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.

Fintech

Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep Reading Show less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep Reading Show less
FTA
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.
Enterprise

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep Reading Show less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep Reading Show less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.

Enterprise

Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins