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Facebook’s strategy of cloning competitors might be inspired by Chinese tech companies, Zuckerberg emails show

Abacus logo Abacus 5 days ago Xinmei Shen xinmei.shen@scmp.com
Mark Zuckerberg wearing a suit and tie: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, seen here testifying before the House Financial Services Committee in 2019, endorsed the idea of quickly copying competitors similar to Chinese tech companies. Photo: Reuters Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, seen here testifying before the House Financial Services Committee in 2019, endorsed the idea of quickly copying competitors similar to Chinese tech companies. Photo: Reuters

It wasn't long ago that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg seemed to be pulling out all the stops to try to gain access to China. But rising tensions between the US and China have shown that Zuckerberg no longer sees the country as a friend. Still, his time spent admiring China appears to have resulted in Facebook adopting a at least one important strategy from Chinese companies.

Email exchanges from 2012 presented by the House Judiciary Committee show that Zuckerberg and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg agreed to a suggestion that the company quickly clone other products to "prevent our competitors from getting footholds."

In one of the emails, a high-level Facebook employee makes a case for using China's "strong culture for cloning things quickly and building lots of different products". The unnamed employee adds that this "allows them to plant lots of seeds" that start out as inferior products but eventually close the gap with the originals.

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The person uses China's Renren as one example. Once called China's Facebook, the then-popular social network eventually lost relevance as it failed to compete with Tencent's WeChat in the mobile era.

But in 2012, Renren was still relevant and the Facebook employee met with the company's founders. Renren didn't just have its own version of Facebook, the employee explains in the email. The company also built its own versions of Pinterest and Tumblr and made its own voice-enabled messaging app. Renren made games, too, and it had six of the top 10 games on iOS at the time, the email notes.

The email also mentions a "Voxer-like" voice messaging app from Tencent that's "really blowing up in China", which is likely WeChat. The chat app was launched in 2011 and quickly took off the next year. Today it's a do-it-all super app around which China's netizens organise their digital lives.

a screenshot of a cell phone: Renren, launched in 2005, has often been compared to Facebook. Image: Screenshot © Provided by Abacus Renren, launched in 2005, has often been compared to Facebook. Image: Screenshot

The documents show that Zuckerberg forwarded the email to Sheryl Sandberg, saying that she would agree with it. Sandberg said of course she agreed, but the issue was how they get it to happen. Other executives looped in also said they were in favour of this approach. One said, "I would love to be far more aggressive and nimble in copying competitors at the interface / last mile level."

Since that email chain went out, Facebook has clearly found success copying at least some of its competitors. The most famous example is Instagram Stories, a feature that lets users put up disappearing photo and video posts. The format was previously a stand-out feature of Snapchat.

When Representative Pramila Jayapal asked if Facebook copies its competitors, Zuckerberg said they "have certainly adapted features that others have led in". Jayapal also asked how many competitors Facebook has copied since the 2012 emails, but Zuckerberg said he didn't have a number.

Mark Zuckerberg standing in front of a flat screen television: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law on July 29. Photo: EPA-EFE © Provided by Abacus Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law on July 29. Photo: EPA-EFE

While imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, Zuckerberg has also praised Chinese tech companies like Alibaba and Xiaomi. But that was when he still appeared keen to gain market access to China. He's singing a different tune these days.

Since last year, Zuckerberg has been sounding the alarm about Chinese tech giants expanding overseas, saying that China is exporting its internet based on different ideas and values. He was also quick to to take advantage of TikTok being accused of censorship last year. Meanwhile, Facebook has been working on its own TikTok clones that include the now-defunct Lasso and Instagram Reels, which will be launched early next month.

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