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Sascha Lobo: Why TikTok is interesting and still a problem


No app satisfies our digital curiosity better than TikTok. Facebook, YouTube and Instagram have long wanted to be like the app from China. Our columnist wishes they will succeed.

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User in front of a TikTok logo: "It's really absurd"


Imagine a room with tens of thousands of people.

It's highly trained, highly paid software professionals, and they all have just one goal: to get you using an app for as long as possible.

And with the help of data designed to measure your interests down to the smallest detail.

The technology created by these people is extremely good at it.

If you ask people who use this app, one of the most common stories is very similar to the one that was recently read in SPIEGEL: "(...) if I just want to look in for two minutes and then sit in front of it for an hour.

That's really absurd."

This space actually exists in a figurative sense, because the app is called TikTok, the company behind it is Bytedance and a good part of the more than 110,000 employees of this Chinese digital company have the primary task of increasing the so-called stickiness of products like TikTok.

Stickiness is the literal translation, which is wonderfully close to actual function.

In sober, unwieldy EDP terms, it is about increasing the length of stay.

Out comes an algorithm, the TikTok algorithm, which is the hottest thing in the digital world right now.

One could formulate this negatively and speak of "addictive" or of "manipulation".

In my opinion, this reading is at least incomplete, perhaps even misleading.

There is also a much more positive perspective.

Algorithms order the mass of content

In fact, the invention of social media has exponentially amplified a problem that previously seemed insurmountable: the sheer volume of content is far, far too great.

In 2020, around 30,000 hours of videos were uploaded every hour on YouTube alone.

That means it would take over 80 years to watch a day's worth of content.

And that's just YouTube.

Without the algorithms that suggested the content, you would be in a fix.

"Serendipity" or "Serendipity" is the technical term for the expectation of finding something of interest without looking for it.

In the 21st century, serendipity is the digital form of curiosity in the literal sense: the greed for something new - with a twist that has become decisive due to the abundance of content on the Internet.

New is not enough, it has to be new and interesting for the person concerned, because actually nothing is more individual than satisfying curiosity.

The TikTok algorithm is currently by far the best at satisfying digital curiosity.

This goes so far that quite a few users report how video clips are suggested to them with content that contains their most secret, never expressed wishes and preferences.

Digitization means constant change

Every generation has its social network.

Millennials feel at home on Instagram, Generation Z has made TikTok the most downloaded (social) app in recent years, boomers and their parents are on Facebook.

Only Generation X staggers back and forth between all worlds or is on Twitter, the social network for outrage junkies.

This admittedly mildly simplified snapshot is cause for concern for Mark Zuckerberg.

Because social media is like Madonna, it has to constantly change in order to remain successful.

This is a pattern of digitization that has so far hardly been understood in Germany.

Far too often those responsible, whether in companies, institutions or politics, believe that digital transformation - i.e. the change caused by digitization - will eventually be completed.

Which, unfortunately, the term also suggests.

In truth, digital transformation is a never-ending process.

Not only because the technology is constantly evolving, but also because an essential aspect of digital transformation is constantly incorporating the gigantic return channel of usage data into your own products, processes and business models.

Even those who have understood it almost perfectly do not always succeed.

Mark Zuckerberg is one of those people who not only understood digital change comprehensively, but who is also actively driving it himself.

And yet, Zuckerberg is the master of a network that hasn't made the transition yet: Facebook was once by far the most important network in the world (and still is the largest), but it's now unfolding the coolness of a class reunion after 35 years.

Advertisers want cool

Coolness – in other words, wanting to be there – is essential for survival in a world in which advertising is the only money-making machine.

Mark Zuckerberg is terrified of Instagram Facebooking.

In fact, all social media are afraid to facebook.

The supposed antidote is TikTokization.

From November 2018 to July 2020, Facebook had an app called Lasso that was based on TikTok and rightly so no one knows it anymore.

Even LinkedIn relies on portrait format videos and suggestion algorithms.

With its “shorts”, YouTube has just as audaciously copied TikTok as Instagram has been trying to do for some time.

A few weeks ago, when Instagram tried to overdo it with some users* with the TikTokerei, the most influential family in the world, the Kardashian clan, personally fought back and supported an online petition with the slogan »Make Instagram Instagram again«.

In doing so, they referred primarily to so-called immersion, which could roughly be translated as “submersion”.

How much does a content absorb me?

Mark Zuckerberg got it wrong at one point in the Metaverse

Mark Zuckerberg recognized immersion as crucial very early on and therefore fully relied on the so-called metaverse, i.e. the virtual, connected, digital equivalent of the world.

He even renamed his company Meta for this reason - but unfortunately he was wrong about one point.

The Metaverse, with its virtual reality goggles, is the current pinnacle of immersion — but there's an intermediate step in immersion between Instagram and the upcoming Metaverse.

It seems simple, but has a detonative effect.

You can only watch one video at a time on TikTok.

