As Washington Calls for TikTok Ban, Its Owner Pushes a New App

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As TikTok’s chief executive was getting grilled by lawmakers last week about the app’s relationship to Beijing, with some even calling for a ban, the company’s Chinese owner was sending a message to Americans who regularly make and publish posts on social media: Come join our new app.

“ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, invites you to become a launching creator on their new Lemon8 platform before it officially rolls out in the United States!” said one of the messages sent to creators last week from marketing companies hired by ByteDance to do the outreach.

The notes and linked materials, which were reviewed by The New York Times, declared Lemon8’s ambition to become a top global social media service and cited the success of its “sister company TikTok.” It added that the platform, which has already been quietly introduced on app stores, used “the same recommendation engine that helps TikTok succeed.” It will initially focus on topics like fashion, healthy food and wellness.

The outreach is a sign that ByteDance appears undeterred in its ambitions to become one of the top makers of apps in the world, including in the United States, despite the growing calls in Washington to ban TikTok or force the company’s Chinese owners to sell it. TikTok has amassed 150 million U.S. users, and ByteDance appears eager to replicate its success with Lemon8.

But lawmakers and regulators may have similar concerns about Lemon8 as they do with TikTok, which has become a central battleground between the United States and China over technological and economic might. Washington officials have said TikTok poses a national security risk, citing concerns that Beijing could gain access to sensitive data about the app’s users, like location information, or that China could use TikTok’s content recommendations for misinformation.

“It’s a social media platform like Instagram, it has to do with gathering information on users and it has the same ownership structure, being a child of ByteDance, so I think the same issues are going to come up,” said Lindsay Gorman, head of technology and geopolitics at the German Marshall Fund and a former tech adviser for the Biden administration.

Even if the app initially appears innocuous, she added, “ultimately with social media platforms in particular, they involve content, and eventually that’s always going to lead to political content and news content.”

Jennifer Banks, a spokeswoman for ByteDance, did not respond to questions about Lemon8 and whether the company anticipated any regulatory scrutiny.

Lemon8 is available to download, but it has not been formally launched. ByteDance is planning a global marketing push to attract more users in May, according to emails to creators. The online news site Insider reported on Lemon8’s entry into the United States in February.

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Krishna Subramanian, a founder of the influencer marketing firm Captiv8, described the app as a combination of Pinterest and branded posts on Instagram, with a greater focus on pictures and more text than TikTok. It has two columns of content and is packed with product recommendations and tips, with an eye to fueling shopping.

Its “ideal creator portrait” is a 22- to 26-year-old woman in the New York or Los Angeles area with a focus on fashion or beauty, according to presentations that Lemon8 shared with marketing agencies in January. The vision for Lemon8, one page said, was “to build the most inspiring and informative platform to discover, share, and bring ideas to life.”

Lemon8 also said it was introduced in Japan in April 2020, and reached five million monthly active users worldwide last year as it expanded to other countries including Britain, Singapore and Indonesia.

The recruitment effort is a reminder of the gap between how Washington views TikTok and ByteDance, and the perceptions of marketers and TikTok’s often young users, including creators who make money by posting there. TikTok creators are already encouraging viewers to follow them on Lemon8, attracting comments littered with lemon emojis. ByteDance also owns a popular video-editing tool called CapCut, which has become one of the top free apps on Google’s and Apple’s app-store charts.

“The fact that it’s owned by ByteDance means that creators will give it a chance,” Mr. Subramanian said. “There is that chance it could become a really, really big part of culture.”

Crystal Scruggs, a 29-year-old lifestyle creator from Houston, received an email from Obviously, one of the marketing firms working with ByteDance, the day after TikTok’s chief executive, Shou Chew, gave roughly five-hour congressional testimony.

The email invited Ms. Scruggs to apply to become a launching creator for fashion on Lemon8. If chosen, Ms. Scruggs would be paid a small, undisclosed stipend for posting on the app. She would have to create 10 posts that would be published in April, with topics like shopping reviews and recommendations or fashion tutorials. Each post would include three to 10 images, require a caption of at least 150 words and need approval by Lemon8 before being published.

Crystal Scruggs was asked to apply to become a launching creator for fashion on Lemon8.Credit…Darnell McCoy

She said she was struck by the tone of the email, which she said felt different from the brand campaign emails she typically receives. It felt impersonal, and Ms. Scruggs initially wasn’t sure if it was a legitimate business opportunity.

“When companies or people who work with creators send over information, they usually ask you if you’re interested before just sending over a whole brief,” Ms. Scruggs said.

Ultimately, she was not interested. “The email just seemed like it was something that was sent out to a million different people and not something that was directed toward any people specifically to be a part of a campaign,” she added. “I try to stay away from those things.”

The effort has been something of a swarm by design. Hundreds of creators in the United States have already signed up, which will help Lemon8 reach its goal of populating the platform with thousands of pieces of content this spring, according to a person with direct knowledge of the app’s plans who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the plans were not public.

Once Lemon8 selects its initial creators in the United States, they will receive guidance on which topics and aesthetics tend to result in popular content. They will post throughout April in a phase called “content accumulation.” In May, the app will focus on adding users and helping creators gain followers. In September, the app will turn its attention to “commercialization opportunities,” like helping creators make money from brand and agency deals, and presumably other forms of advertising.

Lemon8 offered creators several incentives to be early partners of the platform beyond its stipends for posts. They could be featured on the app’s “Discover” page or among Lemon8’s “Rising Stars” — and they could even have their content marketed on TikTok.