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Are Douyin and TikTok the Same?

China’s popular “Douyin” app is known as “TikTok” in markets outside of China. But is it really one app?

Gabi Verberg

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TikTok, known as the international version of the Chinese successful short video app Douyin, is a global hit. Despite Bytedance’s efforts to present Douyin and TikTok as being the same product, they are actually two separate entities.

Douyin, (抖音, literally “shaking sound” in Chinese) is a short video media app owned by China’s young tech giant Bytedance (字节跳动). The app allows users to create, edit, and share short videos as well as livestreams, often featuring music in the background.

Douyin’s international name is TikTok, an app that looks the same as Douyin, while in fact, the two are not one and the same, despite Bytedance’s efforts to brand it as such.

This is not the first time a Chinese tech company presents one app as being the same everywhere, while it actually is not. Tencent’s super app Weixin (微信), also known as WeChat, runs two different systems for its Chinese and international version, as explained here.

When downloading either WeChat or Weixin, both being the same app, the app determines what features you can use and what information you can see based on the telephone number you register your account with.

In practice, this means that when you are a non-Chinese resident, you will be using the ‘international version,’ meaning you will have access to (international-specific) content that a user registered with a Chinese telephone number will not be able to see. The overseas version also does not have the same Wallet functions the Chinese version has.

 

Two apps, two systems

 

The difference between WeChat vs Weixin and TikTok vs Douyin, however, is not the same. Whereas the first is basically one app with two different modes, Douyin and TikTok are two completely separate entities.

Depending on the app store you use, you will either be able to download Douyin or TikTok. Users of Chinese app stores can only find Douyin, whereas users of the overseas Apple store or Google Play will only find TikTok available for download.

That the apps are actually separate systems becomes clear when running the same search words in both apps. As shown below, both apps provide different content for the same search words.

Left image: TikTok, Right image: Douyin.

For example, one of TikTok’s most popular channels of this moment is called ‘LisaandLena,’ a verified account by two German twins which has over 32 million fans. However, when you enter ‘LisaandLena’ in Douyin, the only result is an unverfied account which only has 102 fans and shows seven videos.

Results are the same the other way around. One of Douyin’s most popular accounts is that of Chinese actor Chen He (陈赫), who has over 52 million fans features 62 videos at this week. However, when running the same name search in TikTok, several unverified accounts come up, all showing some similar videos like those on Chen He’s Douyin account.

Top left picture: Douyin; top right and two bottom pictures: TikTok.

This suggests that, although Tiktok and Douyin have the same functions, layout, and logos, its users in China and overseas are kept completely separate and are not able to interact with eachother, something that a recent Chinese blog also discusses in detail.

 

The Rise of Douyin and TikTok

 

Ever since its launch in September 2016, Douyin has grown immensely popular. Just one year after its release, Douyin had more than 100 million users and became the second most downloaded app in the Chinese Apple store.

In September 2017, ByteDance took its app overseas; branding Douyin as TikTok for the international market, while keeping the app’s original name, Douyin, for its Chinese market.

Similar to Douyin, TikTok appeared to strike the right chord among internet users right away. In the first quarter of 2018 (note: within half a year after release), TikTok was the 6th most downloaded non-game app in the Apple app store and Google play store combined. In the Apple app store, it was even the most downloaded app. With its 45,8 downloads in the first quarter, TikTok beat apps such as Facebook, Youtube, or Instagram in the popularity rankings.

But that is not where TikTok’s short-video craze halted. In August 2018, TikTok merged with short video app Musical.ly (founded in 2014), that had over 100 million monthly active users at the time. In October last year, after receiving several investments, ByteDance Ltd. officially became the worlds most valuable private start-up, valued at 75 billion dollars.

By summer, ByteDance announced that TikTok, (meaning both apps combined) had more than 500 million monthly active users worldwide. About 300 million of these 500 million monthly active users are China’s domestic users.

 

Why does ByteDance separate Douyin and TikTok?

 

Why would Bytedance go through the effort to create two apps running on different systems? The answer partly lies in China’s strictly controlled online environment, where (social) media companies have to adhere to local policies on what is and what is not allowed to be published on their (user-generated) platforms.

