TikTok replacements, ranked

Constine's Newsletter #10: Triller vs Dubsmash vs Byte vs Reels, plus unintended consequences of threatening a TikTok ban

100 million users are at stake. Trump says he’s going to ban TikTok, sending creators into a panic, begging their fans to follow them on YouTube, OnlyFans, Airbnb… wherever they can earn money.

So what other apps like TikTok can video makers switch to? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Which is going to emerge as the leader in what I call micro-entertainment?

Teens may go to war with Trump for threatening their favorite app, campaigning even harder to vote him out. The fate of TikTok and its rivals could not only influence the future of social, but of our democracy.

So, there are four potential replacements for TikTok, or competitors if Trump lets Microsoft or another tech giant buy it instead of banning it.

  • Byte: Vine founder Dom Hofmann’s sequel, designed for comedy and curation - 2.5 million U.S. installs

  • Triller: A Hollywood-centric approach with celebrities and record label deals - 23 million U.S. installs

  • Dubsmash: TikTok’s oldest rival, focused on urban teens and dancing - 41.5 million U.S. installs

  • Instagram Reels: Insta’s TikTok clone, buried in the Explore tab - 1 billion+ monthly users

Stats via Sensor Tower

Whichever wins will need the right combination of a familiar interface, fun features, smart algorithms, name-brand influencers, emerging creators, remixable content, and monetization options. New ones are constantly popping up like Clash, which launched Thursday and scored 100,000 installs in its first few days. It’s a creator-founded approach, but lacks the music remix and video editing tools needed to be a viable option.

Frankly, these apps all feel years behind TikTok. They also fail at the one thing that could make YouTube, despite its dead-in-the-water short-form video feature, the actual winner here: a predictable, sustainable way of paying creators.

Can Trump ban TikTok?

If you’re just getting up to speed, Trump has announced his intentions to ban TikTok in the U.S. due to privacy and security concerns stemming from the app’s ownership by Chinese tech giant ByteDance. The fears range from the Chinese government influencing global culture and sowing discord in the societies of its enemies to it stealing data or plotting cyberattacks through its installation on billions of phones. These threats range from very real to fever dreams, fueled by legitimate concerns regarding China’s authoritarian values, nuanced trade arguments, and jingoistic racism.

Is it legal for Trump to ban TikTok? Maybe. There are a few ways he could:

  • CFIUS - Stopping short of a ban, The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States could require ByteDance to divest its stake in TikTok, which could be bought by US investors or a tech giant like Microsoft which has explored a deal

  • Entity List - Trump could place ByteDance on the Commerce Department’s Entity List, designed to limit U.S. exports to the company, which might lead Apple and Google to stop supporting updates for TikTok

  • Deplatforming - Trump could use the International Emergency Economic Powers Act for protecting national security to restrict use of TikTok in the U.S., removing it from the App Stores

  • Law Enforcement - The Federal Trade Commission and Department Of Justice could place heavy fines or policy restrictions on TikTok, making it difficult to continue efficiently operating in the U.S.

If TikTok is sold to Microsoft, it could still operate in the US but might not advance as quickly without the deep social and content recommendation AI of ByteDance. That could help rivals reduce TikTok’s enormous lead. (Though Microsoft didn’t ruin its acquisitions Minecraft and LinkedIn, despite being labeled as asocial.) But if the app does get banned, it could decimate creators who’ve spent years building a following there. Expect them to desperately push fans to add them on one of these TikTok replacements:

#4. Dubsmash - The Authentic Kids

The Story: Dubsmash launched just months after TikTok predecessor Musically in 2014, letting users lip sync to movie quotes and rap lyrics. Focused on Black youth, it became a testing ground for new dance trends like The Renegade that were later ripped off and popularized on TikTok. Dubsmash got overshadowed by Musically, almost shut down in 2017, but the founders laid off their whole staff, restarted the company back in the US, and began growing again. Here’s my TechCrunch profile of Dubsmash.

The Strategy: A focus on amateur creators making authentic native content surfaced by an algorithm designed to give everyone a shot at going viral if they’re entertaining enough. The app defaults to the Following tab of friends and emerging influencers you subscribe rather than the For You Page-style Trending tab, and hasn’t catered to celebrities.

The Problem: Dubsmash has perhaps the weakest app, with no ability to upload and rearrange multiple clips, no record label deals, and no augmented reality filters. A lack of any monetization tools disincentivizes creators. It’s also failed to capitalize on TikTok’s troubles, ranking at #86 in the US on iOS today while rivals hit the top 5.

The Verdict: Dubsmash’s creative tools are just too limited and cumbersome for video makers switching from TikTok’s best-in-class features. Without enough traditional or mobile-first stars, there’s little dragging creators or viewers into the app, so it ranks last.

#3. Byte - The Vine Reboot

The Story: Vine co-founder Dom Hofmann was so pissed Twitter shut down his creation that he began working on a replacement two years ago, and finally launched Byte in January. Hofmann has focused on crafting elegant micro-entertainment tools. It’s fostered a community of comedians and artists who miss the Vine days.

The Strategy: Byte has the most advanced creation tools of the TikTok replacements. It lets you mix recording and pre-shot videos; upload sounds separately; and overlay floating imagery in 3D space. The creative restraint of a 15-second limit with perfect loops lends itself to comedic timing and trippy art, rather than thirst traps. Its curated Spotlight and themed content collections conjure Vine nostalgia by spawning app-wide inside jokes. And it’s doling out cash to creators in occasional $250,000 chunks (though that’s nothing compared to TikTok’s $1 billion creator fund).

