Update as of June 18: TikTok released an official post, pulling back the curtains ever so slightly on their legendary recommendation engine.
You know the drill. You open up TikTok for a quick dose of entertainment, and find yourself in a daze hours later. The short-form video-sharing app is taking the world by storm especially as we grapple with our newfound free time in quarantine life.
It’s reached the status every digital product wants, but few ever do: becoming a cultural touchstone.
Before I check myself into TikTok rehab, I thought I would make something productive out of my addiction: a diagnosis of what makes the app so effective, and what we can learn from it.
When you first download TikTok, there’s a skippable, emoji-filled “Choose your interest” screen. After that, your first TikTok video immediately starts playing. There’s no sign-up hurdle. No confusion around where to go. You even get a “scroll up for more” floating icon that teaches you the one primary action you need to take to move onto the next video.
As far as delivering immediate value goes, TikTok has nailed it. While many products are focused on the question: “How can we force users to sign up?”, it’s often worth asking the opposite: “How much can we enable users to do without signing up?”
This is an easier trade-off when you’re in an ad-supported business where eyeballs is king, and not every product has the luxury of doing this. However, helping users see the promised land as early as possible is crucial for any product.
TV without a remote control
TikTok is effectively TV without a remote control, which, as it turns out, is an incredible form of entertainment because it’s all the novel and variable rewards that our brain craves without any of the effort.
Many products follow the “remote control” model by not taking an opinionated view of what users experience. I recently signed up for Twitter and Reddit and while there’s a wealth of interesting content on both platforms, it’s on me to dial into the right channels. Even on Netflix, there is often a sense of overwhelming choice. Rather than endless rows of recommendations, I wish they had a “surprise me” feature in which they auto-play the best pick for me in that moment.
Selection is a selling feature for new users, but it can quickly become an unintended bug for retained users that face a constantly growing surplus of options.
TikTok has fully embraced the internet assumption of abundant selection, along with the consumer desire to see only the best. None of this would be possible, however, without a powerful algorithm that quickly and confidently learns your preferences to determine what is best, for you.
Designed for speed and clarity
The For You feed that the app opens to is not built off your social graph or even your previous purchases. It’s purely based on how you, and similar users to you, engage with the content. Each video unit on TikTok is designed for speed and clarity of signal-gathering.
For starters, it’s a full-screen takeover, which means every video requires an action that’s effortless for the user yet very valuable to the algorithm. Any action you take can be readily quantified, whether it’s a replay, skip, like, comment, or share. It even quantifies how much of the video you watched before skipping. This is unlike experiences from Netflix, Instagram or YouTube experience where you see multiple units of content within the same viewport, but may not take any action at all.
TikTok also has the benefit of short-form content which means the speed to an action is much faster. In the time it takes to watch a 10-minute YouTube video, you’ll have seen and reacted to as many as 40 TikToks.
All this to say that it can learn your deepest, darkest preferences very quickly. They know that I enjoy touring fancy homes in Beverly Hills, I’m a sucker for doggos and kitties, and I’m into The Cupcake Song — and I’ve never even signed up for an account. (TikTok builds a data profile based on device ID.)
More content discovery vectors
Beyond having a powerful feed, TikTok has also created more discovery vectors than anything we’ve seen before. Hashtags, video effects, music, and creators are all exposed and tappable within any video.
This means you can either follow the infinite For You feed until the end of time, or skip into an alternative thread with videos that share the same music, video effect, hashtag or creator. The breadth and depth of your selections are then fed into their algorithm to continuously tweak the feed to your liking.
TikTok has effectively reimagined what’s possible for a pure mobile experience powered by AI. Most products are designed, and then an algorithm is built on top of it. TikTok appears to have started with the algorithm and then designed the product to optimize for signal-gathering on mobile. They’ve done it so well they make companies who came of age in the desktop era look stale and buried in product debt.
A hook that transcends borders
Not only is music a useful content discovery vector, but a video synchronized to music can hook people in and transcend borders. A video shared from Japan may not typically take off in Germany and the US, but paired with a catchy tune it can, resulting in stronger network effects.
Music finds its way into our heads, inspires us to do TikTok challenges, and even anoints new stars. Just ask Lil Nas X whose “Old Town Road” song first blew up on TikTok before racing up official music charts. Since then, songs have been renamed to mirror the snippet heard on TikTok so they’re more discoverable. The lyrics of Drake’s “Tootsie Slide” even comes with instructions on dance moves to accompany the challenge that helped it rack up 1B views.
If I were an artist, I’d be interested in testing snippets on TikTok and releasing the champion tune after learning what sticks. If I were Spotify, I’d look into partnering with TikTok to become the default player of their songs. If I were Quibi, I’d re-examine my strategy altogether. While Quibi is in the business of picking and grooming winners, TikTok is in the business of letting an infinite number of flowers bloom based on the algorithm.
The use of music is also an interesting case study in appealing to multiple senses to engage an audience. Twitter is centered on words and has niche appeal. Instagram is centered on visuals and has mainstream appeal. TikTok is a blend of its social predecessors and the powers of music which, as we’re seeing, has global appeal.
Engine of meritocracy
Given the For You page on TikTok isn’t anchored by your social network, there’s more room for serendipitous discovery. This means a greater window of opportunity for people with compelling content to get popular, fast.
It feels like a social Gold Rush, as those who have struggled to make it on the Instagrams and YouTubes of the world scramble for a chance to get in front of millions of captive viewers. It’s also a lesson that enabling and preserving a path from newcomer to middle-class is crucial for maintaining a moat. When it becomes hard to “make it” in established channels, the door opens for new channels to take off.
There’s even a theory that TikTok uses a “delayed explosion” for new creators to resurrect their interest if their initial batch of videos did not take off. Call it a second chance at TikTok fame.
Rise of China
Years ago, if we were told that a video-sharing app would take the world by storm, most would guess that the company be based in Silicon Valley, maybe even LA, but definitely not Beijing. In recent memory, China has been better known for its copycats than innovation plays. But the tides are turning.
Seeing the TikTok phenomenon unfold has reminded me of the book AI Superpowers. I highly recommend it if you’re intrigued / scared / baffled by the rise of China.
The premise is as follows: as AI transitions from an age of discovery to implementation, from expertise to data, China has the upper hand. The most valuable product to emerge out of China’s copycat era is a generation of entrepreneurs who fight like gladiators. They have an army of tinkerers who understand the fundamentals of AI and have started applying it to all sorts of problems.
If AI is the electricity of the 21st century, TikTok may be the first of many shocks to come.
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