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Tiktokization or the rise of anti-social media
If you look at the viewing time, in 2021 Tiktok was the fastest-growing social media platform and it’s likely to keep this record in 2022. On average its users almost tripled their daily scrolling time, which went from 6.4 minutes to 18.1 minutes per day. In 2022 Tiktok became the most-downloaded app in the world. In October it overtook Netflix as the most-watched video service amongst American users under 35. (In France and in the UK it remains third). It’s predicted that by the end of the year it will overtake YouTube and reach 1.8 bln users.
Three steps to Tiktok’s success
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Other platforms are watching this success closely and with envy. Everyone, from Facebook to Twitter is copying Tiktok’s solutions to stay relevant in the video-dominated market. What exactly is tiktokization? In his famous essay “The Tiktokization of Everything” Rex Woodbury attributes Tiktok’s success to AI-based algorithms. We are going to take a step further and see how AI changes the very fabric and function of social platforms, but first, let’s dissect the success of the Chinese giant:
First: Tiktok knows what users want
But is Tiktok really a social media app, as everyone seems to think? We tend to pigeonhole platforms - if it allows us to publish content, by the force of habit we call it a “social medium”. Meanwhile, Tiktok itself says it isn’t – it gravitates more towards being an entertainment platform, so no, in fact they are not a social medium - they are democratized Netflix (and in fact, Netflix’s biggest competitor), where everyone can be a director and shoot videos.
Facebook is a social platform. They’ve built all their algorithms based on the social graph. That is their core competency. Ours is not. We are an entertainment platform. The difference is significant. It’s a massive difference.
Blake Chandlee, President of Global Business Solutions in Tiktok
And videos have been the number one medium, favored by Internet users for some time now (see the data from 2018) - but boy, did they break the bank recently. According to CISCO, videos will account for 82% of all Internet traffic by the end of 2022 and according to Statista - videos alone will double the total online traffic we see today.
Out of all available media, users want videos. Videos help them relax and unwind (as declared by 32.8% of Internet users) but also be entertained and have a laugh (26.3%). And what kind of videos are in demand? Pretty much anything goes, as long as there are moving pictures on the screen, we are sold.
Second: Tiktok knows what creators need
A social app that allows you to post short videos - that sounds familiar. Do you remember Vine? Launched in 2013 and killed in 2016, this social media app was at the first glance something very similar to Tiktok, why did it fail then?
If we ignore all technological nuances that make a difference between 2013 and 2022, there is one thing that Tiktok offers that Vine didn’t: support for creators. One of the main reasons for Vine's demise is said to be the lack of monetization for creators, a crucial element of the equation. Tiktok is wiser than that - in 2021 the platform launched its Tiktok Creators Fund. It’s not an ad revenue-sharing program - but it’s more of a carrot to motivate those who create the best content.
But it’s not only about money. Tiktok comes with a full arsenal of creative tools - an extensive library of licensed music, filters, video editing tools, stickers, and effects that allow creators to unleash their imagination - and create their videos for free (and here is where they have the upper hand over capital-intensive Netflix productions).
Third and the most important: the algorithm and AI usage
The number one factor keeping users glued to their phones when scrolling Tiktok is the algorithm. Internal documents that were leaked back in 2021 lifted the veil of secrecy around it: Tiktok optimizes content around viewing time, not like its predecessors – around the engagement and clicks.
How does it work? First-time users land on the For You Page - a tab in the app that shows content curated to cater to the taste of a particular user. Obviously, new users will see a pretty random selection of videos, but the algorithm will keep an eye on them and check which videos they spent more time on - so it can show them more content they may like. This process goes on and on until the AI gets crazily good at getting to know their preferences and starts recommending more tailored content. It actually gets so good that it knows some people are bisexual or gay… before they realize it themselves.
The missing part in this social media puzzle is of course the “social” part. Until recently following accounts was just one, and not even the main, way for the algorithm to know your taste. In May 2022 the platform introduced the Friends tab that provides easy access to the content created by the users we follow.
Between these two platforms, it’s obvious that Tiktok sets the pace while Facebook, is clearly having a midlife crisis, trying to mimic every move of its younger and cooler competitor. Focus on videos has been on the agenda for Facebook at least since 2018, but back then there was still some pre-defined manual control included: the platform would prioritize content from family and friends over brands or take into account the originality of content.
In February 2022 Facebook launched Reels. It turned out that Facebook users spend half of their time watching videos and they are quickly becoming the main source of its revenue.
Since then, Facebook has been moving closer to TikTok’s modus operandi: whatever works, content-wise. In a leaked memo from April 2022, obtained by The Verge, the company explicitly informed the employees that from then on, users’ main feed priority is no longer based on their relationship with the content creator.
