TikTok Boom
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TikTok Boom

China's Dynamite App and the Superpower Race for Social Media

Chris Stokel-Walker

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eBook - ePub

TikTok Boom

China's Dynamite App and the Superpower Race for Social Media

Chris Stokel-Walker

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About This Book

Andy Warhol's idea that anyone can be famous for 15 minuteshas never looked shakier. In the programme for an exhibitionin Stockholm in 1968, the American pop art pioneer wrote: 'In thefuture, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.' What struckmany at the time as an outlandish prediction is in danger of beingundercut by reality in the third decade of the 21st Century. OnTikTok, anyone with a mobile phone can become known to hundredsof millions of people for a matter of seconds, and then slipback into anonymity. True, a run of successful self-shot videos canpropel an individual from an everyday life into that of a multi-millionaire.Unlike in Warhol's age, however, the metamorphosisfrom ordinariness to fame occurs not through the multiple mediachannels of Andy Warhol's age, but through a single, super-fast, ever-mutating social media app. Which is ultimately owned inChina and ruled over by an inscrutable algorithm.

Existing celebrity doesn't determine success on TikTok.'Anyone has the potential to go viral on TikTok. You can have onefollower or a million followers, ' says Yazmin How, chief of TikTok'sUK editorial team. It meets at 9am daily to review some of the 1.6TIKTOK million videos uploaded to TikTok in the UK every 24 hours. (Only9% of users post videos; the remainder just watch them.) How andher colleagues' accounts have been stripped of the highly powerfulalgorithm, which serves up content according to a person's viewinghistory and interests. It's the God's eye view of TikTok, drinkingstraight from the gush of videos being posted every single day.

TikTok's algorithm works on what's called a 'content graph', looking at what you've previously engaged with, rather than a'social graph' – which accounts you follow. That makes it possiblefor a video to go super-viral from less than super surroundings.'We see things going viral all the time from people who havemaybe, like, 50 fans, who crack something, ' says How. 'There's norecipe for it. There's no magic formula.'

Such unpredictability makes the churn of celebrities throughTikTok so speedy. They're people like Curtis Roach, whose rapabout being stuck at home during the pandemic turned him fromsomeone with $12 to his name to a celebrity musician, or NathanEvans, a Scottish postman whose sea shanties landed him a recorddeal that many would kill for. One minute these people were justlike you and me. Then they were put up on a digital pedestal, admired and envied the world over.

This book is about these 'no-one to someone' videomakers– 'creators' – but it also tells the story of TikTok's rise and theimpact it's having on society, from pop music to politics. Andmore... because to view TikTok as just the platform is to miss thebigger debate. Yes, TikTok's rise is meteoric. Yes, it's creating anew generation of celebrities – many of whom are younger thanthe YouTubers who came before them. But the rise of TikTok haswider ramifications, arising from the fact that it was made by, andis still owned by, a Chinese company. Having spent so long merelymaking phones and computers for Western companies, Chinais now rapidly pushing into software and artificial intelligence.Beijing plans to spend more than $1.4 trillion in the next five yearsdeveloping next-generation technologies. The country has goalsbeyond its borders, and TikTok is caught up in a debate held incapitals across the globe whether the short form video sharing appis a Trojan horse for a bigger tech invasion from East (CommunistChina in particular and Asia more generally) to West (chieflythe capitalist economies of the USA and Europe). Or whether it'ssimply a private company trying to become a mainstay in a worldpreviously dominated by big companies in a 130 square kilometreparcel of land in the San Francisco Bay in California, better knownas Silicon Valley. The two sides of the argument are entrenchedand far apart.

TikTok has mutated into something of a proxy war over thefuture of the technology we rely on in our everyday lives. And theoutcome could potentially dictate the future direction of the appswe install on our phones, and where our data goes. For the last 20years, Westerners have knowingly handed over the most intimatedetails of our lives, from our favourite brand of pasta to our illnessesto our underwear size, to the GAFA companies based in theUnited States (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon). It's a trustthat successive scandals have shown to be misplaced. TikTok'sorigins lie elsewhere, in a country Westerners fear would morewillingly sacrifice personal rights to protect its national interests.With increasing amounts of our lives being transacted online, does it matter if our data and our money stays within the controlof a few firms in Silicon Valley or starts to migrate to data serverscontrolled by companies ultimately run out of China?

