Saturday, 2024 April 13

Daily Digest | Double time

Hey there. It’s Brady.

Let’s say you’re a major tech company in China whose core business involves creating sticky, attention-sucking apps. Every swipe, like, and comment by a user, the amount of time that they spend viewing any given piece of content, and their search history feed data into your all-devouring, soon-to-be omnipotent artificially intelligent recommendation engine.

But then regulators decide that, well, maybe your recommendation is too smart and this brings about internet addiction, maybe something in this situation creates unfair market conditions, maybe something in this process breaks the integrity of user data security. In any case, you observe that minors can no longer play video games as often as they want; there’s a hard cap of three hours of gameplay per week now.

So, perhaps you do what ByteDance just did: cap viewing time for young Douyin users at 40 minutes per day. That anticipates regulatory changes, sets a nice example for the rest of the industry, and gets your app a lot of media coverage.

But wait! You just kneecapped your own operation! You need data, and this curtails the amount of information that is fed your way, at least for users that are in a younger demographic.

A workaround, it seems, is to offer a separate app that does something similar, but with a content focus. Instead of hosting everything and anything like Douyin, ByteDance’s latest video app, Xiao Qu Xing, was released by its edtech arm to provide content fit for students—and nothing else. Like Douyin, it has a 40-minute cap. Do the arithmetic and you’ll see that, by peeling off one content vertical, ByteDance just doubled the screen time for kids aged 14 and below. The data must flow.

Might we see a situation where there’s a video app for skits, another for food, yet another for fashion, and more and so on? Probably not, but it’s an interesting thought experiment, one that points to the fundamental changes taking place in China’s tech scene.

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