Dossier 5: TikTok

Introduction

We often worry about the power of Big Tech companies. Last summer, the CEOs of Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon had to testify in Congress whether their business practices were resulting in anti-competitive monopolies. Facebook, for example, wields monopoly powers in the social networking category. The company is so dominant and affluent that it can easily buy out or copy competitors. And that’s exactly what they do. Facebook bought Instagram and WhatsApp and copied Snapchat’s iconic ‘Story’ format.

But TikTok has shown us that the tide can turn. The app, released only in 2016, is taking the world by storm. The social networking service is the leading app for short video on the western internet and has defeated existing platforms that were already embedded in contemporary users’ habits, like YouTube for watching videos or Facebook for social networking. In the summer of 2019, when Mark Zuckerberg was asked by one of his staff members if they should be concerned about TikTok’s growing cultural clout among teens and Gen Z, Zuckerberg answered nonchalantly that “TikTok is doing well”.1 The fact that Facebook rolled out a TikTok clone, Lasso (which failed), and recently pushed another TikTok clone, Reels (this time embedded in Instagram), shows Facebook is planning to attack. Zuckerberg’s reaction was an understatement and Facebook realised too late that TikTok was a serious competitor.

It comes as no surprise that Facebook underestimated TikTok—no one could have predicted that it would become the fastest growing social media network. In July 2020, less than four years after its release, TikTok had 800 million monthly active users worldwide. It could only grow so fast because of its Chinese recommendation engine. TikTok’s parent company ByteDance owns several very popular apps in China—besides TikTok, called Douyin in China, they own the successful news platform Toutiao—which is giving them enough revenue to push TikTok on the western market. The company is known for their large-scale machine learning algorithms for personalised information recommendations. For TikTok, this can be seen as the main ingredient in its recipe for success.

Another driver that was important for TikTok’s breakthrough are memes. As Matthew Brennan writes in his book Attention Factory: “Memes drastically lowered the creative and motivational barriers to content creation, providing a cookie-cutter structure allowing anyone to take part”.2 Actually, the power of memes cuts both ways. Memes not only encourage users to create content, people also love watching them— keeping them longer on TikTok. In 2019, social scientist Linda Duits wrote, in an essay about TikTok that we commissioned, that by copying each other TikTokers are embracing a new cool. One that acknowledges everything has been done before and authenticity is no longer meaningful.

TikTok is the first Chinese app that is used worldwide. What does competition from China’s tech companies mean for the apps we use, the data extracted by them, the recommendations we receive, and the kinds of visual content we create and share? How does TikTok re-write the world? And in what ways does it influence our society? As a burgeoning platform, there is much to explore from TikTok and that’s exactly what we do in this online dossier. Lilian Stolk takes a long gaze into TikTok’s magical algorithm. Josephine Oettle shares her research on the role of TikTok during the 2020 U.S. elections. Sjef van Beers maps the interconnected world of TikTok through video collages. And Hamster-TikToker Marieke Kuypers shares her 10 favourite TikTok-niches, next to hamsters, of course.

References   [ + ]

1. Matthew Brennan, Attention Factory, The story of TikTok and China’s ByteDance, p. 215
2. Brennan, Attention Factory, p. 212