In 2018, Bytedance was already criticized by authorities for hosting ‘inappropriate content’ on its news platform Jinri Toutiao. The joke app Neihan Duanzi, also run by Bytedance, was forced to shut down. Afterward, the company vowed to hire 4,000 additional censors, clearly not taking any risks in getting more warnings from authorities.

By separating Tiktok from Douyin, ByteDance can closely regulate the contents uploaded to Douyin, as they will be disseminated within China, while leaving overseas TikTok and its users relatively free to share whatever content they want to share (do note that the app also set up a team of 20 censors in Indonesia to monitor and ‘sanitize’ content from the platform there, after receiving complaints from Indonesian authorities).

 
New regulations for online video content
 

In light of tighter control on online video platforms, it seems that Bytedance’s monitoring team will have to work around the clock. On January 9, China’s Netcasting Services Association (中国网络视听节目服务协会), an association directly managed by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, issued new regulations that online short video platforms in China should adhere to. One of the new guidelines requires all online video service providers to carefully examine content before it is published.

Tech Sina reports that the new stipulations require that all online video content, from titles to comments and even the use of emoticons, has to be in accordance with regulations, which prohibit any content that is ‘vulgar,’ is offending to the Chinese political system, puts revolutionary leaders in a negative light, or undermines social stability in any way.

On Weibo, the newest regulations became a topic of discussion, with many netizens wondering how short video apps such as Douyin are going to comply, and how its users will be affected.

Although Douyin has not responded to how and if its platform will change in light of the latest regulations, we can expect that TikTok will not be affected – it will be marching to the beat of his own app.

By Gabi Verberg, with contributions by Manya Koetse

Interested to know more about Bytedance and TikTok? We recommend listening to this podcast by Techbuzz China.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

Gabi Verberg is a Business graduate from the University of Amsterdam who has worked and studied in Shanghai and Beijing. She now lives in Amsterdam and works as a part-time translator, with a particular interest in Chinese modern culture and politics.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Suzy

    March 8, 2019 at 3:45 pm

    very good article… same as wechat VS weixin, look the same but actually not really the same…
    2 differents internet, so 2 different Rules.

  2. Avatar

    Wudabusancu

    September 30, 2019 at 5:08 am

    I’d love to see more content about what’s on Douyin. Who are the most popular creators? What are the common memes? I just discovered 记得双击么么哒 and it took me way too long to parse 😂

  3. Avatar

    Olivier

    October 17, 2019 at 7:11 am

    There are not the same, and public is not the same.
    tiktok in the west is really for kids.
    In China it is for young People… 16-35y

    In China, you have more function for e-Commerce, and one of the most efficient social E-Commerce plateform today.
    Douyin is the future (of tiktok)

  4. Avatar

    Inês Huang

    May 24, 2020 at 6:10 am

    The Chinese Lisa and Lena is just a fan account

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China Digital

About the “AI Chatbot Based on Xi Jinping” Story

Key takeaways about the ‘Xi Jinping chatbot’, jokingly referred to as ‘Chat Xi PT’ by foreign media outlets.

Manya Koetse

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This week, various English-language newspapers reported that China is launching its very own Xi Jinping AI chatbot. China’s top internet regulator is reportedly planning to unveil a new chatbot trained on the political philosophy of Xi Jinping. This Large Language Model (LLM) is humorously referred to as ‘Chat Xi PT’ by the Financial Times and in other foreign media reports.

The Times of India website headlined that “China builds AI chatbot trained on Xi Jinping’s thoughts.” News site Asia Financial reported that “China has unveiled a chatbot trained to think like President Xi Jinping.” Various outlets even called it a “ChatGPT chatbot based on Xi Jinping.”

The Financial Times calls the application “China’s latest answer to OpenAI” and notes that “Beijing’s latest attempt to control how artificial intelligence informs Chinese internet users has been rolled out as a chatbot trained on the thoughts of President Xi Jinping.”

Besides the Financial Times article by Ryan McMorrow, media reports were largely based on a piece in the South China Morning Post authored by Sylvie Zhuang, titled “China rolls out large language model AI based on Xi Jinping Thought.”

