The first time Juan Arena tried cheating on his partner, it didn’t feel right. The second time wasn’t very convincing either. The third time, the take was perfect and he uploaded it to his profile. It was then, in his home about an hour away from Buenos Aires, that Arena realized what Kwai’s algorithm had made him do.
Arena, a 39-year-old actor, began to produce videos for Kwai, a Chinese short-form video-sharing social media app — and TikTok’s main competitor — in 2021. “A lot of us are on Kwai because it’s the only platform that pays for content and lets us live from our artistic work,” he told Rest of World. Even his cast partners had never really considered performing the sort of scenes they were now acting out. The pair produced these videos because this was the most watched content according to the platform’s algorithm — and that meant better pay.
After expanding to Brazil and becoming one of the country’s most downloaded apps of 2021, Kwai’s popularity grew across Latin America. For users in Colombia and Argentina in particular, two of the app’s targets in the region, Kwai created editorial guidelines and payment schemes for local content creators. According to creators who spoke to Rest of World, the underlying condition for Kwai influencers was that they are to follow editorial and algorithmic guidelines or risk not getting paid. For Latin American performers making a living on the platform, the Kwai algorithm became their director. Rest of World spoke to independent content creators and agencies about how this work style extends work hours and encourages performers to create content that aligns with a specific “Kwai style.” Some are subtly fighting back, to balance artistic vision with the need for hard cash.
Rest of World reached out to Kuaishou, Kwai’s parent company, for comment. Though the company did not respond to queries about why themes like domestic violence were prioritized by Kwai’s algorithm, the history of the platform’s growth strategy hints at some of the reasons. Kwai mainly caters to a working-class audience, prioritizing telenovela-style melodramas as a result. These melodramas traditionally home in on the trials and tribulations that the company believes their audiences can relate to, such as their struggles with having a low-income, rural life or domestic issues.
According to official guidelines given by Kwai to paid creators, the platform pays its content makers every 30 days. Standard rates can vary from $875 to $9,800 U.S. dollars. In Argentina and Colombia, where Kwai promised payment in dollars for making content on social media, creators’ adoption of the platform spread quickly. In 2021, headlines in both countries featuring Kwai struck a similar tone: “This is how you can make money on Kwai.” “How to be a content creator on Kwai and the best strategy to monetize yourself.”
Still, the app limits how creators are able to get paid. According to the official guidelines obtained by Rest of World, if creators fail to publish at least 21 videos per channel each month, the app won’t monetize the content and only videos that have more than 5,000 views per clip are paid.
In Arena’s experience, the algorithm has preferences and parameters that creators do not entirely understand. For instance, the software seems to promote videos showing domestic violence. But creators say they also might face bans if the algorithm deems their videos to be too crude.
“The algorithm is your boss; it’s the ring leader, the one that raises or lowers the lever,” said Arena.
The algorithm’s aesthetic preferences and treatment of the ethics surrounding certain themes can be very limiting of the style and content found on Kwai. The Colombian journalist, feminist activist, and content creator Johana Arroyave, 30, told Rest of World that she doesn’t “use Kwai to keep updated on what happens concerning feminism. I can’t find a single content maker that talks about those issues, so I end up looking for them more on platforms like Instagram.”
Meanwhile, 25-year-old Argentine actress Julieta Coria, who has been acting in fictional dramas on Kwai since 2021, said that the platform has a particular penchant for melodramatic telenovela-style content. “Argentine actors aren’t used to that level of drama,” she told Rest of World.
Like Arena, Coria noticed that Kwai prioritizes content that involves gender violence, a feature that makes her uncomfortable. “As an actress, I believe that you don’t only have to be seen as a battered woman,” she said. “You have to really put yourself in the shoes of that woman in pain in order for the performance to have substance,” which she said could be very emotionally draining.
Faced with the dilemma of abiding by the algorithm’s directions or his own experience as a professional actor, Arena has found a way around the algorithm for now. Arena can get a degree of leeway from the algorithm’s demands by performing concepts that seem straightforward to humans but that can go over an app’s head.
“The algorithm can understand that there’s music in a video, but it won’t understand the meaning we give to that music,” Arena said. “So, we’ll stage a dramatic performance, but to comical music. Since the algorithm prioritizes serious drama, that’s our way of hitting our objectives, while still satisfying our desire to do comedy.”
The hack isn’t limited to music either. “By changing the color filter of the image or the framing of the camera, the algorithm also gets confused,” he said, since the software can’t tell the difference between the implicit meanings between certain kinds of framing or photography.
Arena is not alone in manipulating subtext to create content different from what the algorithm demands. But for some, like Colombian content creator Pablo Pabón, these hacks are not meant to trick the algorithm but to boost his content’s reach.
Pabón produces news clips for a content creation agency called WiFi. Originally, he was not so interested in reporting on the new, saying it “was not my type of content, but I was able to mold it using my more comedic style,” he told Rest of World.
Pabón is an experienced content creator, but he is still working around Kwai’s unique quirks. “I was surprised that the algorithm is very different from Facebook or YouTube,” he said. “A video can go viral right away while another can end up getting just a couple of views.”
Agencies, like the one Pabón works for, have caught on to the need to “hack” the Kwai algorithm, offering a whole new avenue to profitability for the content industry. Andrés Garza, 24, is the managing director of Iberogram, and he told Rest of World that the fact that Kwai poses a “continuous and ever-evolving challenge” gives him the opportunity to sell his services to creators still wrapping their heads around the platform’s algorithm.
Ultimately, though he is forced to engage with Kwai’s algorithmic director, all Arena wants is to make ends meet while making better art. Coria, the other Argentine Kwai creator, has gone a step further. Even when she still makes a bit of extra cash through Kwai, she has mostly moved on to a new show at the Teatro del Pueblo of Buenos Aires, one of the more traditional theaters in the city. That, she said, is the kind of real-world job she’d like to keep prioritizing over a social media platform.
“I’d like to keep growing in theater and film,” she said. “The platforms are alright for getting by. … But I try not to think about these platforms all the time, because if I do, I’d kill myself,” Coria said half-jokingly.
No matter their priorities, Kwai certainly has a feeling of transience. Iberogram flaunts the fact that its cast of creators is only ever temporary, keeping their talent fresh (and the platform coughing up money). For Arena, who lives 50 kilometers from Buenos Aires City, Kwai has been a lifeline that “has helped me to face the consequences of the pandemic and war [in Ukraine],” he said. If keeping a particularly picky algorithmic director happy is part of his road towards traditional stardom, then Arena is happy as well.