How TikTok became a diplomatic crisis

But according to interviews with current and former ByteDance employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions, the company was caught between the cultures it was trying to bridge. Employees say they were expected to work “996,” meaning six days a week – 72 hours – from 9am to 9pm – a standard schedule for Chinese tech companies. During this early phase of expansion, talks with overseas branches often ran until midnight, and important meetings were held on Sundays. ByteStyle, the company’s code of values, preaches a culture that could have been adopted across the board from Google or Amazon: diverse, inclusive, radically honest and transparent. But salary discussions are “a bloody line,” said a former employee, and talking to the press is absolutely forbidden. The structure was flat, especially by Chinese standards – ByteDance abolished titles for senior positions and allowed all employees access to other employees’ metrics, including Zhang’s. But it was still clear which way orders were flowing, and managers were rarely interviewed.

“ByteDance is run like a machine,” said a former employee. In China, the company is nicknamed “Super App Factory” in recognition of its streamlined system for delivering new products. (By one count, ByteDance had more than 140 apps under its umbrella between 2018 and 2020.) The high level of organization and systematization is one of the company’s strengths, as it allows for rapid progress and growth. But it can also be cold and dehumanizing. “Your goals are published and convey the mantra that your colleagues are your competitors, not your friends,” the employee said. “It’s like a boiler room, a boiler room on Wall Street.”

As the company’s international expansion began, all employees were encouraged to learn English. Zhang also studied and sometimes mentioned books he had heard on Speak English, a popular ESL app, such as Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now. In 2020, ByteDance hired 40,000 new employees – an average of 150 each working day – many of them outside of China and most in pandemic conditions. Some Chinese employees resented the consequences of overseas expansion. “Many Chinese employees may have been working for ByteDance for years and didn’t want to start learning English, talk to foreigners or change the company values,” another former employee told me. “Many people in the Beijing office felt that they would lose their company to Yiming’s expansion into foreign markets.” Some Chinese employees were reportedly upset that foreign employees posted on their LinkedIn profiles as working only for TikTok, without ByteDance to mention.

The integration was also complicated for the foreign employees – especially those who came to ByteDance from senior positions at big American technology companies. Having been promised autonomy and independence, they found that accepting that supreme authority resided in Beijing might be difficult. “America has been used to being the standard setter and arbiter of business practice, being the home market and being the headquarters for so long that it’s not in the American psyche to be one of the regions,” said the second former associate. “Americans are not used to not asserting themselves.”

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For the foreign employees at the Beijing headquarters, the role of cultural translator was an essential part of the job. When ByteDance tried to internationalize one of its short video products, the first former employee recalled being consulted. In China, the product was known as Xigua Shipin (“Watermelon Video”), and the internationalization team announced that they had chosen a foreign name: “Ripe Melons”. He told them they couldn’t call it that. “They said, ‘Why?'” said the former employee. “I said, ‘Just trust me, you can’t.’ They thought it was a great name. They said, ‘Melons is a slang word for women’s boobs.’ They say, ‘No, it’s melons, which are fresh.'” The product was eventually named BuzzVideo.

Floating across cultures as a kind of internet-age anthropologist was part of what made working at TikTok interesting and novel. When the app was first launched, each country and market had a slightly different slant. Thai users liked videos of people dancing at school; Japanese users preferred funny videos over otaku, young people obsessed with anime, manga, and video games; Vietnamese users especially liked the slick camera work. The United States proved harder to crack, until TikTok’s product managers let users push the creation of a new category — Americans, it turned out, had an unusual attachment to memes.

But often, ByteDance’s rapid growth abroad led to a strange mashup. “The culture of TikTok, unlike the promotional materials, is incredibly Chinese, in a way that shocks foreigners,” said the second former employee. “But on the other hand, it’s a much more foreign tech company than most Chinese have worked before.” Turnover was often high both in Beijing and in the overseas offices because of employees’ long working hours, coordination across time zones and the juggling cultures burned out. But success eventually brought its own kind of stability. “It’s become a mainstream tech company — we get people from Google, Facebook, Snapchat, consultancies, blue-chip companies,” said a current American contributor. “It doesn’t feel like a Chinese pariah company in any way anymore.”

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