Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) recently launched Lasso, a clone of ByteDance's popular short video app TikTok. Like TikTok, Lasso allows users to record 15-second videos synced with popular songs, and features an algorithmic feed of recommended videos which users can interact with via likes, shares, and hashtags.
This move isn't surprising -- Facebook previously cloned Snap's (NYSE:SNAP) Snapchat by adding ephemeral messages, filters, video stories, and other features to Instagram. Those moves throttled Snapchat's growth, and enabled Facebook to retain its younger users via a secondary app. Can Facebook accomplish the same coup against TikTok, which surpassed 500 million monthly active users (MAUs) in July?
Where did TikTok come from?
Last year, Chinese start-up ByteDance (then known as Toutiao) acquired the lip-syncing app Musical.ly for about $800 million to $1 billion. It then merged Musical.ly with its similar Chinese app, TikTok (also known as Douyin in China), to expand its reach into over 150 countries.
This merger created a social media platform that successfully straddled the US and Chinese markets for teen users. In October, TikTok surpassed Facebook, Instagram, Alphabet's YouTube, and Snapchat in monthly installs across the US, according to Sensor Tower.
TikTok is currently the fifth most popular free iOS app in the US, according to App Annie, and the third most popular Google Play app. Facebook's core app, Messenger, and Instagram all trail behind TikTok in both app stores.
Why Facebook is worried
Facebook is clearly concerned about TikTok's meteoric growth. TikTok fills the micro-music video void left after Twitter discontinued Vine in 2016, and demonstrates what Vine could have become if Twitter had continued developing the platform.
TikTok's growth threatens Facebook on multiple fronts. It could lure younger users away from Facebook and Instagram, it could pull content creators and advertisers away from Facebook Watch, and it represents another obstacle in its repeated attempts to reenter the Chinese market.
Facebook isn't the only tech giant worried about TikTok's growth. Tencent (NASDAQOTH:TCEHY), which owns China's top messaging app WeChat, also invested heavily in other Gen Z-oriented apps and restructured its business units to compete more effectively against TikTok and ByteDance's other popular apps.
Facebook isn't shy about cloning features from other platforms. Its decision to launch Messenger as a stand-alone platform for hosting mini-apps was clearly influenced by Tencent's expansion of WeChat into an all-in-one platform. It repeatedly copied Snapchat, much to Snap's chagrin, and now it's turning its attention toward ByteDance.
Does Lasso stand a chance?
Lasso will likely face trouble growing it's user base for two simple reasons. First, TikTok has a first mover's advantage, and now has a MAU base which is at least half the size of Instagram's. Catching up to a market leader with a new clone app is extremely difficult.
Second, many investors forget that Facebook repeatedly failed to challenge Snapchat with stand-alone apps like Poke and Slingshot, and that it only succeeded after it integrated Snapchat-like features into Instagram's established ecosystem. That's why Instagram pulled stand-alone apps like Boomerang back into its core app.
Lasso will likely become the next Slingshot instead of the next Instagram. Facebook might consider integrating TikTok-like features into Instagram instead, but that could cause the app to become bloated and strain the already tense relationship with its higher-growth subsidiary.
Will TikTok stay in its own lane?
TikTok isn't a threat to Facebook or Instagram yet, but Facebook clearly sees the warning signs -- it's popular with teens, and it fills a niche market which its platforms can't reach. TikTok's growth might peak, or it might burn out like Vine. But if it doesn't, Facebook will need to figure out how to counter TikTok's growth before it expands its ecosystem and becomes a dangerous competitor.
Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Leo Sun owns shares of Facebook and Tencent Holdings. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Facebook, Tencent Holdings, and Twitter. The Motley Fool has the following options: short November 2018 $155 calls on Facebook and long November 2018 $135 puts on Facebook. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.