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TikTok Boom by Chris Stokel-Walker

Canbury Press, 2021

It’s been difficult to ignore the rise of TikTok over the last couple of years, though for many its significance remains opaque. Best known for its short videos of users performing dances, it’s easily dismissed as frivolous.

In this up-to-the-minute account, tech journalist and commentator Chris Stokel-Walker explains why everybody, from consumers to policy makers, should take TikTok seriously.

TikTok is fundamentally different to "first generation" social media platforms in that its algorithm works along the lines of a content graph rather than a social graph, meaning that the popularity of content (and therefore its value to advertisers) doesn’t depend on how many followers the creator has, but rather on how much it resonates with what users are looking for – a metric determined by highly sophisticated algorithms which analyse users’ dwell time and other ways in which they interact with content.

The result is that - uniquely - existing celebrity doesn’t determine success. We all remember postal worker Nathan Evans’s sea shanties during the pandemic, landing him a major record deal. TikTok's growth strategy in India (where it was subsequently banned for alleged links to the Chinese government) illustrates this brilliantly: by targeting provincial cities, it was able to gain traction by making stars of ordinary people before spreading to the more sophisticated metropolitan hubs.

Unlike short-video platform Vine, broadly seen as TikTok’s predecessor, TikTok’s local offices around the world prioritise creator care, meeting every morning to review some of the 1.6 million videos posted in last 24 hours (nb: only 9% of users actually post, so this gives an idea of total number of eyeballs). It pays selected creators through its Creator Fund and its teams are on hand to offer plentiful advice.

TikTok's genius is in creating the ideal environment for advertisers to reach audiences. But it’s also changing the way we live our lives. Social, commerce and campaigning are coming together in one space and traditional, Western-style gatekeepers are being disintermediated.

Of course, there are implications as to who controls our data, and this apparently innocuous Chinese app has resulted in some major geopolitical rows in the last year: India has banned TikTok altogether, and Trump attempted to force a sale of the US arm of the app.

The degree to which the type of data TikTok is collecting is valuable to the Chinese government is still under debate, and the extent to which the government can access it is not yet conclusive.

What we can conclude, however, is that the way in which we live our lives – led by younger generations – is being increasingly influenced by the Chinese rather than the Western, Silicon Valley model.

Chinese consumers are mobile first, video first, prefer to do everything (shop, bank, socialise) via one app (known as super apps) and put greater emphasis on live streaming. Stokel-Walker gives the example of Xigua Video (otherwise known as Watermelon) which is a mixture of YouTube and Netflix: it's a platform for creator-first content, but it also has deals with the BBC to stream content in China.

It’s interesting to consider whether the so-called “Chinese model” is not so much revolutionising the way we communicate, instead going back to the basics of what's natural to us.

Video enables the full range of human expression (body language, physical context, tone of voice); live streaming is more authentic than a show which has been constructed through layers of production, and using mobile is more akin to community than sitting down at a desktop.

Beijing plans to spend $1.4 trillion in next five years developing next-generation technologies, and ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, is worth at least $180 billion and rising.

The jury is out on how the Chinese government is using our data, but what we do know is that China is winning the soft power game. The generations coming through will socialise, prioritise, shop and bank differently. Whether that’s “good” or “bad” depends on how we choose to embrace it.

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