By Clare Duffy, CNN
In the days after TikTok’s CEO was grilled by Congress for the first time, many TikTok users began posting about an alternative platform called Lemon8, sometimes with eerily similar language.
Multiple creators described the app as being like “if Pinterest and Instagram had a baby, with TikTok’s algorithm.” Some compared it to TikTok circa 2020 and encouraged other influencers to join the app before it grows. They also asked followers to share their Lemon8 usernames in the comments.
As it turned out, the app wasn’t just a random alternative to TikTok. Lemon8 is a social media platform launched in the United States earlier this year by TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance amid federal and state efforts to ban or restrict TikTok in the country over national security concerns.
The similarities in the videos comparing the new service to Instagram and Pinterest, which were posted by both English and Spanish-speaking creators, raised questions about whether people were being paid to promote the new app on TikTok. But despite that speculation — and the mounting scrutiny on TikTok and ByteDance — a growing number of US users and influencers are now eagerly touting Lemon8, with its focus on photos and highly curated, informational or “aspirational” content.
“We have to talk about TikTok’s new sister app,” a creator said in one such video.
“I’ve seen a lot of bigger content creators that I love on it and promoting it on their Instagram stories, so I thought, ‘okay, it’s my time to hop on this bandwagon,'” said Melanie Cruz, who got her start creating content as a YouTube vlogger in high school around 2018. “I like that it’s something simple, it’s nothing too in your face … it’s not overwhelming.”
Lemon8 has been downloaded just over one million times in the United States since it became available on US app stores in February, and had around half a million daily active US users last month, according to intelligence platform Apptopia.
The early traction for Lemon8 hints at the whack-a-mole challenge lawmakers could face in reining in TikTok and other social media platforms. It also carries some hints of TikTok’s own rise, which was reportedly fueled in part by ByteDance spending heavily to advertise the service on rival platforms Facebook and Snapchat. This time, however, the best place to promote the next TikTok may be on TikTok itself.
The New York Times reported last month that ByteDance had begun early marketing efforts for Lemon8 that included working with influencers. Now, some creators featured on Lemon8’s “for you” feed appear to be disclosing their work with the company using the hashtag #Lemon8Partner in their captions.
A ByteDance company source said that Lemon8 is still in its early days and testing how to work with creators. They said ByteDance has not launched any formal marketing efforts for Lemon8, but in some cases has made deals to pay creators to post on the platform. However, they denied rumors that ByteDance had paid creators to promote the new app on TikTok.
ByteDance has also recently listed open jobs for Lemon8 creator partnerships roles, according to postings viewed by CNN. “Lemon8 is a social media platform committed to building a diverse and inclusive community where people can discover new content and creators every day,” the job postings read.
A return to photos
Lemon8’s photo-heavy focus marks a stark shift away from most of the major social apps that, following TikTok’s lead, have gone all-in on endlessly scrollable short-form videos in recent years.
Lemon8’s homepage is a “for you” feed where users can scroll through content, similar to TikTok, but instead of videos, the feed is two columns of still images. When you click through to a post, it might be a single photo or a carousel of images. It’s also possible to post videos on the app, but they’re less popular.
The app is heavily centered on beauty and lifestyle content — the “for you” page can be sorted into six categories including fashion, home and travel. Many of the posts feature lengthy captions, and users can also edit images to include text overlays. On top of similarities to Instagram and Pinterest, Lemon8 looks nearly identical to the Chinese app Xiaohongshu.
Still, the app lacks some standard social platform features such as messaging and the option to tag other users in posts.
A recent scroll through Lemon8’s “for you” page showed before-and-after photos of a botox treatment, a “no restrictions” day-long eating plan, book recommendations, black tie wedding attire tips and “10 recent girly Amazon buys I do NOT regret.”
“It seems like people love it or hate it,” Madison Bravenec, a health coach and content creator, said of the app’s focus on aesthetics. But she added that the app’s targeted focus on certain types of content has made it easier to find a community that’s interested in the wellness content she likes to create, whereas the most popular posts on TikTok often have to appeal to a wider audience.
Some creators say Lemon8 is filling a hole in the social media ecosystem that was left when Instagram moved to prioritize short-form video content in order to better compete with TikTok, frustrating many creators who joined the app for its original focus on photos.
“We’re not videographers, we’re not the types of people who would like to change the ways we create content and communicate with others just because a platform is prioritizing one deliverable over the other,” said Can Ahtam, a professional photographer who joined Instagram more than a decade ago. “So all of us did feel the impact of reach being lower with the photos we were sharing [on Instagram].”
Ahtam added: “If we were to compare them side-by-side right now, Lemon8 would have the upper hand in photos being shared.”
Can the growth last?
Lemon8’s userbase remains a far cry from the 150 million users TikTok says it has in the United States.
Still, in videos reviewing Lemon8, some creators have pondered whether the app could ultimately function as a replacement if TikTok were to get banned in the United States, preserving the content recommendation algorithm that helped make TikTok one of the country’s most popular apps and launched the careers of countless influencers.
But if TikTok were to go down, Lemon8 would likely go with it, according to James Lewis, director of the strategic technologies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The concern is still the same, which is that ByteDance is a Chinese company subject to Chinese law,” Lewis said. “If it collects [users’ personal] information, then you’ve got the same problem.”
TikTok, for its part, has said that its app does not pose a risk to US users, and that the Chinese government has never asked for US user data.
The practical ramifications for creators of a TikTok (and, perhaps by extension, Lemon8) ban — if one were enacted — would still likely be months away, if not more. Lewis said he doesn’t expect any nationwide legislation to be passed before the end of this year, and it would almost certainly face legal challenges that could drag out its implementation if it did.
By launching a new app even with TikTok in the spotlight, “ByteDance clearly doesn’t feel like they’re at risk,” Lewis said. And many creators say they’re not necessarily worried either.
Even if TikTok and Lemon8 were banned, Cruz said, “I already have a following on all the other platforms.”
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