How Did ‘Meitu’ Go Viral?

Meme History of A Selfie Makeover App

Image via CraveOnline
The term ‘meme’ was first coined by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene to explain how cultural information spreads.

On the Internet, memes are often tied with outburst of pop culture and sometimes viral marketing (intentional or unintentional). They can be based on a person (e.g. Donald Trump), a pet (e.g. Doge), an event, a movie or TV series, a song (e.g. Harlem Shake), a new game (e.g. Pokémon Go), or a smartphone APP with unique features.

Meitu, a Chinese photo editing app that has been popular in China since 2008, made its way to the West and accidentally went viral among foreign users for its refreshing makeover filters that literally ‘repaint’ selfies instead of edit them. This huge success in overseas market was NOT expected by Fu Kan- the company’s Managing Director of International Business Department, who said that they did not even spend a cent on the marketing.

So… what does the app do exactly?

Meitu’s hand-drawn filters are capable of making ANYONE look cuter (or ‘kawaii-fy’ as in Japanese term), younger (less wrinkles, lines and blemishes) and more beautiful based on Eastern aesthetics. Generally, they whiten your face or overall skin color, enlarge your eyes and thin down your chin a little, and apply some makeup effects like blush, foundation, eyeliner and eyebrow pencil, even cosmetic contact lenses, to create an exaggerated anime look on an artistic background of your choice.

Image via Straatosphere

If you save the image and then apply the same effects over and over again, these ‘kawaii’ characteristics will be amplified to the maximum, and the result can be funny and creepy at the same time:

Image via Twitter

…Okay, this is NOT how Chinese use this app!

Racism? No, just paranoia and excessive political correctness.

There are too many things can be interpreted as ‘racist’ or ‘politically incorrect’ nowadays. Just like Oscars in recent years, people and brands have became very cautious about racial equality, because one inappropriate word or sentence said by celebrities could easily lead to a wave of controversy online, especially among African Americans, that would eventually roll into a PR crisis or worse.

Same thing happened with Meitu’s ‘whiten’ feature. After it went viral in the West, it was immediately accused as being ‘racist’- whitening all races, including blacks, into a fair complexion or so-called ‘yellowface’. But most Chinese find this accusation ridiculous and paranoid.

Image via Twitter

The truth is, the app and filters were initially developed for Chinese, NOT western users, so it was designed to fit Asian aesthetics, which is usually whiter skin. It has been this way since ancient China thousand years ago. The modern-day western aesthetics, however, pays more attention to natural (tanned?) and diverse skin colors. But it’s unfair to apply the same idea to something that wasn’t made to make everyone happy.

If an Asian customer walk into a western restaurant, where they only have forks and knives- no chopsticks, is that racism too? Apparantly no. It’s just the way it is, and nobody is forcing anyone to do anything.

How did it go viral? What were some of the possible causes that led to its instant spread overseas?

As of February 26th, there are over 230,000 photos shared with the hashtag #meitu on Instagram, and most of them are NOT Asians. Users on Facebook and Twitter have also been sharing their selfies, pictures of their favorite celebrities or video game characters, altered using Meitu’s easy-to-use filters.

Obviously, it is a novelty unfamiliar to most western users. Asian users are no longer crazy about these filters because they have been around for a while. They’re nothing new or fashionable. On the contrary, there haven’t really been anything like Meitu in the West- not Instagram, nor Snapchat. Meitu even manufactured their own phones. Mainstream photo editing apps like VSCO tend to focus on naturalness without losing too much details on images. Their built-in filters are often all-purpose, not specifically designed for portraits. Instead of applying overall effects like Prisma, Meitu actually beautifies different body parts based on their own characteristics.

An article published on Gizmodo was seen as the staring point of Meitu’s meme history that allowed people, including celeberies like Brie Larson, learned about this oddly fun app from the East. Four days after the article was posted, there was another important factor that triggered the butterfly effect: the Inauguration of Donald Trump, which took place on Friday, January 20th. Within the same day, Meitu’s ranking in App Store’s top free apps has soared from 1,000 away to number 13. Trump’s inauguration definitely has something to do with it. His hand-drown photos were posted everywhere on social media, which intensively helped the viral spread and usage of the app. Many people used Meitu’s filters as a tool to mock him and other public figures, especially those with power or influence.

