TikTok Boom tells how the video-sharing app blew up the App Store [Q&A]

TikTok Boom tells how the video-sharing app blew up the App Store [Q&A]

TikTok is big. Almost unfathomably huge, in fact. A product of Chinese parent company ByteDance, the social media video-sharing app has topped the App Store charts for over 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: Chinese app Dynamite and the race for social media superpowers. It launches today in Europe and globally, with a US launch on September 30.

Stokel-Walker spoke with cult of mac on what makes TikTok, well, tick, the app’s showdown 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 topped the iOS App Store chart over the past year, beating out apps made by major players like Google and Facebook. What gave 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 backed by ByteDance, which is a massive company with an estimated valuation of between $400 billion and $600 billion. Last year, their revenues were $34 billion. They spend a lot of money to publicize TikTok. The book details [TikTok’s] approach to user acquisition, and it involves spending obscene amounts of money. They are one of the few apps that can compete with Google and Facebook on this front.

Then you also have the fact that they are one of the beneficiaries of the pandemic. They really stood out at a time when we were looking for entertainment. In March 2020 alone, users outside of China [cumulatively] spent as much time on TikTok as there was time between now and the Stone Age, something like hundreds of thousands of years ago.

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 also download the app. So it’s really a combination of big money, good timing and word of mouth.

Stokel-Walker is an authority on all things TikTok.
Photo: Canbury Press

Donald Trump against TikTok

cult of mac: How do you view the standoff with President Trump who threatened to ban TikTok in the United States? Were fears about TikTok and data security well founded? Or was it a political pawn caught in a wider conflict with China?

Chris Stokel Walker: Some of the concerns are legitimate. They are legit for any social media platform we use. After Cambridge Analytica, we’ve become much more circumspect about the apps and services we use. TokTok’s problems last year, which continue this year, are the correct diagnosis [of broader issues]. We are concerned about the overly drastic monitoring of our data; we are concerned that our data is being used in ways that we are not necessarily aware of.

But that doesn’t mean Xi Jinping has a Bat Phone right in ByteDance’s headquarters. Much smarter people than me have spent a lot of time trying to find this irrefutable proof and we have failed. [Part of the issue with the standoff with Donald Trump] was that, during the US presidential race, Joe Biden was not going on the campaign trail. Trump saw a timely adversary in TikTok and built a steam head that has since had ramifications in the UK, Australia and across Europe as well.

TikTok’s Secret Sauce

cult of mac: TikTok’s video recommendation algorithm is often hailed as the secret sauce that made TikTok so great. In the past you have 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. The first is that TikTok focuses more on a content graph than the social graph. It’s much more, almost entirely, focused on what kind of content you engage with, rather than what your friends are engaging with.

The other thing is that the algorithm is just much more powerful. The first is the amount of inputs going into it. If you think of an average YouTube video, which is six, eight or ten minutes long, in an hour you only watch 6 to 10 YouTube videos. On TikTok, during this 60 minute period, you can watch between 60 and, in the case of very short videos, 500 videos. [As a result,] TikTok is much richer in data, it is able to know much more about what you are doing. [Number two] is that it’s not just TikTok’s algorithm, it’s ByteDance’s algorithm that has been training content since 2012 with Toutiao, its Chinese news aggregator. This algorithm has been connected to all these different applications used by ByteDance and they are all integrated into it. That’s why it’s so powerful.

Boom TikTok
Find out what makes TikTok work well.
Photo: Canbury Press

Not just teenagers dancing

cult of mac: One eye-opening piece of information you point out is that two-thirds of TikTok users worldwide are over the age of 25. I confess that I have often retained this perception that it is mainly young people who are behind the growth of TikTok. How important is this older demographic to driving TikTok forward and making it a long-term prospect rather than a short-term fad?

Chris Stokel Walker: Yeah, hugely. It’s really fascinating to see this because it’s something that TikTok recognizes itself. I’ve spoken to Rich Waterworth, who’s the managing director of TikTok in the UK, over a number of years. He said it was an explicit goal [of TikTok’s]. They were originally aimed at a younger audience and [now they’re focused on] to get old. They knew it was integral to their survival. This is to ensure their long-term growth.

In the book, I talk to octogenarian TikTokers, which dispels that myth we once had that TikTok was a place full of dancing teenagers. It’s not that anymore. It’s a hub for all types of content from all types of people.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

To have Boom TikTok

TikTok Boom: Chinese app Dynamite and the race for social media superpowers can be ordered from its publisher Canbury Press, on Amazon, and anywhere else good books are sold. Except, of course, the United States, which will have to wait a few months.

Shirley K. Rosa