The current state of affairs: Facebook is trying to juggle too many balls. They desperately try to race Tiktok, while it's pretty clear to everyone that instead of keeping up with it, the platform is aging as fast as its user pool. At the same time, it keeps trying to do everything - from a marketplace to a dating app. And let’s not forget about Zuckerberg’s Metaverse dreams - which seem to be rather unattainable after the recent hot mess: 13% staff cutbacks and financial problems that kicked Zuckerberg out of the top 20 richest people in the world.
Before TikTok, Instagram was the closest thing to TikTok we had. In 2015 Facebook hired an 18-year-old developer, Michael Sayman. Sayman, a bright young man, learned about how the high management encourages regular employees to share their ideas and he pitched the idea of copying Snapchat’s stories to Facebook’s products. The teenager was given a team and time, and as a result of his endeavors, Instagram Stories launched in 2017 – this allowed then-Facebook-now-Meta to keep the position of the market leader for a while.
Fast forward to today: Meta tries to do the same manoeuvre with Tiktok. But this time, with a much stronger competitor, added pressure of Meta’s poor performance, and user frustration.
Reels, an answer to tiktoks, are aggressively promoted and prioritized over images. Random, but viral content is shoved down our throats before we even take a look at the content from the creators we know and friends we want to follow. The tiktokization of Instagram made its users angry, and they do not hesitate to vent their annoyance - photographer, Tati Bruening, posted this plea:
Celebrities, such as Kylie Jenner or Kim Kardashian liked and shared this post and it started making rounds on the Internet. Yet it didn’t seem to impress Instagram CEO, Adam Mosseri, who in his response (what an irony) vertical video, said that he thinks Instagram is heading towards being a video platform:
For the majority of the Internet's history, there was one default video platform. Youtube is still the leader and great for watching videos on a desktop - but it seems that it didn’t tackle the mobile revolution early enough. YT shorts were introduced worldwide in 2021, and guess what - They look exactly like tiktoks. Or Instagram reels. And very similar to Facebook stories.
These days Twitter clearly has other problems than chasing TikTok
And with its purpose and functionalities is pretty far from everything that TT represents. But even it feels the need for copying strategies. From September 2022 a “Videos for You” feature was added, so that we can see another random, but viral content on yet another app. Additionally, videos are displayed in a vertical-full-screen mode, so they look kind of like tiktoks. Or Instagram Reels. Or Facebook Stories.
And that’s the news from the beginning of this month. Is this messaging app mindlessly following a broader trend? In its blog post Signal writes:
Stories have emerged to serve these specific functions and others in the broader communications landscape, and many of us have integrated them as one of the ways that we connect with one another. That’s why they have a natural place in any messaging app, including Signal. People use them, people want them, so we’re providing a way to do stories privately. And without having to wade through a sea of ads.
This decision has raised eyebrows and we will have to take Signal’s word for how desired the new feature is - especially when we compare it with the popular voice of online discussions. Do these stories look like tiktoks? Or Instagram Reels? Or Facebook Stories? Or Twitter videos? No idea, no one is posting them anyway.
Berealization of Tiktok
Is Tiktok then a triumph of a soulless algorithm and mindless doom-scrolling over human touch and real online bonding? We wouldn’t be so quick in jumping to conclusions, because there is another, new player on the stage, disrupting the system and making TikTok copy its features: it’s BeReal.
BeReal was hailed the opposite of Instagram. Its goal is to keep in touch with friends through authentic, non-curated content. It’s a social platform that allows users to post one image per day. Users get one notification at random during the day and are supposed to post a picture of what they are seeing at that moment, together with a selfie. Only those who posted can see the content of their friends. After 24 hours posts are visible only to their authors. There is also a limit to the number of friends that can be added, which prevents the creation of huge influencer accounts.
No chance for big influencers, no ads, forcibly small reach, hard to use for brands. Sounds pretty unprofitable and it really is - BeReal doesn’t make any money yet. It seems to be doing everything NOT to participate in the attention economy or succeed in the post-capitalist society.
Yet, the app has made it to the top of the most-downloaded-apps list and remained there for a big part of 2022, becoming GenZ’s and Gen Alpha’s favorite. It’s becoming (among the likes of Locket Widget, Yubo or Poparazzi) a major player in the new trend that prioritizes authenticity and simplicity, and catering to the tastes of the youngest users, tired of the never ending social media vanity fair.
TikTok has just copied the idea and launched it in mid-September as a new app - TikTok Now. Tiktok’s version includes pretty much all main features of BeReal. Authenticity is a trend that has been gaining momentum recently, especially among the younger audience, but is it enough to keep an app that is all about intimacy and personal contact on the market? Time will tell, and it will be interesting to watch.
A working theory that is now safe to put forward, is that the difference between “broadcasting” platforms, where content is shared, like Twitter or Tiktok, and those that are used to stay in touch, like BeReal or Signal, will be getting more and more pronounced. Reaching a broad audience and becoming an influencer will have to be even more intentional than it is now, and those platforms that will opt for intimate, private and safe connections, will need to get creative with funding.
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