It fills the entire smartphone screen, making it more immersive than any other major network.

You can therefore not scroll through the content on TikTok in the previous sense.

The timeline, the feed or the news flow were the most important social media inventions of the noughties.

In other words, the content that is compiled algorithmically and according to personal interests and that is offered when you scroll through the page or the app.

Invented by Twitter, copied by Facebook, perfected by Instagram.

TikTok quickly abolished the classic timeline and in turn perfected a mechanism invented by YouTube: the automatic suggestion of which video should be played next.

If you encounter TikTok unprepared and are used to other social media, you can initially see it as patronizing.

Until, after using the app for a short time, you notice the spectacularly high quality of the suggestions.

TikTok's immersiveness of showing the video across the whole screen and auto-playing with sound is part of the secret of its success.

This means that you have to react to every single piece of content on TikTok and thus reveal data about your own interests.

Either you watch it to the end or you continue swiping or you like or share it or make a comment or even start one of the TikTok-specific interactions such as quotes or remixes of the video.

That's the essence of success: You can't not react to a video on TikTok.

As a result, the TikTok algorithm – which, of course, like most other social networks, adapts specifically to each person – is currently best able to predict the interests of users.

(Read more about how the TikTok algorithm works here.)

How TikTok is changing the music industry

This in turn drastically reduces the feeling of paternalism.

With this strategy, TikTok has not only become the most interesting social network, but has also almost completely subjugated the music industry.

Hits are made on TikTok today, with such a powerful effect that the big music companies are forcing even big stars to make their new music viral hits on TikTok, however they choose to do it.

This is the power of the TikTok algorithm over a generation and their attention.

The quality of TikTok's suggestion algorithm is supplemented by an alleged reaction to the difficulties of the other social networks.

The main global competitor Instagram has recently had problems with the most important users, namely those who create the best, most interesting, i.e. most viewed content.

Many large accounts on Instagram have been complaining for a long time that their number of followers is only increasing slowly and their content »goes viral« much less frequently, i.e. it spreads much further than the number of followers would suggest.

This has to do with the fact that Instagram hasn't optimized its algorithms for the best user experience for quite some time - but to make money.

The balance of virality and creativity

With success, because Instagram is a money magnet, as there may have been few in history.

According to the experience of many advertisers, advertising on Instagram works really well.

That means translated: The suggestion algorithm for products on Instagram is better than that for new content, on TikTok it is currently exactly the opposite.

It's a balance for all social networks: If you can build your own reach too quickly and produce your own viral content too easily - then people will buy less advertising.

Because advertising is purchased virality.

TikTok has decided to algorithmically determine virality and follower gain in favor of the creative.

That can change again tomorrow, but at the moment it is much easier to produce viral content and generate followers than on Instagram or YouTube.

This is also due to the quality of the suggestion algorithm.

Because TikTok manages to suggest a lot of videos that come from creative people that you don't follow - but that you still find interesting.

In this way, serendipity leads to users constantly discovering and following new accounts that are of interest to them, resulting in many viral videos.

Which in turn is very attractive for the creative people and, in combination with the really pretty good creative tools on TikTok, spurs them on to top performance.

This results in even better, i.e. more interesting videos that are viewed more frequently and produce more usable usage data - a self-accelerating social media turbine, the opposite of a vicious circle.

Why TikTok is still problematic

That's why everyone is trying to become TikTok.

And if I'm to be honest, I wish that someone could do it.

Because despite all the difficulties of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, Snapchat and social media in general, they seem to be manageable in liberal democracies in the medium term.

TikTok's parent company comes from China.

In other words, from an inhuman dictatorship that will use every instrument it can get to assert its interests in power without compromise, regardless of democratic values.

When it comes down to it, the Chinese government will radically abuse its indirect TikTok power over the attention and minds of Western youth, I'd bet on that.

TikTok's algorithm has a long history of manipulation or alleged "bugs" where terms like "gay", "LGBTQ", "homosexual" were censored.

Likewise »Auschwitz«, »labor camps« and »National Socialism«.

For a while, fat, queer or transgender people were noticeably disadvantaged in the algorithm.

Current word filters and censorship mechanisms were or are also used, for example certain anti-racist phrases, the name of the Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who had accused a leading member of the Communist Party of rape.

Or specific information on Hong Kong, on Taiwan and on the oppression of the Uyghurs.

Whether on instruction or in anticipatory obedience: TikTok adapts its content worldwide to the standards of the Chinese dictatorship.

Not to mention that there are apparently some employees in China who, as "master admins", can view data from all users worldwide more or less at will, as research by the online magazine "Buzzfeed News" has revealed.

This means that China's dictatorial system with TikTok should have a comprehensive register of people and interests of the world's youth.

Between the spectacular, generation-defining quality of the content and the radically dystopian, worldwide surveillance tool – in no other digital application have glaring lights and dangerous shadows been as close together as with TikTok.

Source: spiegel

All tech articles on 2022-08-10

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