Zhuang detailed how Xi Jinping’s political philosophy, along with other themes aligned with the official government narrative, form the core content of the chatbot, which is launched at a time when China “tries to use artificial intelligence to drive economic growth while maintaining strict regulatory control over cybersecurity.”

News about the supposed “Xi Jinping chatbot” is based on a post published on the WeChat account of the Cyberspace Administration magazine.

The magazine in question is China Cyberspace (中国网信), overseen by the Cyberspace Administration of China (国家互联网信息办公室) and published by the China Cyberspace Research Institute (中国网络空间研究院).

 

“Cyberspace Information Research Large Model Application”


 

On May 20, China Cyberspace (中国网信杂志) posted the following text on WeChat, which was viewed less than 6000 times within two days (translation by What’s on Weibo):

 

“Recently, the Cyberspace Information Research Large [Language] Model Application developed by the China Cyberspace Research Institute has been officially launched and is being tried out internally.” [1]

“As an authoritative and high-end think tank in the Cybersecurity and Informatization field, the China Cyberspace Research Institute relied on the data of the “Internet Information Research Database” and organized a special tech team to independently develop the Cyberspace Information Research Large Model Application, to take the lead in demonstrating the innovative development and application of generative AI technology in the field of Cybersecurity and Informatization.”

“The corpus of this Large Model [LLM] is sourced from seven major speciality knowledge bases within the “Internet Information Research Database,” including the “Comprehensive Database of Cyber Information Knowledge”, the “Knowledge Base of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” “Dynamic Cyber Knowledge Base,” “Internet Information Journal Knowledge Base,” “Internet Information Report Knowledge Base,” and more. Users can independently select different categories of knowledge bases for smart question-and-answering. The specialization and authority of the corpus ensures the professionalism of the content that’s generated.”

“Do you want to quickly make a summarized report on the current status of AI development? Are you curious about the differences between ‘new quality productive forces’ and ‘traditional productivity’? This Large Model application can quickly produce it for you!”

“The Cyberspace Information Research Large Model Application is based on domestically registered open-source and commercially available pre-trained language models. By combining Information Retrieval technology with specialized Cyberspace Information knowledge, it can do smart question-and-answering [Q&A chatbot], it can generate articles, give summaries, do Chinese-English translations, and many other kinds of tasks in the field of Cybersecurity and Informatization to meet the various demands of users.”

“The system used for the Cyberspace Information Research Large Model Application is deployed on a dedicated local server of the China Cyberspace Research Institute. Data is processed from this local server, ensuring high security. This application will become one of the embedded functions of the “Internet Information Research Database” and authorized users invited for targeted testing can access and use it.”

“The Cyberspace Information Research Large Model Application will also support users to customize and build new knowledge bases. Users uploading public data and personal documents can analyze and infer, further expanding the scope of personalised use by users.”

 

Although some Chinese media sources reported on the launch of the application, it barely received traction on Chinese social media.

At the time of writing, the only official accounts posting about the application on Chinese social media are those related to research institutions or the Cyberspace Administration of China.

 

Key Takeaways on the “Chat Xi PT” Application:


 

So what are the key takeaways about the so-called, supposed ‘Chat Xi PT’ application that various foreign media have been writing about?

■ Focus on Cyberspace Administration and Digital Governance:
Contrary to some English-language media reports, the application is not primarily centered around Xi Jinping Thought but rather emphasizes Cyberspace Administration and digital governance. Its official name, the “Cyberspace Information Research Large Model Application” (网信研究大模型应用), does not even mention Xi Jinping.

■ Not a Rival to OpenAI’s ChatGPT:
Unlike what has been suggested in the media reports, this particular application should not be seen in the light of China “creating rivals to the likes of Open AI’s ChatGPT” (FT). Instead, it caters to a specific group of users engaged in specialized research or operating within certain knowledge fields. There are many others (commercial) chatbots in China that could be seen as Chinese alternatives to OpenAI’s ChatGPT. This is not one of them.

■ Modernization of Cyberspace Authorities:
Rather than solely meeting user demand, the application underscores China’s Cyberspace authorities’ modernization efforts by integrating generative AI technology into their own platforms.

