Update June 16: Zynn has now been removed from Apple App Store as well.
In late May, a new app began making waves on both the Apple and Google app stores. Entitled Zynn, the app is widely considered a clone of the popular video app TikTok and it quickly reached the top of both of the major app stores.
Its rapid growth was spurred by its bizarre business model, which has it paying money to users including $1 for initially signing up, $20 for the first person they get to join and $10 for every five users after that. According to Common Sense Media, this makes the app a pyramid scheme and many users have questioned the validity of this system, including notes that the option to cash out via PayPal is often not available.
However, questionable financial practices aren’t the only red flag users of the app have noticed. According to a recent report by Wired, the app is filled to the brim with content from other social media sites, including TikTok.
Several prominent TikTok users have discovered that their videos are available on Zynn, often posted by accounts that are impersonating them. In many cases, these accounts are amassing significant followings even though the original creators were completely unaware of their existence. This raises both significant copyright (legal) and plagiarism (ethical) issues.
It would be easy to blame this problem on unethical users hoping to exploit the pay-for-registration scheme. However, many of the fake accounts and infringing videos were created and uploaded before the app went live. Many of them date back to as far as February 19, nearly three months before the app appeared in any of the app stores.
Because of this, the app has been pulled from the Google Play store. According to a report in The Verge, the company acknowledged it “had some lapses in this area” and that it was “in communications with Google and working to fix this ASAP.
The app is still available in the Apple Store as of this writing.
But, as frustrating as this must be for TikTok creators, the news just keeps getting worse. It appears that this spate of infringement is just the latest front in an ongoing war between two Chinese tech giants and their content just happens to be caught in the middle.
Tech Rivalry Gone Wrong
TikTok is owned by a company named ByteDance, which also is the developer of TikTok’s Chinese version, Douyin. In China, Douyin is the most popular video sharing service but is closely rivaled by Kuaishou, which is also the name of the company that developed it. The two services have long fought for dominance in the market with Douyin currently having the edge due to its popularity in major cities.
The rivalry between those two companies recently turned litigious as Kuaishou sued ByteDance over alleged trademark infringement by using Kuaishou’s name to link to their own app in app stores, thus encouraging people to download Douyin even when they were searching for Kuaishou. ByteDance, in turn, filed a lawsuit of their own over similar issues.
But, while both of those companies are major tech giants in China with a serious grudge, Kuaishou also has significant investment from another Chinese tech giant, Tencent. Tencent is another rival to ByteDance and the two have a history swiping at each other’s core areas of business.
This tech war has been brewing for some time but has only recently become this heated. The battle unfolding right now is just the latest chapter as Zynn’s developer, Owlii, is owned by Kuaishou and likely represents Kuaishou’s (and through proxy Tencent’s) desire to attack ByteDance in a market that they’ve dominated.
Unfortunately for popular TikTok users, this put their content in the crosshairs. While Zynn was able to pay to encourage new registrations, those registrations were going to be meaningless without engaging content. For reasons that are unclear, Zynn appears to have simply copied content from other social networking sites rather than finding ways of building their own culture.
Even if Zynn can recover, it’s a mistake they will have to spend a long time undoing.
Seeding Walled Gardens
This story actually points to one of the larger truths and challenges on the internet.
Increasingly, our internet has gone from being an open playing field to a series of increasingly large walled gardens. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Medium, Tumblr, TikTok, Twitch, etc. are all examples of these walled gardens.
These are basically spaces that are controlled by a company and everything about that space, including how content is shared outside of it, is ultimately controlled by its owner. We’ve seen this with Instagram and the issue of content embedding and the constant shifts in YouTube’s policies.
While the natural solution should be to create a competing walled garden, that is easier said than done. It’s not good enough to build the space, one has to give users a reason to visit it and, more importantly, put content inside it. To that end, you need content to build an audience and an audience to build content.
For example, if you want to create a YouTube competitor, you don’t simply need to replicate the infrastructure of YouTube, you need enough content to draw people in and an experience that makes them want to stay there. Reaching critical mass on a project like this is nearly impossible.
Zynn attempted to crack the user problem by literally paying people to sign up and to recruit their friends. However, those sign-ups are meaningless if people don’t stay and, from all appearances, Zynn tried to solve that problem by simply lifting content from elsewhere.
However, what that seems to have achieved is simply angering the major TikTok stars, the very people they needed to draw in, and earned it a reputation as a copycat TikTok. Neither of those things will likely to inspire an exodus to their service.
While seeding a new walled garden is still a difficult challenge, it’s pretty clear that Zynn has found one way to not do it.
Zynn isn’t the first company to attempt a trick like this and it won’t be the last. Seeding your new site or service with other people’s content is never a good idea. While it’s easy to see why Kuaishou wants to enter this market, this approach was always doomed to fail.
TikTok became TikTok because it didn’t try to clone YouTube or any other established site. Instead, it offered its own experience and enough people found it compelling to make the app a hit.
Launching a TikTok clone in an area where it has stood alone for some time was always going to be an uphill battle. Zynn’s approach didn’t help anything. In addition to being illegal and immoral, it was also stupid from a business standpoint.
If ethics and legality won’t stop companies from infringing content in this way, maybe basic business sense can.