China

How TikTok is turning a generation of video addicts into a data goldmine


Question: what do men and Excel have in common?

Answer: they’re always automatically turning things into dates when they’re not.

To younger people – that is, anyone under the age of 20 – Microsoft’s spreadsheet program, a tool as essential to accountants as saws are to carpenters, is the contemporary equivalent of mom jeans, handwritten thank-you notes and cravats: stuff that oldies care about. How come, then, that the hashtag #excel has had 3.4bn views on a certain social media platform and that one Excel expert on that platform has 2.7 million followers and 9.7m likes for their tips on using Excel?

The answer is that the platform is TikTok, well known by now as the short-form video-hosting service owned by Chinese company ByteDance, on which you find an endless stream of short-duration (15 seconds) videos, in genres ranging from pranks, stunts, tricks, jokes, dance and entertainment to what one might call “edutainment” (such as advice on how to do stuff with Excel). Over the last couple of years it’s been taking over the social media world, and all the other big platforms – and especially Facebook – seem hypnotised by it, much as rabbits are by the headlights of an oncoming lorry.

Why is this? It’s partly a matter of demographics: 57% of TikTok users are female; 43% are aged between 18 and 24; and only 3.4% are over 55 (and possibly wandered in to TikTok by mistake when they were looking for their true online home, which is now Facebook). You can tell that this hurts because in August 2020 Instagram (which is owned by Facebook/Meta) launched Reels, an editing tool that allowed users to create 15-second video clips and set them to music. Just like TikTok, in fact, only feebler.

The existential threat that TikTok poses to the social media giants, though, is not demographic: it’s about attention. As the Nobel economics laureate Herbert Simon pointed out decades ago, in a world where information (and entertainment) is abundant, the critical scarce resource becomes attention and Facebook/Meta et al are now locked in combat for that. Since attention is a finite resource (there are only so many hours in a day) competition between them has become a zero-sum game. The more attention one attracts, the less there is for the others.

And this is where TikTok seems to be winning hands down. Its users currently spend an average of 52 minutes a day on it and 90% of them visit the app more than once a day. According to Scott Galloway, a seasoned observer of the tech world, the average session lasts 11 minutes, which is enough time to watch 26 videos of about 25 seconds each. He tells an instructive story about what that might mean in practice.

After lunch at a friend’s house, his host motioned to him to observe his 11-year-old son, who “walked to the couch and lay on his side. With his arm extended in front of him cradling his phone, he… went vacant. For the next hour, he was comatose. No signs of life other than his open eyes and an occasional finger swipe. ‘We have to make him stop, pull him out, every time,’ his dad said. My head filled with images of opium dens in China. Something about the stillness, the lying on his side.”

There are two insights to be derived from this domestic scene. The first is that the addictive properties of social media have been ratcheted up a further notch. In metaphorical terms, if Instagram and YouTube dispense marijuana, then TikTok provides “digital crack cocaine”, as Forbes magazine once colourfully expressed it.

The second inference is that TikTok is taking surveillance capitalism to a new level. All social media companies monitor their users intensively to extract as much information as they can from their users’ online activity. The significance of those 26 videos in the average session, Galloway says, is that TikTok can extract more granular data from its users than the other companies can. Each video, or “episode”, generates numerous “microsignals”: “whether you scrolled past a video, paused it, re-watched it, liked it, commented on it, shared it, and followed the creator, plus how long you watched before moving on. That’s hundreds of signals.”

If data is the new oil, then TikTok provides “sweet crude like the world has never seen, ready to be algorithmically refined into rocket fuel”.

It almost enough to make you feel sorry for Mark Zuckerberg and co. Until you remember that TikTok is owned by a big Chinese company. And you don’t need to be a spreadsheet wizard to understand what that implies. There are no good choices in the tech industry, it seems, just decisions about which is the lesser evil.

And if you’re wondering where Excel users go for a drink – why, it’s the Formula bar of course.

What I’ve been reading

Age concern
Old Not Other is a fine Aeon essay by Kate Kirkpatrick and Sonia Kruks asking why we disdain the one group we all eventually will join – the aged.

Pain in the assets
A nice down-to-earth blogpost is Noah Smith’s Where Does the Wealth Go When Asset Prices Go Down?

Poet’s corner
Seamus Heaney, Pseudonym ‘Incertus’ is a classy Princeton University Press essay by Roy Foster on the late Irish poet.



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