■ Clarifying “Xi Jinping Thought”:
Various English-language media reports conflate “Xi Jinping Thought” with “thoughts of Xi Jinping.” “Xi Jinping Thought” specifically refers to “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” the theories, body of ideas that were incorporated into the Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party in 2017.

■ Nothing “New” about the Application:
The ‘Cyberspace Information Research Large Model Application’ is based on existing LLMs and functions as a tool for navigating databases and information in the AI era, rather than representing a groundbreaking innovation or an actual ‘Xi Jinping chatbot.’ While it may have been written as a tongue-in-cheek headline, let’s be clear: there is no such thing as a ‘Chat Xi PT.’

 
By Manya Koetse

[1]About the translation of the term “网信” (wǎngxìn): in this text, I’ve used different translations for the term “网信” (wǎngxìn) depending on the context of its use. The term can be translated into English as “cyberspace” or “internet information,” but since it is mostly used in relation to China’s Cyberspace Administration and digital governance, it is sometimes more appropriate to refer to it as Cyberspace Security and Information,like the term “国家网信部门” which translates to “national cybersecurity and informatization department” (Also see translations by DigiChina).

 

🌟 Attention!

For 11 years, What’s on Weibo has remained a 100% independent blog, fueled by my passion to write about China’s digital culture and online trends. Over a year ago, we introduced a soft paywall to ensure the sustainability of this platform. I’m grateful to all our loyal readers who’ve subscribed since 2022. Your support has been invaluable. But we need more subscribers to continue our work. If you appreciate our content and want to support independent China reporting, please consider becoming a subscriber. Your support keeps What’s on Weibo going strong!

 

Full Text by China Cyberspace:

“近日,由中国网络空间研究院开发的网信研究大模型应用已正式上线并内部试用。

垂直专业:聚焦网信领域

作为网信领域权威高端智库,中国网络空间研究院依托“网信研究数据库”数据,组织专门技术团队,自主开发了网信研究大模型应用,率先示范生成式人工智能技术在网信研究领域的创新发展和落地应用。

该大模型语料库来源于“网信研究数据库”的七大网信专业知识库,包括“网信知识总库”“习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想知识库”“网信动态知识库”“网信期刊知识库”“网信报告知识库”等。用户可自主选择不同类别的知识库进行智能问答。语料库的专业性、权威性保证了生成内容的专业性。

便捷高效:实现多种功能

想快速列出关于人工智能发展现状的报告提纲?想知道新质生产力和传统生产力的不同之处?网信研究大模型应用能够迅速生成!

网信研究大模型应用基于已备案的国内开源可商用预训练语言模型,通过将检索增强生成技术和网信专业知识相结合,实现了网信领域的智能问答、文稿生成、概括总结、中英互译等多种功能,可满足用户的多种需求。

安全可靠:数据本地处理

网信研究大模型应用系统部署在中国网络空间研究院的专属本地服务器,数据由本地服务器进行处理,具有较高的安全性。该大模型应用将成为“网信研究数据库”的嵌入功能之一,获得授权的定点测试用户可以应邀使用该应用。

网信研究大模型应用还将支持用户自定义新建知识库,可通过加载用户自己上传的公开数据、个人文档进行分析推理,进一步拓展用户的个性化使用范围。”

Featured image by What’s on Weibo, image of Xi Jinping under Wikimedia Commons.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2024 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Arts & Entertainment

Going All In on Short Streaming: About China’s Online ‘Micro Drama’ Craze

For viewers, they’re the ultimate guilty pleasure. For producers, micro dramas mean big profit.

Ruixin Zhang

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PREMIUM CONTENT

Closely intertwined with the Chinese social media landscape and the fast-paced online entertainment scene, micro dramas have emerged as an immensely popular way to enjoy dramas in bite-sized portions. With their short-format style, these dramas have become big business, leading Chinese production studios to compete and rush to create the next ‘mini’ hit.

In February of this year, Chinese social media started flooding with various hashtags highlighting the huge commercial success of ‘online micro-short dramas’ (wǎngluò wēiduǎnjù 网络微短剧), also referred to as ‘micro drama’ or ‘short dramas’ (微短剧).