The Problem: Byte’s late start, slow product development, and lack of superstars or augmented reality filters give it a disadvantage amongst younger users who weren’t hip to Vine in its 2015 heyday. The older audience might be less intent and prolific than the extremely-online teens populating competitors. It also just doesn’t have the engineering prowess to build the AI necessary to nail recommendations right now.

The Verdict: Byte could build a safe micro-entertainment space for adults without the cringey trends and gratuitous skin that might have scared them away from TikTok. They’ve pushed it to the #3 US iOS app today. But Byte’s emergent behaviors don’t match the teen audience the could be up for grabs, and the team may not have the hustle to adapt.

#2. Instagram Reels - The Buried Copycat

The Story: “Zuckerberg misunderstands TikTok” I wrote last year about why storyboarded micro-entertainment is different than spontaneous biographical social media. That came after Facebook’s CEO claimed the competitor was like the Instagram Explore tab. A few months after that article and a meeting where I forced Instagram’s skeptical leadership to watch TikToks with me and warned it would eat their lunch, Facebook announced Reels. It’s essentially an exact clone of TikTok, but with the feed buried inside the Instagram Explore tab. After testing in Brazil, Reels launched in India just as TikTok was banned there, and Instagram plans to launch it in the U.S. in early August.

The Strategy: This is the Snapchat Stories playbook all over again: Create a good-enough competitor connected to the social graph you’ve already built within an app you open daily. Humans are narcissistic and will share where they get the most views, which Instagram can funnel to Reels. And since the app is well monetized, it’s now offering six-figure deals to TikTok stars to become Reels exclusives.

The Problem: The success of Reels will depend on Instagram’s level of conviction. Front-and-center placement on the homescreen for Stories destroyed Snapchat’s version, and the same for Reels could make it an instant hit. But if Instagram half-asses this, keeping Reels buried in Explore, it could flop like IGTV. Instagram lacks what I call “content network effect”, having no back catalog of viral videos for remix fodder, though Facebook does have record label deals. And subtly but importantly, Instagram’s algorithm was designed for biographical content that makes you look cool, and promoting stars that are already famous. The cringey, zany video experiments that would populate Reels might feel dissonant for viewers and embarrassing for creators, and it may be tough for Instagram to learn to pluck potential hits from obscurity.

The Verdict: If Instagram goes hard at Reels with homepage placement, it could leapfrog the pack and become the heir to TikTok. But convincing creators and viewers to mix “look how perfect I am” selfies with unique and absurd video “auditions to go viral” into a one-size-fits-all app might lead to Reels to become the neglected laughing stock of Instagram.

#1: Triller - The Celebrity Soapbox

The Story: Triller began as a music-laced video creation tool in 2015 before blossoming into a TikTok-style social network the next year. It signed deals with the major record labels so it could feature official music video clips, let users soundtrack their creations without getting taken down, and ensure musicians get paid. Its Hollywood connections have attracted artists like The Weeknd, extreme sports videographers, and other premium content creators. It’s hit #1 multiple times recently, including today, as it pays TikTok stars and celebs like Mike Tyson to sign on and bring their fans.

The Strategy: Triller uses big names and polished videos to lure in casual users, defaulting to a Music tab beside ones for Social or Following. Then it offers amateur users intuitive creative tools, decent filters, and its vibey auto-editing shuffle feature for making their own. It’s developed American Idol-style contests to surface future stars as well as its own trends and challenges. The cleaner, more corporate feel could appeal to the mainstream and be less likely to frighten parents.

The Problem: I still get this sterilized, try-hard, Quibi-esque feeling from Triller. It lacks the heart and edginess of TikTok, Byte, and Dubsmash that could make teens apprehensive about building culture there. Once you get past the initial blast of celebrity content, Triller fails to intelligently adapt to your tastes, and app crashes can kill your videos mid-edit. It’s yet to replicate the face-distorting augmented reality filters that have spawned countless TikTok memes, and seems to have scrapped its virtual currency for letting creators earn money. Overall, there’s this “How do you do, fellow kids?” stink Gen Z may be allergic to.

The Verdict: Triller is still the closest to a full-service TikTok replacement of the crowd, and it has the momentum to become its successor. It needs to build out ways to sustainably pay influencers, refine its algorithm to bubble up the best and silliest from unknown creators, and persuade its new-school and old-school celebs to keep posting. But Triller has demonstrated the foresight, hustle, and ability to harness TikTok’s troubles necessary to become a de facto #1 or a persistent #2.

Gen Z Is Big Mad

Whether or not TikTok gets banned, the whole situation has poked the bear of tomorrow’s generation. Hundreds of millions of teens have invested time into building followings, training recommendation algorithms, and knitting together communities on TikTok. Now threatened, they’re likely to lash out.

[Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch]

If TikTok is banned, don’t expect Gen Z and late millennials to go quietly to other apps. They will understandably freak out. Influencers who lose lucrative fandoms will rail against Trump on their remaining social platforms. Some of the time typically drained into TikTok’s For You Page could end up being spent phone banking and propaganda meme-making for Biden.

And if Trump allows a deal to go through for investors, Microsoft, or another U.S. company to buy TikTok last-minute, its users won’t forget what they almost lost, and who was responsible. There’s no putting the micro-entertainment genie back in the bottle. Getting weird, cute, or funny for 15 seconds of fame is a part of our culture now.

I love you if you read this far. Reply or comment with your take or what I should write about next.