Politicians outside China certainly seem to think so, which is why TikTok, alongside Huawei and other Chinese innovations, have become the subjects of searching criticism and investigationsin the West. TikTok was thrust squarely into the sights of DonaldTrump, who, while the US President in 2020, decided to make ashort-form video-sharing app – beloved by teens for lip-syncingpop songs – the enemy in a national security investigation, with investigations in India, Japan, Australia, Europe and the UnitedKingdom were delving into whether TikTok was, despite theanalyses of multiple cyber-security experts, secreting informationto Chinese spies. Politicians have shown they will act, too: Indiabanned TikTok in June 2020, alongside 58 other apps developedwithin China's borders – a move made permanent in January 2021, leaving a dedicated audience of 200 million users without a home, and thousands of employees without a job.

Unsurprisingly, given the growth and power of its business, TikTok is fighting back, in the US and elsewhere. After a steadyrumble of discontent that grew into deliberate PR campaignswarning that it was becoming a pawn in a broader geopoliticalbattle, the company protested that 'the [Trump] Administrationpaid no attention to facts, dictated terms of an agreement withoutgoing through standard legal processes, and tried to insert itselfinto negotiations between private businesses.' Less than threeweeks later, TikTok filed a lawsuit against the US President, alleginghe had run roughshod over normal governmental practice andthe first and fifth amendments in order to score political points andjeopardise the future of a new driver of the global economy. Whatwas once the story of an enormously popular app's impact on ouronline and offline culture had been hurled into a tussle betweenthe world's two biggest superpowers.


This book, then, tells the story of TikTok, where it came from andhow it has transformed our society and taken over the world. Withthe help of those who've been intimately acquainted with the innerworkings of TikTok, you'll learn how the company operates, whatits goals are, and where it's going. You'll discover the complicatedlineage of the world's fastest-growing app, and where it's provingpopular and why. You'll learn about the company behind it, whichis challenging Google in its own backyard and wants to do muchmore than entertain you with diverting videos. All are importantto understand TikTok's out-sized impact on the world, and tomake your own informed decision as to whether the increasinglyheated debate over its impact stems from xenophobic agitprop orwell-evidenced concerns about the long-term future of our digitaloverlords and their government connections.

But beyond that, we'll track what the growth of TikTok reallymeans for us all, for security, privacy and propaganda for thenext 25 years or more of our lives. We could be on the cusp of asignificant shift in the base of power for almost everything we doonline. We're not just talking about which celebrities we idoliseand which app we turn to when we're bored. What happens nowcould shape how we shop, how we bank, and who controls ourdata – and where it ultimately ends up. It's the reason why a USPresident tried to stifle TikTok's growth, and why the outcomeof that argument – being considered by Joe Biden, the new USPresident, amid continued frostiness with China – matters quiteso much.

On occasion, there will be more questions than answers –simply because TikTok's ascendancy is so new and so stratospheric.History is happening right before our eyes. But you'll put downthis book knowing far more than when you started, and you'llcertainly be better equipped to enter the debate.

