How TikTok Became So Popular

How the shortening of our attention spans are transforming the way we consume media, brought to you by Daniel.

With our shortening attention span due to the internet and social media, the battle for our attention is becoming a lot more scarce. To win our attention, you can either consistently produce content so enticing, so memorizing that it can occupy us for hours, or you can adapt to our shorter attention span and provide content which only requires a few seconds of our time. TikTok won the lottery by doing both.

First of all, no matter how interesting you are, it is unsustainable to be perfectly consistent in the quality content you produce over a long period of time, so we can cross that off as an option.

What do Tik Tok, Twitter, Vine, and Snapchat all have in common? Apart from the fact that they are all incredibly popular, they all focus on short bursts of content delivery. Twitter is basically Facebook but with a limit of 280 characters of text. Vine (before it was shut down) was basically YouTube but with a limit of 6 seconds. Snapchat is basically Skype with shorter videos, and instead of talking to someone in real-time, you can choose to reply later when you decide to pay attention.

It is important to note that just because these platforms focus on shorter content doesn’t mean that their users spend less time on it. In recent times, it is actually the opposite. The average user spends 52 minutes per day on the TikTok app as opposed to its unadapted alter ego, YouTube which is 40 minutes per day.

These social media platforms discovered that adapting to new human behaviors was the right way to go, and it paid off big time.

Back to Tik Tok (founded in 2012), what makes it so special that it is now reportedly valued at around $30 billion which is the same valuation as Twitter which was founded in 2006?

In 2014, a social media app named Musical.ly (pronounced Musical-ly) became incredibly popular with the 13-18 year old demographic. The main purpose of Musical.ly was user-generated videos that combined popular songs with videos from the users (often called Musers). The most popular use of the app was to create videos where they were lip-syncing and dancing. By mid-2017, the Musical.ly app had over 200 Million users.

In 2016, Chinese app developer ByteDance created an app named Douyin, a rival to Musical.ly. Launched initially only in China, the app was renamed and rebranded to TikTok for better international appeal. Within a year, the TikTok app had more than 100 million users.

In late 2017, Musical.ly was acquired by ByteDance for a fee of $800 Million. In 2018, Bytedance consolidated the user accounts of Musical.ly and TikTok, merging the two apps into one under the name TikTok.

With this unified brand and user base, the app began to increase in popularity very quickly. TikTok became the most downloaded app on the Apple App store in early 2018, surpassing Instagram, WhatsApp, and YouTube. As of July 2019, TikTok has over 500 million total installs on the Google Play Store.

While there is an option to share videos up to one minute long, no longer-form video, and no image or text sharing options, these restrictions make the app harder to comprehend the first few times you use it. However, you quickly discover how addictive the app can be after using it a few times. In one session on Tik Tok, one can easily watch 20-50 different videos with catchy music and sounds, and it is rare that you did not enjoy a single one of the 50 videos you just watched.

Tik Tok also has a revolutionary app layout with a sophisticated algorithm that helps keep its users hooked.

Instead of focusing on news feed first, the first thing that pops up is the “For You” page where you’re scrolling through endless videos tailored for you. With Tik Tok right now pretty much a free for all, anyone can get on it and make a video on their phone and could get popular overnight if people resonate with it.

The “For You” is basically your feed. On every other platform, your feed is about who you follow, but on Tik Tok that doesn’t really matter. It is all about how you interact with the content – how long you watch the video for, how many times you watch it, do you like it, do you read the comments, etc. Your “For You” page becomes increasingly tailored to you as you watch more videos because it allows Tik Tok’s algorithm to learn and better understand what type of videos you enjoy watching the most. You can have a feed before you even follow anyone, that itself draws people in right from the start.

In addition to this, Tik Tok also has some other factors that make it so addicting such as short-form videos with songs that get stuck in your head, Bringing memes to life with video, sound, and short text, there is more support than hate in the comments, anyone can be tik tok famous thanks to the algorithm, and lastly because Tik Tok isn’t taken so seriously, creators feel comfortable innovating with their content and trying new ideas.

The best article i’ve ever read on TikTok, explaining the extent of the algorithm and how it changed not only social media but media consumption forever can be read here, however, let me warn you in advance it’s a pretty long read. Here’s an excerpt:

“TikTok is entertainment Cheetos. Each video requires so little cognitive exertion and reaches its climax so quickly that it feels like we could keep watching forever, each punch line scored to the most satisfying bass drop or stanza from every pop song. TikTok delivers dopamine hits with a metronomic rhythm, and as soon as we swipe up the previous one melts in our memory.”

Tik Tok is arguably the most addicting app with Gen Z, and it was clearly no mistake. Using modern technology and adapting to its audience’s behaviors they were able to become so insanely popular, and current, as well as upcoming media apps, will look to do the same.