Will it last though? Sadly, probably not.

Every meme has a lifespan. It may last for a little longer, maybe a few more months, but the trend overseas will gradually weaken as people get bored of it, thus it won’t be popular forever. Unless it becomes an enduring demand (like film, or an irreplaceable and useful tool), a novelty is still a novelty.

As Meitu set off an intercultural communication on the Internet, the company needs to make sure they have solutions for an upcoming decrease of interest. They could develop new products or features that might go viral again. The company called this marketing strategy an ‘impulsive operation’.

Controversial terms of service? Excessive intrusion of personal data?

Privacy issue with terms of service is very often overlooked by domestic users in China, but it was exposed by foreign users lately, causing a wave of criticism on social media and security warnings on news sites. Apparently, in order to install and use the app, you have to grant it a lot of permissions and allow it to gain access to your phone as well as personal data.

The company did not deny these facts. However, they claim to have legitimate reasons for doing so. Here is an official statement released from Meitu Inc. in response to the recent controversy:

Offsite Server: As Meitu is headquartered in China, many of the services provided by app stores for tracking are blocked. To get around this Meitu uses a combination of third-party and in-house data tracking systems, they’ve developed to make sure the tracked data is consistent. For example:
– MAC address/IMEI number: In some cases, Meitu cannot get both info at the same time and in some cases different devices even have the same IMEI number, so we combine these two details into one unique ID to track user devices
– LAN IP address is used to prevent business fraud
– SIM card country code is used for a rough location detection
– GPS and network location are used for detecting countries and regions for Geo-based operation and advertisement placement
– Phone carrier info is used as a standard tracking channel for analytics, just like the other third-party analytics tools (e.g., Flurry)
– RUN_AT_START: because the Google service (including GCM) is not available in mainland China, Meitu uses a third party push notification service called Getui (www.getui.com)
• Jail Breaking: This is a requirement from both WeChat SDK (our sharing module) and for advertising to check if a handset is jailbroken. Meitu implements this verification process due to the fact that jailbroken devices can manipulate and modify the app source code, thus resulting in commercial settlement errors. Meitu also requires such process to provide protection against malicious modification of the source code and illegal API usage.
• Offsite Servers: user data is sent ONLY to Meitu. The two reported domain names belong to the top domain name “meitustat.com,” which is owned by Meitu. This can be confirmed via “whois”
– rabbit.tg.meitu.com -> 124.243.219.160
– rabbit.meitustat.com -> 124.243.219.159

According to this statement, user data is ONLY sent to Meitu, but it’s really up to them to decide what they would do with them (e.g. sell them to another company for commercial purposes). Let’s say they ARE being honest, acquiring these excessive amount of user data are solely for advertising and preventing business fraud, there are still two problematic privacy policies hidden within Meitu’s user agreement that many users do not know. The original text are too long, so here are the simplified versions:

1. Any photographs that you took or edited with Meitu cannot be used for commercial purposes, unless you are permited to do so by Meitu Inc.
2. Meitu Inc. has the permanent right to use any photographs that you took or edited with Meitu for free worldwide.

Excuse me? So Meitu can just take users’ pictures without asking and put it anywhere they want?

Many users click ‘I Agree’ without thinking or reading the terms of service when they are installing an app, but who is accountable and held responsible when a data breach happen? Meitu has once again reminded us to pay more attention to our own privacy in such technological era.

This might be the first time a Chinese app went viral in the West (WeChat has foreign users but did not really go viral). Meitu did not know thir app was going to be this popular overseas, so they were not prepared for concerns like this. It certainly taught them a lesson. This was also a reminder for other app development companies to be more thoughtful and transparent with their terms of service, so we can at least feel safe when we use their products.

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