- Cristina J. Orgaz @cjorgaz
- BBC World News
A cell phone screen, a vertical video and 1 minute of your life.
These three elements are the essence of Tik Tok, the social network for short videos that is sweeping young people and has already changed the video consumption habits of thousands of users.
How can it be so addictive?
You open it, it’s 4 o’clock and when you look at the clock again an hour has passed.
Do i really wear watching short videos nonstop for 60 minutes?
Infinite scrolling, a characteristic design of social networks, does its job well on Tik Tok.
So much that until advertising seems like one more video.
It blends with the rest of the content until it appears invisible.
This is the first clue that what seems in principle simple, it takes a lot of work engineering behind.
The second, explains to BBC Mundo Matthew Brennan, author of “Attention Factory” and technology specialist in China, is one of the most sophisticated recommendation algorithms of the world.
With approximately 800 million active users per month, its success is no accident.
Only in 2019 TikTok and Douyin -their equivalent in China- they were downloaded nearly 2 billion times worldwide.
The company ByteDance, its owner, it is not a start up set up in a garage that one day found success by chance.
They knew how to do it
The executives and engineers behind the app, Brennan says, they knew how to convert this short video service in one of the most addictive social networks in the world.
“There is no small team behind it. It is one of the largest internet companies in China. It employs thousands of people. If TikTok has grown so fast is due to the experience of its engineers since it operates the best recommendation engine in the competitive Chinese market “, he affirms in the interview with BBC Mundo.
“It is rivaling YouTube and Instagram, the platforms where people go when they have free time, where they go to entertain or in search of status“, dice.
This algorithm use machine learning to know what content each individual prefers based on their behavior.
“What makes it so addicting is that it learns what you like and what you don’t like. And it does it quickly because in 1 minute you can watch 5 or 6 videos.”
“In that time, you have to discard the video or watch it. And that action reveals whether you like it or not. So ByteDance you can get a lot of information in a very short time“.
Compared to what happens on other platforms, the process is slower.
“You can watch something for 5 minutes on YouTube without touching the screen. If it’s Netflix you can watch half an hour without doing anything.”
“So the system gets less feedback. You don’t help them understand how you feel, whether you find it boring or not,” he adds.
“In TikTok, you constantly interact with the application And even if you don’t, you are also giving information. If you do nothing it means that you have stopped in a video and you are watching it. It’s a very strong indicator that you find what you see interesting, “says Brennan.
“So they quickly create a graph of interests for each user and the recommendation engine will feed your page with content for you.”
It’s another key to TikTok: the customization is extreme.
“What you see is different from what your friend sees. That is the power. That’s why it’s so addictive“.
The best of each
Each development phase of TikTok drew directly on previously created products and technology.
“The engineers replicated technology, experience of the product and promotional playbook of its sister app, China’s Douyin, “says Brennan.
It’s like TikTok is a mix of all the features more attractive of the apps previously developed by ByteDance.
With its worldwide takeoff, in 2018, they confirmed that what they learned in dozens of lesser-known applications had served to create a platform that hit the mark.
“ByteDance was the first Chinese Internet company to go” all-in “on then-nascent technology and commit to the daunting task of build a recommendation engine, challenging the “status quo” of human healing, “says the expert.
“This early gamble paid off. The foundations of TikTok’s success were laid many years before the application was created, and it was no coincidence that ByteDance was the company that made it, “he says in his book” Attention Factory. “
The icing on this growth was the huge budget to promote it.
“They spent billions of dollars to advertise it on Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat,” says Brennan.
Also, in the ByteDance ecosystem, everything is interconnected.
When a user has downloaded several of their applications on the cell phone, a like in one, it becomes a better recommendation in the other, explains the author.
Information is shared between them.
How internet consumption has changed
People use a laptop very differently than a smartphone.
The use of the internet on the cell phone can normally be divided into 30-40 sessions a day.
Sometimes that glance at the phone lasts less than 60 seconds.
So, if before it was normal to consume videos in the morning, then go to work or school, and turn on the computer again to watch YouTube in the afternoon, now the users you can connect to TikTok at any time of the day.
And not just to watch, but also to upload videos.
“I really believe that short videos are a new paradigm for consuming content from internet. And it’s a huge change in behavior. It is something that is going to stay in the long term. ”
For Brennan, “the phenomenon is just beginning and it will become even more important and will have more users and, I suppose you could say that it will become even more addictive. We are still in the early stages, “says Brennan.
For him, the next expansion of TikTok will come from all kinds of genres for the 1-minute video format.
From education to cooking recipes.
“TikTok has already changed the way consumers interact with social media platforms and there will be even more evolution,” says the specialist.
“We are likely to see innovations in content. In China, there are all kinds of things, like people doing mystery videos or psychological thrillers. Things you would never say fit in such a short period of time. “
Integration with other services
“We will also see how the short videos are integrated with the buy online, live broadcasts or virtual gifts“, afirma Brennan.
“All these things have already been developed in the Chinese version. And I think they are just beginning in other parts of the world,” he says.
“Today, ByteDance is a growing corporation. Like other large internet conglomerates, its presence has expanded to a myriad of online services consisting of games, education, business productivity, payments and much more“, cree.
That is what awaits us for the next few years, he says convinced.
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