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In technology, the first sign of success is failure. Whether it’s the runaway popularity of a social media post draining the life from your battery with buzzing notifications of likes and favourites, until you’re left staring at a black screen, or the blinking fervour of servers being pushed to their limit, tech has a way of letting you know that you’ve hit a sweet spot. Unexpected success, in particular, can send the best-laid plans careening off course. Think of it like building a boat: you plan everything around an expected number of passengers, but if too many people jump aboard, the bow cracks and water starts to seep in. Suddenly, you’re capsizing.
Alex Zhu, a free-thinking civil engineering graduate from Zheijiang University, one of China’s best known technical universities, certainly knew he had a runaway success on his hands when he woke up on 22 July 2016 in Shanghai, China. Zhu, then 35, had worked on Cisco’s WebEx conference calling system and SAP’s business software in the 2000s and 2010s. He and his 35-year-old colleague Louis Yang had co-founded a lip syncing app, Musical.ly. It allowed people to record 15-second snippets miming along to pop songs and had become a sensation among teenagers. Seven in 10 users had real world friends on the app, and were convincing more and more of their close contacts to try it out. Half of an average user’s followers were people they were close to in real life, which meant they were more likely to keep logging onto the app to see what their friends were up to.
When we spoke via a crackly Skype connection that day, he had been roused by a phone call from the app’s United States office relaying that its servers had crashed – again. Far from being one of China’s stiff-suited apparatchiks, Zhu has always classed himself as a creative type. He defines his job as a ‘designtrepeneur’; his social media accounts eschew the formality of using his name, but instead flighty phrases like ‘keepsilence’ and ‘mylonelyhouse.’ He laughed when I asked whether Musical.ly had encountered problems because it was too popular. He explained that the amount of web traffic being sent by its 11 million daily active was overwhelming both the company’s infrastructure in data centres around the world and the backup it had cobbled together to handle excess traffic.
In fact, an army of 100 million users had been unwittingly overwhelming its servers for six months. When Zhu and Yang first conceived of Musical.ly, they didn’t contemplate such rapid growth. ‘When the app was initially built, we didn’t build it for scalability,’ Zhu told me. Befitting his character, he didn’t seem too bothered about the data ‘issues.’
Even so, everyone working on Musical.ly knew they had to fix problems whenever they arose. App users can be fickle beings. If they can’t log in to the app for several hours because of a server outage, they may never return. The popularity of the app in the West meant many of the issues surfaced in the middle of the night in China. Few people knew about the sleepless nights over misfiring servers, and the general irascibility of engineering teams working on too much stress and too little sleep. ‘The team haven’t had enough rest,’ Zhu said.
While frantically trying to bail out the servers sinking under the weight of too many passengers, Musical.ly’s engineering team was also trying to rebuild the way the app communicated with its data centres to prevent it breaching capacity. That was important because Zhu, speaking on that July morning, had big plans. Musical.ly, which until then had been known as a way for bored teenagers to while away their time doing the digital equivalent of singing into a hairbrush in front of a mirror, was going to change. ‘In addition to music, we’re using more cultural forms,’ said Zhu. He envisaged a future for Musical.ly where users could perform comedy skits to their smartphone camera and share them; could record their own voice and act out scenes; could do silly dances to their favourite songs. ‘As long as it’s a video format, we think we can do it,’ he said. ‘The fundamental thinking behind this is that it’s every kind of video format for self-expression and social communication.’ It was a prescient decision that allowed Musical.ly to build up a massive userbase.
Musical.ly would eventually become TikTok – which has been downloaded by 2.6 billion people worldwide.
TikTok is extraordinarily easy to use. Users pick up a phone, press record, and film a video less than 15 or 60 seconds long using a variety of filters available at the swipe of a finger. They can add a short snippet of music – taken from chart-topping hits, or indeed anywhere – and upload the resulting footage to the app. Then users tag it with hashtags so it can get discovered. As to what is in the video, it’s up to users. Parkour artists make death-defying leaps across tall buildings; teenagers in their bedroom dance on the spot and point to political messages they want to make that appear as on-screen captions in front of them. Some people sing. Some people dance. Some people stare. It’s frictionless and simple, intuitive and addictive. And even more than YouTube, it demolishes the line between viewer and creator.
TikTok has blown away all records in its short life. In January 2018, TikTok had 54 million monthly active users. By the end of the year, it had 271 million, and the year after that, 507 million. By July 2020, 689 million people – twice as many as Twitter, which was founded in 2006 – logged on every month. In the second quarter of 2020, 50 million people in Europe and 25 million in the United States downloaded TikTok onto their devices. Fifty million Americans open up the app every day – a tenfold rise since January 2018, according to official data from the app itself.
These are the kind of numbers American tech giants can only dream about. YouTube attained two billion monthly active users after 15 years of existence, and Facebook took 13 years. If TikTok keeps its current trajectory, it will probably reach that level in a quarter of the time. The acceleration of technology adoption, with word spreading faster about the hottest new apps, partly explains this growth. But a large part is TikTok engineering its own success by standing out from the crowd.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Zhu, on that crisp summer morning, dared to dream. I had asked him whether he was muscling in on YouTube, which had one billion users at the time, and two other apps, Periscope for livestreaming and Vine for short-form video. Nonchalantly, he replied that he thought Musical.ly had been competing with all three apps for a long time. He was overjoyed with its userbase and demographics: 75% of Musical.ly’s users then were women, and 54% of them were under 24 – the ‘best possible userbase you could imagine.’ He explained: ‘They have time, they’re creative, and they’re social media addicts.’ The majority of the users were teenagers, with the most active users between the age of 13 and 20, the average age inching up every month – the result of teenagers and children introducing the app to their parents and grandparents, performing music videos with them. This insight would echo through my mind three-and-a-half years later, when I spoke to TikTok’s managing director in the UK, about how 2019 was transformative for the app as families gathered around the Christmas tree and performed a TikTok instead of breaking out the Monopoly set.
‘Building a community is very similar to running a country,’ Zhu said in an interview back in 2016. ‘In the early stage, building a community from scratch is like you just discovered a new land. You give it a new name, and if you want to build an economy you want to build population and you want people to migrate to your country.’
At the time, other countries were much more popular. Zhu singled out Instagram and Facebook, where the economy was very developed. On Musical.ly, there was no population and no economy. So how could he attract people? Zhu, who has long looked outward to the rest of the world, drew on an age-old idea: the promise of the American Dream.
In the old countries of Facebook and Instagram, the social class was already entrenched, and there was little chance of progression for the average person. It’s an issue YouTube has long struggled with: research shows that 96.5% of those posting videos on the Google-owned video sharing platform won’t make enough money from advertising revenue against their videos alone to reach the poverty line. ‘They have almost zero opportunity to go up in the social class,’ as Zhu explained.
But in a new land, you can run a centralised economy – channelling most wealth to a small percentage of the population, to enrich those people first. They then become role models, showing that the grass is greener on the other side, encouraging more people to migrate from other apps to Musical.ly. It’s a model that continued through to TikTok.
However, at some point the wealth must trickle down. ‘Having an American Dream is good, but if it’s only a dream, people will wake up eventually.’ That also extends to the upper classes and the founding fathers and mothers of a new app economy too. Fame alone is enough to get people to embrace a new platform, certainly – but at some point, they’ll wonder where the money is coming from. ‘Once they have the fame, it’s not enough,’ says Zhu. ‘They have to monetise.’
Zhu’s dream was surprisingly clear, even at that early stage. He had just launched an adjunct app, Live.ly, which combined multiple communication platforms into one single app. It would help Musical.ly break out of the lip syncing niche, and into more general videos. He and Yang were targeting not just the United States and Europe, but south-east Asia, India, Japan and Brazil. Allowing users, who were then called ‘musers,’ to make different types of videos would also help attract older audiences. Zhu didn’t just want the young kids aged 13 to 20. He wanted people in their 20s and 30s.
He had a sense of direction, a boldness of vision, and a commitment to testing. ‘We have to do a lot of experiments to see how it goes,’ he told me. ‘It’s too early to predict how big it can be.’


