Analysis. The social network of the Beijing-based company ByteDance is growing all over the world and calls for ‘diversity and inclusion.’ But it exports the work standards of Chinese high tech, with ‘996’ shifts and meager wages.

TikTok conquers the world with its model of exploitation

“Aim for the Highest” and “Grow together” are some of the phrases on a short list that describes the so-called “ByteDance model,” the corporate code of conduct of the parent company of the social network Douyin and its international version, TikTok. Last week, CEO Liang Rubo, who took over from founder Zhang Yiming a few months ago, told employees that he had updated the code, aiming to indicate the right way forward for the management and the over 160,000 employees: the phrase “Champion diversity and inclusion,” for example, rose up to second place, an indication of the company’s desire to “build a diversified team” that embraces globalization.

With revenues that reached $58 billion in 2021, ByteDance is aiming to expand the workforce of TikTok, whose revenue in 2021 exceeded $4 billion. The platform is expected to hit $12 billion by the end of this year, an enormous figure, Bloomberg reported, that “bigger than Twitter Inc. and Snap Inc. [the Snapchat parent company] combined.” Last year it also held the record for the world’s most downloaded app, surpassing 1 billion monthly active users.

In 2020, despite its rifts with the Trump administration, the company had announced plans to add 10,000 people to its U.S. office workforce within three years, in addition to the 1,500 employees it already had. Those in its European offices increased from 208 in 2019 to 1,294 the following year: more and more full teams to support content diversification. The platform’s profits to date depend not only on advertising, but also come from music and video game distribution.

The company is also focusing on e-commerce, particularly the livestreaming sales system that has been hugely successful in the People’s Republic of China, supported by an advanced logistics structure and robust online payment platforms such as WeChat Pay and Alipay. Douyin has already experimented with it in 2019, unsurprisingly with more than outstanding results.

But its international deployment is encountering quite a few obstacles. In June, the Financial Times became the vehicle for several complaints from employees and collaborators of the “TikTok Shop” service, launched in the UK last year as the first experiment outside the Asian continent.

A number of influencers reportedly decided to leave the platform after their revenue was eaten up by large cuts to the base fee (to which commissions on sales are added). Clothes and bags available for sale live have been accused of being “fast fashion” of the worst kind, of poor quality and, in some cases, counterfeit, despite the platform’s claim to have strict guidelines in this regard. Working hours do not appear to have been scaled back, and still consist of two livestreaming sessions per week with between two and six hours per session. In the British newspaper, one employee accused ByteDance of showing “arrogance” for exporting a business model without “localizing the experience.”

The internationalization process in which the company is investing is also generating a whole series of reflections on the shifts in perspective required. For instance, on the difficulty of being subjected to the “cultural and linguistic standards” that Silicon Valley generally imposes on other regions of the world: U.S. and European employees have had to give up the so-called “HQ privilege,” as former TikTok USA project manager Melody Chu called it, who dedicated a three-part story to her one-and-a-half-year experience at the company, published on the content platform Medium.

Her reflections read like a mix between a reality show survivor story and a spiritual journey. Well aware of the downsides – including a work culture notorious for embracing “996,” the typical schedule in Chinese high tech circles of 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. shifts for six days a week – Chu nevertheless decided to take the job for the career opportunities and to prove herself “in one of the toughest cross-cultural company cultures.”

The biggest difficulties in working at the company, along with strong language barriers, stem from the need for constant communication with the administrative and decision-making team, based in Beijing and to a lesser extent in Singapore. This forces U.S. employees to plug into work calls late on Sunday evenings, when it’s early morning on Monday in China. “I was past my burnout point for months,” admits the author, who then goes on to list the positive aspects she gleaned from the experience, including proving to herself that she is “resilient” – she literally uses that very word.

But testimonies of this kind – which seem to constitute a separate journalistic strand, useful for uncovering the juicy underbelly of TikTok’s success – also bring to light the factors that have driven its record-breaking growth. Given the geographic remoteness and the so-called “closed loop” strategy, which optimizes centralized control and limits data sharing with third parties, it is not uncommon for different groups to unintentionally be working on identical functionality. But the company is only marginally affected by this, as it aims to cultivate continuous competition among teams with a view to securing an uninterrupted flow of projects.

At TikTok, it seems that ideas take shape in a much shorter time than in traditional Silicon Valley companies, growth goals are bigger and deadlines are shorter. And the search for talent is easier: if there is a shortage of a certain professional role in the U.S., the company can search among the huge pool of recent graduates in China, estimated to exceed 10 million for the first time this year.

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