The social media cold war

I turn 23 on the weekend and, for maybe the first time in my life so far, I feel out of touch with technology.

Namely, TikTok. The app dominates a unique niche: short-form video content. There is no set formula for a TikTok video, they take the form of comedy sketches, makeup tutorials, cooking lessons, song covers and, seemingly most popular of all, TikTok dances.

These seem to have developed a niche all of their own. During my researched I found an account – belonging to a 16-year-old girl – that had over 70m followers and millions of views on every video. Each video is simply the creator performing a crude dance in time to music. Not to reduce it in any way, but it’s not ground-breaking material. And yet, there is clearly a huge audience for it.

Large parts of the music industry are now indebted to the app, for instance, with some stars rising to fame simply through their song being used and turned into a TikTok dance.

What makes this strange and unpredictable app even more interesting is the context upon which it sits. TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company, and has been criticised vocally by the US and others for passing on confidential user data directly to Beijing; India has gone as far as to outright ban the app within its territory.

While we haven’t seen such drastic action here in the West, we’re starting to see softer tactics deployed used by the powers that be. Facebook-owned Instagram is soon to launch a rival to TikTok: Reels. As part of the launch process, the company has begun offering high-profile TikTokers large sums of money to defect to the platform.

At present, TikTokers can only make money through sponsorship or promotions – TikTok just serves as a distributor for the content. Seemingly in response to Instagram’s move, TikTok has announced that it will hand out up to $300m to European creators, offering them a chance to make their full living through the app ontop of any sponsorships they might make. A further $200m dollars will be offered to US creators.

TikTok has clearly carved out an enviable market for itself. The content created for it is uniquely adapted to its format, meaning that is has almost absolute market dominance for short-form video content. According to Bloomberg, ByteDance more than doubled its revenues in 2019, from $7.4bn to $17bn; it makes sense that silicone valley woud like a slice of this pie.

But can you buy out a culture? Is it as easy as simply buying the most prominent influencers? It’s hard to appreciate the intricacy of the culture that has developed on the app – there are so many internal references, in-jokes, and visual effects that are exclusive to and absolutely synonymous it. People don’t go to TikTok to get the same experience they can get on Instagram or Snapchat, the go to get the TikTok experience.

Maybe it is naïve of silicone valley to think as much, but with pressure mounting between many Western countries and China, perhaps it is prudent to be developing alternatives to the app in the scenario that it gets banned in more countries. 

One thing we can be certain of is the unpredictable nature of the internet and its culture. Businesses can throw their money around as much as they like but, at the end of the day, the users will vote with their (electronic) feet and decide for themselves.

TikTok says it will hand up to $300 million to European creators over the next three years, giving them the chance of earning a living on the short-video platform

By Rebecca Garland on 31/07/2020