TikTok is big. Almost unfathomably enormous, actually. The product of Chinese parent company ByteDance, the social media video-sharing app has remained a fixture at the top of the App Store charts for more than a year now — with no sign of it losing that position any time soon.
Journalist Chris Stokel-Walker is the author of a new book, titled TikTok Boom: China’s Dynamite App and the Superpower Race for Social Media. It launches today in Europe and worldwide, with a US launch coming September 30.
Stokel-Walker spoke with Cult of Mac about what makes TikTok, well, tick, the app’s face-off with Donald Trump, and why it’s no longer exclusively an app for teens to show off their dance moves.
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TikTok dominates the App Store
Cult of Mac: TikTok has dominated the iOS App Store chart for the past year, beating apps made by major players like Google and Facebook. What has given it this seemingly unassailable lead over the tech giants during this time?
Chris Stokel-Walker: It’s a combination of things. The first thing is that they are supported by ByteDance, which is a massive company with an estimated valuation of between $400-$600 billion. Their revenue last year was $34 billion. They are spending a lot of money getting the word out about TikTok. The book goes into detail about [TikTok’s] approach to user acquisition, and it involves spending obscene amounts of money. They are one of the rare apps that can compete with Google and Facebook on that front.
Then you also have the fact that they are one of the beneficiaries of the pandemic. They really came to the fore at a time when we were seeking out entertainment. In March 2020 alone, users outside of China [cumulatively] spent as much time on TikTok as there has been time between now and the Stone Age, something like hundreds of thousands of years.
TikTok is a very addictive app. It keeps you interested, and then you also start to become a creator. Then you drag other people into your videos, and they download the app as well. So it’s really a combination of lots of money, good timing, and word of mouth.
Donald Trump vs. TikTok
Cult of Mac: How do you view the standoff with President Trump that threatened a ban of TikTok in the US? Were fears about TikTok and data security well-founded? Or was it a political pawn caught up in a wider conflict with China?
Chris Stokel-Walker: Some of the concerns are legitimate. They are legitimate for any social media platform that we use. Post-Cambridge Analytica, we have become much more circumspect about the apps and services that we use. The issues that TokTok had last year, which continue into this year, are the correct diagnosis [of broader issues]. We’re concerned about overly draconian monitoring of our data; we’re concerned about the fact that our data gets used in ways that we don’t necessarily know about.
But that doesn’t mean that Xi Jinping has a Bat Phone directly into ByteDance’s headquarters. People a lot more intelligent than me have spent a lot of time trying to find that smoking gun and we haven’t been able to. [Part of the issue with the standoff with Donald Trump] was that, during the US presidential race, Joe Biden wasn’t going out on the campaign trail. Trump saw an expedient opponent in TikTok, and built up a head of steam that has since had ramifications in the UK, Australia, and all across Europe as well.
TikTok’s secret sauce
Cult of Mac: TikTok’s video recommendation algorithm is often praised as the secret sauce that has made TikTok so big. In the past, you’ve written that its algorithms know us better than we know ourselves. But it’s not the first company to use recommendation algorithms that learn our tastes and preferences. What makes it so special?
Chris Stokel-Walker: There are two things, I think. One is that TikTok is more focused on a content graph, rather than the social graph. It’s much more, almost entirely, focused on the type of content that you engage with, rather than what your friends are engaged with.
The other thing is that the algorithm is just much more powerful. Number one is the amount of inputs that go into it. If you think about the average YouTube video, which is six, eight, ten minutes long, over the course of an hour you’re only watching 6-10 YouTube videos. On TikTok in that 60 minute time period you could be watching anywhere from 60 to, in the case of really short videos, 500 videos. [As a result,] TikTok is much more data rich, it’s able to know much more about what you do. [Number two] is that this isn’t just TikTok’s algorithm, it’s ByteDance’s algorithm which has been trained on content since 2012 with Toutiao, its Chinese news aggregator. That algorithm has been plugged into all these different apps that ByteDance uses and they all feed into it. That’s why it’s so powerful.
Not just teenagers dancing
Cult of Mac: One revelatory tidbit you point out is that two-thirds of TikTok’s users worldwide are over the age of 25. I’ll admit that I’ve often held onto this perception that it was primarily young people driving TikTok’s growth. How important is this older demographic in pushing TikTok forward and making it a long-term prospect instead of a short-term fad?
Chris Stokel-Walker: Yeah, hugely. It’s really fascinating to see that because it is something that TikTok themselves recognize. I spoke to Rich Waterworth, who is TikTok’s UK Managing Director, over the course of several years. He said that this was an express goal [of TikTok’s]. They were originally going for younger audiences, and [now they’re focused on] aging up. They knew this was integral to their survival. It’s assuring their long-term growth.
In the book I speak to TikTokers in their eighties, which dispels this myth we once had that TikTok was a place full of teenagers dancing. It is no longer that. It is a hub for all types of content from all types of people.
This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.