Lemon8, ByteDance’s latest entry in the social media race


LOS ANGELES — A flurry of headlines about a new social media app, Lemon8, which shares ByteDance as its parent company along with TikTok, pushed the app from below number 200 to among the App Store’s top 10 most popular apps earlier this week.

But whether the platform will rise to the hype surrounding it remains to be seen. A quick scroll through the platform reveals very little engagement, with many posts from allegedly popular creators receiving just a handful of comments and likes. On Friday, the app had dropped from the top 10 free apps on the App Store to number 14.

Lemon8 describes itself as a “lifestyle community” and functions like a mash-up of Pinterest and Instagram. It allows users to post, save and share images and text under different categories such as fashion, food, beauty, wellness and travel. The images are presented in a Pinterest-like dual feed so that users can consume a wide array of content on each scroll.

It launched in the United States in February after previously gaining traction in Japan and Thailand. As is the case with any consumer product launch these days, Lemon8 has been paying content creators to post on the app to generate buzz and engagement.

The platform is a knockoff of Xiaohongshu, or Little Red Book, a Pinterest-like app that has become an influencer-driven e-commerce powerhouse in China. As the venture capitalist Turner Novak noted in his newsletter last month, “while TikTok continues pushing into current events, trends, and live streaming, Lemon8 heads in the opposite direction: evergreen reviews, lifestyle content, text, and photos start eating into the use cases of Reddit, Instagram, and Pinterest.”

Though the app has received robust media attention, content creators seem less than enthused about the prospect of having to create content for yet another social media platform, especially one that feels forced down users’ throats. Ads for Lemon8 have begun running on social apps including TikTok. “I’ve seen so many of these [Lemon8] videos back to back to back,” Alexandrea Brumfield, a TikTok creator, said in one video.

So far, this burst of attention has all the signs of a consumer app hype cycle, said Brendan Gahan, chief innovation officer at Mekanism, a creative agency that works with content creators. “It definitely doesn’t seem to have a big user base. It’s been out since February, and it wasn’t in the top 200 on the App store,” he said.

A steady stream of social apps have launched in recent years to much media hype only to peter out and fade into irrelevance.

In May 2021 the app Poparazzi, which allowed you to tag and post photos of friends, was No. 1 in the app store, but failed to retain its user base.

Then Dispo, YouTube star David Dobrik’s Instagram-like platform, broke into the App Store’s top 10 in March 2021, leading to a media frenzy. It didn’t last and the app has struggled since to compete.

Other social platforms like Clubhouse, Zynn and Vero were all briefly No. 1 in the App Store after their launch only to fall quickly into obscurity.

Even BeReal, the much-hyped social photo-sharing platform that launched in 2020, is struggling to retain its virality. Though it was able to garner 53 million downloads in 2022, only 9 percent of users are active every day, according to Sensor Tower.

“People are very quick to say, [Lemon8] is this huge thing that’s going to blow up,” said Gahan. “I think people forget how difficult it is to create long lasting social apps. They disappear really quickly.”

Lia Haberman, an adjunct instructor for social media and influencer marketing at UCLA, said that media “fear of missing out” often creates these frenzies. “It’s a PR strategy in itself these days,” she said. “All you have to do is launch an app and everyone is so desperate to seem like they’re on top of technology trends that they’re going to cover it just for fear of looking like they’re out of touch if they don’t cover it.”

Haberman said the real test will come once Lemon8 stops paying creators and relies on organic engagement. “It’s possible [creators] might explore Lemon8, but at the same time you’ve got Pinterest, YouTube Reels, Instagram,” she said. “If people are being paid to post on Lemon8 [it’s] great for creators, but I find it hard to see how creators are going to embrace this.”

Rod Thill, a TikTok creator with 1.6 million followers, said he heard about Lemon8 after seeing people talking about it on TikTok, but is taking a wait-and-see approach before diving in. “Once I see enough people using it and showing the features, I’ll catch on,” he said.

“Every social media app is competing with each other, which is making it really difficult for creators,” he added. “The thought of having to make an individual video on each platform is already creating burnout.”

If Lemon8 does end up gaining traction in the U.S. market, it could prove to be another headache for lawmakers seeking to crack down on China’s influence in our tech ecosystem. Banning individual apps may end up being like playing whack-a-mole as more foreign-owned platforms seek to capture the U.S. market.

Though most consumer products fail to live up to the hype they generate at launch, Gahan said that every so often one catches on, making the strategy worthwhile. “China has really been a leader in social commerce and apps in general,” he said. “It makes sense that companies would try and replicate the success of proven apps and export them to the U.S.”

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