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Protocol | China

Understanding the death of Meitu's coolness

The app redefined beauty in China and won millions of addicted users. So why can't it earn money?

Understanding the death of Meitu's coolness

When Meitu released its first PC software version in October 2008, it was a revolution.

Photo: Visual China Group via Getty Images/Visual China Group via Getty Images

Meitu used to dominate the business of digital "beauty."

The 12-year-old company's name — which translates to "beautiful photos" — is almost synonymous with photo editing in China. It has even become a verb, like "Google" or "Uber." Its mobile app has offered a generation of users the tools to shape their look down to the pixel, whether that means removing a dimple or becoming a nearly unrecognizable version of their previous self. At its peak, it was used by half a billion people and defined the aesthetics of an era.

While beloved, Meitu never became a great business. In the years following its birth, the company has variously tried to become a smartphone manufacturer, a short-video platform and a Chinese Instagram. But it was never able to convert its popularity as a face-shaping tool into much else.

In March 2021, it made headlines when the company decided to invest $40 million into cryptocurrencies, a move led by its crypto-enthusiast chairman Cai Wensheng. But apart from the brief spike in attention, Meitu has begun to disappear from China's tech scene.

The revolution will be beautified

When Meitu released its first PC software version in October 2008, it was a revolution.

Everyone knew of Adobe Photoshop, but it took hours to learn it. Meitu, whose corporate mission is "to let everyone become beautiful easily," re-packaged these powerful photo editing tools into software that everyone could understand and use.

Most people probably don't understand what "liquify" means in Photoshop, but the same function that lets you push and drag to distort an image is named "Slim Body" in Meitu. Similarly, "Clone Stamp" became "Remove Acne," and "Sharpen Edges" became "Brighten Eyes." Meitu had distilled Photoshop's most useful functions, tailored them to the needs of selfie editing and sold the technology to people with no editing experience.

In just two months, Meitu's desktop software topped one million users. Then in 2011, Meitu released a mobile version. This was around the time when mobile social media started blowing up in China. The two mega-platforms of today, Weibo and WeChat, were released in 2009 and 2011 respectively. When everyone started taking and sharing selfies on social media, they were surprised to find out they could transform their look with a few taps on their smartphone screen via Meitu.

Meitu both shaped — and profited off of — social stereotypes. The tools themselves are bidirectional: users can make their skin paler or darker, drag their jawline inward or outward. But the naming of the tools offers a peek into the kind of aesthetics it sells: It helps you "Smooth" your skin, "Slim" your face, "Firm" the wrinkles and "Enlarge" your eyes.

The convenience of Meitu fueled a culture where everyone feels obliged to alter how they look before posting a picture. It's disproportionately affected women, who have long been made hyper-aware of their physical appearances, and judged harshly whenever they fall short of various arbitrary, ever-changing standards.

Meitu's heyday may have passed, but the culture of excessive digital beautification it heralded still dominates the Chinese internet, where influencers feel it's mandatory to turn on beauty filters provided by companies like Douyin and Kuaishou during livestreams. A technical glitch went viral nationally in 2019 when the real face of an influencer was accidentally shown while live, shocking her fans with the contrast.

But it's hard to put all of the blame on the tool, and none of the people who use it. In 2016 when Meitu went public on Hong Kong Stock Exchange, its Chief Financial Officer Gary Ngan denied Meitu's participation in this toxic culture to the New York Times. Instead, he said, Meitu was only helping its users to become more confident and "more beautiful in real life."

It was all skin deep

For Meitu, it has all been downhill since the IPO.

It was the second massive internet company to list in Hong Kong, just after Tencent, but Meitu never managed to become nearly as profitable as the tech giant. It was only in 2020, 12 years after its birth, that Meitu turned a net profit — a meager $9 million, for a company with a quarter-billion active users. And the user numbers represented a 40% drop from the number of monthly active users reported in 2016.

Meitu has faced a challenge common among apps that serve as tools: users are there for a specific reason, and only for a few minutes. In 2016, a report by the Shenzhen-based data analytics firm Aurora Mobile estimated that Meitu, the "absolute leader" among photo editing apps, commanded less than four minutes of screentime per user on an average day.

Meitu has tried everything to become more than a tool. Unlike some tech titans (see: Google) that made the transition, Meitu has foundered.

In 2013, it launched the first Meitu smartphone, which had a particularly powerful camera in the front so users could take better selfies. But Meitu's smartphones were much more expensive than other domestic phone brands, who quickly began offering better cameras and built-in photo filters. After years of unsatisfactory sales, Meitu effectively shuttered its smartphone line in 2018.

Meitu also had a chance to become TikTok before the latter was even born. In 2014, Meitu released Meipai, an editing and sharing platform for videos no longer than 10 seconds. Meipai pioneered in offering filters that could spice up videos and, of course, beautify the subject. It gained 100 million users in just 9 months, and became one of the first hot short-video apps.

But as time passed, users gradually switched to latecomers Douyin (the domestic version of TikTok) and Kuaishou for their better algorithms and bigger communities. Meitu's 2019 annual report said it only had 9 million active users on Meipai that year. The product line wasn't even mentioned in the company's 2020 annual report.

In addition, Meitu has tried a bevy of beauty-themed businesses, from beauty product ecommerce to plastic surgery recommendations to livestreaming. Defined broadly, beauty is a massive business, yet almost every one of Meitu's crossover attempts has failed. Meitu did not respond to a Protocol request for comment.

On the company's tenth birthday in 2018, Meitu tried (re)pivoting to social media. Its founder Wu Xinhong reportedly said at a company party that "beauty and social media would become the two core development strategies of Meitu" over the next 10 years.

Many saw it as another attempt to replicate Instagram's successful transformation from a filter app to a social media giant. Back in 2018, there still wasn't a successful photo-based social media platform in China. But three years later, that space is increasingly occupied by the lifestyle-sharing platform Xiaohongshu, while Meitu's social media platform remains obscure.

In today's China, the endless pursuit of what society defines as "beauty" has grown more demanding with the change of available medium. In addition to using Meitu to edit their photos, web users are also expected to filter their videos and livestreams to maintain a consistent (if highly doctored) image. But there are new apps and new technologies more popular than Meitu to do all that.

Meitu is still an essential photo editing tool for many, and it started a new way of being online, a cultural sea change that will outlast any company or any app. Increasingly, that looks to be Meitu's legacy; a cultural turning point but never a big business.

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