ACT ONE – THE LUCK OF NOT BEING A SOCIAL NETWORK

Let us start with the basics: the first reason for the phenomenal success of TikTok is that it is not a social network. You do not need to develop a network of friends and contacts to have a decent experience on TikTok. Open the app for the first time, and you find content: Lots of it and of all kinds.

You scroll, move to the side, and a flick of your thumb tells the system what you like and what not. After a little over half an hour or a couple of sessions, the system can serve you content that reflects your tastes better than any existing content platform on the Internet.

As the New York Magazine points out: “TikTok is a platform of targeted content and loose ties — a post-social social network that doesn’t rely on your friends to keep you engaged and entertained but rather on “recommendation,” which is the flip side of surveillance.”

“The effectiveness of the TikTok experience is found in what it doesn’t require. Unlike Twitter, TikTok doesn’t need a critical mass of famous or influential people to use it for its content to prove engaging. The short-video format grabs the user’s attention at a more primal level, relying on visual novelty, or a clever interplay of music and action, or direct emotional expression, to generate its appeal.” Newyorker.com

A 2021 investigation by the Wall Street Journal, in which reporters created more than a hundred TikTok accounts to tease out the basic dynamics of this suggestion logic, showed that the app can target a user’s interests with uncanny accuracy in as little as forty minutes of observation. Newyorker.com

ACT TWO – THE LUCK TO BE EVERYTHING FOR EVERYONE

The second reason for the rise lies in its lowest barriers to entry: for users, TikTok works from minute one – not even the hassle of finding out which of our contacts are already there, nor are we obliged to do anything but look and browse.

For the creators, it offers super simple creative tools and a promise: you do not need to accumulate millions of followers to have your minute of celebrity. The platform is so good at matching tastes with creativities and discovering unforeseen affinities that creators feel free, at least for now, to post whatever is on their minds.

That generates many more original ideas than on the ‘older’ platforms. Inside TikTok, there is everything for everyone.

“Even a year ago, my For You page was mostly stuff you could only see on TikTok” (…) “Of course, since it’s mostly content that has already blown up elsewhere, there’s usually something compelling about it. It’s not bad content really, but it’s an ominous sign for the platform. At first, TikTok was exciting because there was culture that could only happen there.” The Verge.

ACT THREE – LARGE AND INDISPENSABLE. AND THEREFORE DOOMED TO BECOME LIKE OTHERS AND MAKE OTHERS BE LIKE YOU.

TikTok has become massive, huge, and indispensable. When billions of people access a platform, they transform it. Sometimes, in unexpected ways.

TikTok has become a search engine for restaurants and attractions, a tool to discover first-hand news and to learn how to use excel better. The platform responds to these stimuli with new features released every month: an improved tagging system and longer text descriptions to favour positioning on Google, of which it is now indeed a competitor. And, by lengthening the video duration, it also competes with YouTube, which has meanwhile introduced shorts to compete with TikTok.

“Right now, in the West, people are organically making countless hours of video content, but there isn’t a way for video viewers to learn more and to take action—to discover that the experience they’re watching is in their price range, in their neighborhood, and available to book right now if they wanted. We predict TikTok will be the first existing consumer platform in the West to do this, which will make the platform even stickier in the process.” (…) “What’s not certain, however, is if TikTok will copy the path of its Chinese sister app Douyin—or if it does, how strictly its adherence will be. But if it’s any hint of where TikTok search might be headed, we’re in for a big video commerce ride.” Andreessen Horowitz, Future

But if everyone, as it seems, is imitating everyone, won’t all platforms eventually look alike? In addition, the entry of brands benefits the platforms’ businesses but not their relevance. Most brands – but also some publishers – have remained in the mindset of the broadcaster. Post the same content everywhere or a variation of it. The result: not only are the functions beginning to resemble each other, but also the content. Are we entering a big undifferentiated blob?

“Twitter is joining the bandwagon of social media companies copying TikTok’s everlasting scroll of videos.”
According to a notification sent to users, TikTok is expanding the length of descriptions from 300 characters to 2,200 characters. In addition to making content more searchable, TikTok says it uses text in the description to decide which videos to recommend to users. Younger generations are increasingly using TikTok as a search engine, and TikTok is leaning further into it by letting users make their videos more search friendly.

Platforms are turning boring, explains the Verge:

“Now that on-platform culture is being overwhelmed by viral arbitrage, and the actual content is getting closer to what you see on every other network. As the platform gets bigger, it gets more generic, and there’s less to distinguish it from every other mass-market social network.”

RUSSELL BRANDOM calls it the Bootleg Ratio: the delicate balance between A) content created by users specifically for the platform and B) semi-anonymous clout-chasing accounts drafting off the audience. Any platform will have both, but as B starts to overtake A, users will have less and less reason to visit and creators will have less and less reason to post. (…) The Bootleg Ratio has tipped toward reposting, and the content that’s specific to Instagram is getting crowded out.”

ACT FOUR – THE WORST TIME TO BE SO BIG! THE MISFORTUNE OF BEING BORN IN THE WRONG PLACE, AT THE WORST TIME – MORE THREATS, MORE PUBLIC ATTENTION, MORE COMSUMER FATIGUE.

In TikTok success lies a doomed future and a possible collapse. We live in the worst time for a platform to be so huge, unavoidable, and intransparent.

