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7 July 2021

How TikTok conquered the world

A new book charts the unparalleled growth of the Chinese social media app. 

By Sarah Manavis

When the civil engineer Alex Zhu woke up in Shanghai on the morning of 22 July 2016, he had a gut feeling – one that would shape the future of Western popular culture. His video-sharing app, Musical.ly, had just crashed under the weight of 100 million users. He knew then that short-form video – skits, dances and lip-syncs – was going to become the next big thing.

“As long as it’s a video format, we think we can do it,” he said to tech journalist Chris Stokel-Walker at the time. “The fundamental thinking behind this is that [the app can share] every kind of video format for self-expression and social communication.” In 2018, Musical.ly was bought and renamed “TikTok”.

Stokel-Walker makes the case that TikTok – an app that has grown rapidly over the past year, as hundreds of millions downloaded it for the first time at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 – is the first Chinese tech company to break serious ground in the West, challenging the dominance of Silicon Valley. “‘Made in China’, where goods designed elsewhere would be put together in the Far East to take advantage of cheap labour, is mutating into ‘Created in China’: where ideas are born, and then spread to the West,” he writes.

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TikTok’s success is largely down to the strategic approach of its parent company ByteDance – an opaque operation headed by the Chinese billionaire Zhang Yiming. He began his company with an app called Toutiao, which uses an algorithm to aggregate news articles and tailor them to users’ interests. Zhang then sought to create an algorithm so intelligent that it could quickly scan video content and serve viewers clips based on what they had already watched and (judging by their dwell time) enjoyed.

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Zhu’s format – which allows users to create short videos with ease – and Zhang’s algorithm proved a winning combination. The app allows users – mostly teenagers and under-30s – to find any type of video they can think of. The dance routines, lip-syncs and comedy clips identified by Zhu form the majority of TikTok’s content, but increasingly it hosts highly political content, and well-researched scientific messaging related to the pandemic.

Because the clips are so short, TikTok content is “snackable”, meaning you could feasibly watch a handful of videos in the space of a minute. It’s a format that offers strong potential for videos to go viral – a motivation for its users to keep churning out content. The platform has spawned its own ecosystem of trends, lingo and multimillionaire stars. It was the most downloaded app of 2020 and, as of June 2021, with an estimated 2.6 billion global downloads, it is the most popular entertainment app in the world.

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The algorithm is the secret of TikTok’s addictive success – the app has proved adept at serving users more of the content they want to see (if you watch just one video of dancing nurses, you’ll start to see medically themed memes; if you watch a video of a puppy, you’ll subsequently be treated to a litter), enticing many to spend hours flicking through hundreds of clips. The company sees its AI as such a powerful gauge of a user’s personality that during internal interviews, hiring managers seek to understand candidates by asking them to describe the types of videos they are fed by the app.

Much of the focus of TikTok Boom is on the platform’s dramatic rise, alongside growing scepticism and privacy concerns about Big Tech – worries that became widespread following the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal in 2018. TikTok is, of course, Chinese-owned – and its Chinese sister app, Douyin, censors videos that are deemed to contradict Chinese Communist Party propaganda – and the app has frequently drawn suspicion from Western governments and media. In 2020 Donald Trump attempted, unsuccessfully, to ban TikTok via executive order, citing Chinese surveillance concerns. Stokel-Walker argues such issues will continue to be a preoccupation for the US under Joe Biden, but he thinks it unlikely that Chinese spies are accessing Western TikTok users’ data. “Should you worry about TikTok? Not really,” he says. “At least not in the way the most corpulent, vein-poppingly angry politicians of the world suggest.”

But TikTok Boom has one drawback that’s shared by many books about the internet: technology outpaces publishing. It’s especially hard to keep up with TikTok – its rate of growth is unlike that of any other platform. In a few years, the app has accrued double the number of users that Twitter did in 14. Since the book was written, TikTok has made major changes, such as extending the length of videos (originally capped at 15 seconds, they can now run to three minutes). Stokel-Walker cites viral videos and memes that became watershed moments for the app, but much of the time, the significance is lost – the effect is something like being told a convoluted story, only to hear: “I guess you had to be there.”

While TikTok Boom does not attempt to chart the app’s cultural impact, it succeeds in clearly explaining its unparalleled growth. And it feels almost certain that we are witnessing only the beginning of its story. 

TikTok Boom: China’s Dynamite App and the Superpower Race for Social Media
Chris Stokel-Walker
Canbury Press, 288pp, £14.99

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This article appears in the 07 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The baby bust