It is February 2019 at VidCon London. This is the first foray into the United Kingdom by the world’s biggest online video conference. VidCon connects the two disparate halves of the online video world. For the first day of the event in London, earnest digital marketers in smart suits discuss how to target key demographics, while growth hackers – invariably middle-aged men with bad haircuts and a paunch barely hidden by a branded T-shirt – give away the secrets of how to make it big on YouTube.
Then for the weekend, things get weird. The cavernous halls of the venue clamour with the screams of schoolgirls meeting their idols, and you’re as likely to see someone with an LGBTQ+ flag draped over their shoulders and knotted against their clavicle as you are a tailored suit. It’s a collision of the corporate and cultural worlds of online video.
It’s 10 years since the YouTubers Hank and John Green established VidCon. During that time its rise has mirrored that of YouTube, which transformed itself from an odd site for uploading home videos to something vastly bigger. While a lot of things at VidCon change, from the number of panels and attendees to the way that ordinary punters are increasingly kept away from the digital video stars turned celebrities, one remains the same: this is primarily a conference about YouTube.
So I am nonplussed at first when a friend, Zoe Glatt, recommends sticking around to watch an upcoming panel. The panel is about a short-form video app I know of but barely use: TikTok. I am not keen. It starts at midday, and I haven’t eaten for hours, having chaired an early morning session on YouTubers’ mental health.
I know that TikTok is a big thing to people elsewhere, but my knowledge is refracted through layers of distance. So I know that TikTok is popular, but only in the way that people outside the US know that the NFL pays astronomical salaries without ever getting a grip on it, or comprehending why anyone would care about it. But Zoe is persistent, and I could do with sitting in a quiet space away from the hubbub of the conference floor. So I sit in on the TikTok panel.
And everything changes.
Many of the panels held on VidCon’s smaller stages are insipid occasions, where creators, managers, advertisers and brand people on the podium talk shop, while audience members languidly scroll through emails on their phone.
The TikTok experience is different. For a start, barring the parents accompanying their children, at 29 I am one of the oldest there – by some distance. The audience members have their hair in braids, and their faces painted with glittery streaks across their cheekbones. They stamp their feet with excitement, and nearly squeal with anticipation. The tenor and tone of the conversation is different. While the panellists talk about business and brand deals and opportunities for the platform to grow, when the moderator opens up the discussion for questions from the floor, overexcited hands stretch up to the sky. Some children teeter on the edge of their seats in order to try and elongate their fingers that extra half-inch.
The questions are as revealing as the diorama I see before me: while most YouTube panels discuss clicks per mille, or CPMs (a mechanism for making money, which is the amount of money a company has to pay to get 1,000 views of its ad) or the benefits of diversifying your income streams, the toughest line of questioning at the TikTok session comes from a cherub...

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