. At its peak, the company’s valuation reached $20 billion, but reportedly fell to $10-16 billion last year as a Chinese tech crackdown undermined investor confidence.
It’s too early to tell if Lemon8 can bring zhongcao culture to the United States and beyond. For now, most of the app’s appeal seems to come largely from flashy ads and endorsements from influencers via TikTok.
There are also signs that Lemon8 is paying influencers to post content. This is common practice on Chinese social media platforms, including Douyin. But that might also be the biggest difference between Lemon8 and Xiaohongshu, which has rarely shelled out big grants to influencers. Authenticity, many say, is why Xiaohongshu’s content has stood the test of time.
In its early days, Lemon8 is probably still a long way from thinking about monetization, but it would be interesting to see what steps it takes to make money if and when the app builds up a sizable userbase. This could turn to Xiaohongshu, which is currently monetizing through advertisements and e-commerce commissions. Of course, it is never easy to simply transport an existing commercial model from one country to another, whether it is a copy to or from China. Even the mammoth of ByteDance has struggled to evangelize live shopping, which now drives much of China’s Douyin revenue, in Western countries.
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