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TikTok owner ByteDance is developing a Clubhouse-like app for China, sources familiar with the matter told Reuters, as the global success of the US audio-only platform inspires others to copy the service.
At least a dozen similar apps have been launched in the past month, with momentum picking up after Clubhouse was blocked in China in early February.
Chinese users flocked to the uncensored social media app to listen into discussions on sensitive topics such as Xinjiang detention camps and Hong Kong independence.
Some Chinese users were paying more than $60 for a Clubhouse invite to get access to the app, Reuters reported February 7.
ByteDance’s plans are still in the early stages, said two sources who weren’t authorized to speak to media, and declined to be identified.
Discussions about TikTok and ByteDance on Clubhouse had prompted interest in the genre from ByteDance executives, including ByteDance CEO Zhang Yiming, said one of the sources.
ByteDance declined to comment.
The success of Clubhouse, which can host up to 8,000 people per chat room, has bumped up the demand for audio chat services, especially as high-profile users, including Mark Zuckerberg and Oprah Winfrey, have hosted discussions.
In February, Tesla CEO Elon Musk unexpectedly interviewed Vlad Tenev, the CEO of the trading app Robinhood, on Clubhouse, questioning him about the GameStop drama.
Xiaomi Corp reworked its Mi Talk app into an invitation-only audio service targeted at professionals last week. Industry executives say more of these apps are currently being developed.
But similar apps in China are expected to take on Chinese characteristics that will accommodate censorship and government oversight.
One example is Nasdaq-listed Lizhi Inc’s Zhiya app, which launched in 2013 and whose users usually discuss video games, or sing songs.
The app requires real name registration – Lizhi CEO Marco Lai told Reuters this is key in China. The company also employs staff to listen to conversations in every room, and deploys artificial intelligence tools to weed out “unwanted” content, such as pornography or politically-sensitive issues.
The app was briefly taken down by Chinese regulators in 2019, but reinstated after Lizhi made changes.
Lizhi’s Lai said that outside of politics, there was plenty of room for audio chat apps in China.
“Adults in China do not like to express their views in public, we have been taught to keep a low profile since we were young,” he told Reuters. “A good approach in China, though, is entertainment, you invite everybody to have fun.”
Some new entrants to the market have had hiccups.
Inke Ltd, best known for its livestreaming platform, launched a similar app, Duihuaba, this month that recruited venture capitalists, fashion critics, and other celebrities to host conversations.
However, it abruptly pulled the app two weeks after its debut, saying that it needed further improvements, without elaborating.
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