Stories ranged from “Micro drama screenwriters making over 100k yuan [$13.8k] monthly” to “Hengdian building earning 2.8 million yuan [$387.8k] rent from micro dramas within six months” and “Couple earns over 400 million [$55 million] in a month by making short dramas,” all reinforcing the same message: micro dramas mean big profits. (Respectively #短剧爆款编剧月入可超10万元#, #横店一栋楼半年靠短剧租金收入280万元#, #一对夫妇做短剧每月进账4亿多#.)

Micro dramas, taking China by storm and also gaining traction overseas, are basically super short streaming series, with each episode usually lasting no more than two minutes.

 
From Horizontal to Vertical
 

Online short dramas are closely tied to Chinese social media and have been around for about a decade, initially appearing on platforms like Youku and Tudou. However, the genre didn’t explode in popularity until 2020.

That year, China’s State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) introduced a “fast registration and filing module for online micro dramas” to their “Key Online Film and Television Drama Information Filing System.” Online dramas or films can only be broadcast after obtaining an “online filing number.”

Chinese streaming giants such as iQiyi, Tencent, and Youku then began releasing 10-15 minute horizontal short dramas in late 2020. Despite their shorter length and faster pace, they actually weren’t much different from regular TV dramas.

Soon after, short video social platforms like Douyin (TikTok) and Kuaishou joined the trend, launching their own short dramas with episodes only lasting around 3 minutes each.

Of course, Douyin wouldn’t miss out on this trend and actively contributed to boosting the genre. To better suit its interface, Douyin converted horizontal-screen dramas into vertical ones (竖屏短剧).

Then, in 2021, the so-called mini-program (小程序) short dramas emerged, condensing each episode to 1-2 minutes, often spanning over 100 episodes.

These short dramas are advertised on platforms like Douyin, and when users click, they are directed to mini-programs where they need to pay for further viewing. Besides direct payment revenue, micro dramas may also bring in revenue from advertising.

 
‘Losers’ Striking Back
 

You might wonder what could possibly unfold in a TV drama lasting just two minutes per episode.

The Chinese cultural media outlet ‘Hedgehog Society’ (刺猬公社) collected data from nearly 6,000 short dramas and generated a word cloud based on their content keywords.

In works targeted at female audiences, the most common words revolve around (romantic) relationships, such as “madam” (夫人) and “CEO” (总裁). Unlike Chinese internet novels from over a decade ago, which often depicted perfect love and luxurious lifestyles, these short dramas offer a different perspective on married life and self-discovery.

According to Hedgehog Society’s data, the frequency of the term “divorce” (离婚) in short dramas is ten times higher than “married” (结婚) or “newlyweds” (新婚). Many of these dramas focus on how the female protagonist builds a better life after divorce and successfully stands up to her ex-husband or to those who once underestimated her — both physically and emotionally.

One of the wordclouds by 刺猬公社.

In male-oriented short dramas, the pursuit of power is a common theme, with phrases like “the strongest in history” (史上最强) and “war god” (战神) frequently mentioned. Another surprising theme is “matrilocal son” (赘婿), the son-in-law who lives with his wife’s family. In China, this term is derogatory, particularly referring to husbands with lower economic income and social status than their wives, which is considered embarrassing in traditional Chinese views. However, in these short dramas, the matrilocal son will employ various methods to earn the respect of his wife’s family and achieve significant success.

Although storylines differ, a recurring theme in these short dramas is protagonists wanting to turn their lives around. This desire for transformation is portrayed from various perspectives, whether it’s from the viewpoint of a wealthy, elite individual or from those with lower social status, such as divorced single women or matrilocal son-in-laws. This “feel-good” sentiment appears to resonate with many Chinese viewers.

Cultural influencer Lu Xuyu (@卢旭宁) quoted from a forum on short dramas, explaining the types of short dramas that are popular: Men seek success and admiration, and want to be pursued by beautiful women. Women seek romantic love or are still hoping the men around them finally wake up. One netizen commented more bluntly: “They are all about the counterattack of the losers (屌丝逆袭).”