The era of digital giants blithely ignoring the reasons of privacy and those of security is over: it will never return. Facebook & Co were pirates but American. And above all, new. Today, between GDPR and discourses on digital sovereignty and a latent world war in the making, it is not acceptable to hear from TikTok CEO that the Conpany does not have Headquarters located in China because it does not have headquarters at all (!). Yes, it happened a few months ago.

So, the New York Magazine:

“Like megaplatforms before it, its sheer size and presence in users’ lives means they’re using it in unusual ways that fortify its dominance — as a search engine; as a how-to resource; as a source of news; as a vector for disinformation; as a tool for harassment; as a general cultural and commercial context, for, well, everything everywhere else.” (…) “As writer Ryan Broderick recently argued in his Garbage Daynewsletter, soon “every platform on the internet will be completely downstream of TikTok.” TikTok, in other words, has achieved the dream of every young platform: unavoidability. Now comes the nightmare.

And, although the platform is making a visible effort to open itself up to an independent data audit, it is paradoxically only able to manage the security of its users with a radically censorious use of blacklists.

Anything is temporarily blocked if it appears ‘disturbing’: from the word ‘drugs’ to ‘LGBTQ’ to ‘NAZI’, regardless of their meaning and context.

In Germany, a negative example of that was the case of a journalistic interview with the Ukrainian ambassador in Berlin, which revealed his sympathies for a nationalist hero who was also guilty of anti-Jewish pogroms right before the WWII. The video stayed removed for three days, yet it was journalistically so relevant that it led to the removal of that ambassador. TikTok not only has a censorship algorithm, but -unfortunately- a poor editorial culture.

The Verge, on how TikTok uses censorship:

“Secret censorship: Tiktok has lost all trust. That was the headline of an article in Süddeutsche Zeitung – one of the largest daily newspapers back in March 2022. Journalists had found out that TikTok filters and blocks 19 words including gay, porno, queer, sex and Auschwitz (a complex of over 40 concentration and extermination camps operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland) from the comments. TikTok promised a “thorough review”.”

“Six months later TikTok is still applying word filters to block content a new german investigation has found out (Tagesschau) including some old acquaintances like gay and LGTBQ and some newbies like LSD and crack. “In the test, the video platform never once made it clear to users whether and why a comment did not appear. Instead, the app gave the impression that her comments were public.” Tagesschau writes. This is called showbanning: TikTok hasn’t issued a formal explanation on shadowbanning techniques so far.”

TikTok has become a giant at a time when we all distrust giants for one reason or another, but it gets worse. It could become a boring giant.

ACT FIVE AND FINAL – THE REASONS THAT MADE TIKTOK GROW ARE ALSO THOSE THAT WILL MAKE IT EXPERIENCE A MORE RAPID TRAJECTORY AND A POSSIBLY RUINOUS FALL. SOONER, PERHAPS, THAN WE IMAGINE.

The signs of slowing down are already there, says the New York Magazine:

“But TikTok’s rapid rise raises the specter of a rapid fall. It is already showing signs of slowing down, according to app analytics firm Sensor Tower, signaling a possible transition away from hypergrowth and into uneasy incumbency.” (…) “Compared to Facebook’s rise, TikTok’s was dazzling but impersonal, the product of a supreme emphasis on content over connections, on breaking out of networks rather than formalizing them. Users’ sense of obligation to one another, though, is what bought Facebook more time at the top. To quit Facebook, however little one uses it, is to sever some sort of contact, and to leave Instagram, however dull it has become, is to know a little less about your friends. A bored or restless TikTok user, however, can simply watch less — only TikTok will notice they’re gone.

The fact that TikTok is not a social network makes it easy to enter but easy to leave.

After all, who cares if I stop using an app where I don’t miss others who are on it? If I leave Instagram, as I did a few months ago, I have lost contact with friends, and I missed it. A few weeks ago, I also uninstalled TikTok from my mobile phone, and the world did not fall apart: I quite liked what I saw on the app when I snooped around in the evenings. But you know what? I did not miss it. How many, like me, are already using the platform less now?

So, what lies ahead? For Meta’s social networks, the pressure of the social graph ensures that the lifecycle is not quickly exhausted. For platforms like Twitter, relevance – for news and political discourse – is everything: its future depends on how it will choose between entertainment and information consumption while maintaining a clear identity. For TikTok, the ambition to become a super-app seems clear. But a so extensive product roadmap could come up against the powerful force of boredom. We shall see.

The New Yorker sees that as a positive development: we might see all social media giants falling, and this is a GOOD THING.

The era of social-media monopolies has been unhealthy for our collective digital existence. The Internet at its best should be weird, energetic, and exciting—featuring both homegrown idiosyncrasy and sudden trends that flash supernova-bright before exploding into the novel elements that spur future ideas and generate novel connections. This exuberance was suppressed by the dominance of a small number of social-media networks that consolidated and controlled so much of online culture for so many years. Things will be better once this dominance wanes. In the end, TikTok’s biggest legacy might be less about its current moment of world-conquering success, which will pass, and more about how, by forcing social-media giants like Facebook to chase its model, it will end up liberating the social Internet.” 

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Cover Photo by Frida Aguilar Estrada on Unsplash

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