The word used here is “diaosi,” a term used by Chinese netizens for many years to describe themselves as losers in a self-deprecating way to cope with the hardships of a competitive life, in which it has become increasingly difficult for Chinese youths to climb the social ladder.

 
Addicted to Micro Drama
 

By early 2024, the viewership of China’s micro dramas had soared to 120 million monthly active users, with the genre particularly resonating with lower-income individuals and the elderly in lower-tier markets.

However, short dramas also enjoy widespread popularity among many young people. According to data cited by Bilibili creator Caoxiaoling (@曹小灵比比叨), 64.9% of the audience falls within the 15-29 age group.

For these young viewers, short dramas offer rapid plot twists, meme-worthy dialogues, condensing the content of several episodes of a long drama into just one minute—stripping away everything except the pure “feel-good” sentiment, which seems rare in the contemporary online media environment. Micro dramas have become the ultimate ‘guilty pleasure.’

Various micro dramas, image by Sicomedia.

Even the renowned Chinese actress Ning Jing (@宁静) admitted to being hooked on short dramas. She confessed that while initially feeling “scammed” by the poor production and acting, she became increasingly addicted as she continued watching.

It’s easy to get hooked. Despite criticisms of low quality or shallowness, micro dramas are easy to digest, featuring clear storylines and characters. They don’t demand night-long binge sessions or investment in complex storylines. Instead, people can quickly watch multiple episodes while waiting for their bus or during a short break, satisfying their daily drama fix without investing too much time.

 
Chasing the gold rush
 

During the recent Spring Festival holiday, the Chinese box office didn’t witness significant growth compared to previous years. In the meantime, the micro drama “I Went Back to the 80s and Became a Stepmother” (我在八零年代当后妈), shot in just 10 days with a post-production cost of 80,000 yuan ($11,000), achieved a single-day revenue exceeding 2 million yuan ($277k). It’s about a college girl who time-travels back to the 1980s, reluctantly getting married to a divorced pig farm owner with kids, but unexpectedly falling in love.

Despite its simple production and clichéd plot, micro dramas like this are drawing in millions of viewers. The producer earned over 100 million yuan ($13 million) from this drama and another short one.

“I Went Back to the 80s and Became a Stepmother” (我在八零年代当后妈).

The popularity of short dramas, along with these significant profits, has attracted many people to join the short drama industry. According to some industry insiders, a short drama production team often involves hundreds or even thousands of contributors who help in writing scripts. These contributors include college students, unemployed individuals, and online writers — seemingly anyone can participate.

By now, Hengdian World Studios, the largest film and television shooting base in China, is already packed with crews filming short dramas. With many production teams facing a shortage of extras, reports have surfaced indicating significant increases in salaries, with retired civil workers even being enlisted as actors.

Despite the overwhelming success of some short dramas like “I Went Back to the 80s and Became a Stepmother,” it is not easy to replicate their formula. The screenwriter of the time-travel drama, Mi Meng (@咪蒙的微故事), is a renowned online writer who is very familiar with how to use online strategies to draw in more viewers. For many average creators, their short drama production journey is much more difficult and less fruitful.

But with low costs and potentially high returns, even if only one out of a hundred productions succeeds, it could be sufficient to recover the expenses of the others. This high-stakes, cutthroat competition poses a significant challenge for smaller players in the micro drama industry – although they actually fueled the genre’s growth.

As more scriptwriters and short dramas flood the market, leading to content becoming increasingly similar, the chances of making profits are likely to decrease. Many short drama platforms have yet to start generating net profits.

This situation has sparked concerns among netizens and critics regarding the future of short dramas. Given the genre’s success and intense competition, a transformation seems inevitable: only the shortest dramas that cater to the largest audiences will survive.

In the meantime, however, netizens are enjoying the hugely wide selection of micro dramas still available to them. One Weibo blogger, Renmin University Professor Ma Liang (@学者马亮), writes: “I spent some time researching short videos and watched quite a few. I must admit, once you start, you just can’t stop. ”

By Ruixin Zhang, edited with further input by Manya Koetse

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