Attention Factory: The Story of TikTok & China’s ByteDance
Let me address three questions: Why is TikTok coming from a Chinese and not US company? Why is TikTok’s technology so powerful? Why is TikTok so popular?
ByteDance is the company behind TikTok. It is a Chinese company. Globally, famous apps and Internet services come from companies based in the Silicon Valley, like Facebook and Google. Zhang Yiming, the founder of TikTok, at the beginning of the company, knew the power of AI and recommendation engine. ByteDance is essentially an AI company whose core competency is the recommendation engine.
In the Indian market and elsewhere, people felt that the content was trashy with lots of dancing, singing and silly comedy. But then, the technology behind the platform is so advanced and cutting-edge. TikTok wasn’t the first short video application. There was a predecessor to TikTok globally and that was Musical.ly which was used by pre-teeners and teenagers in Europe and North America. Even before musical.ly there was another platform in France. TikTok offers short video in a full screen, vertical and swipe up motion format with music driven content.
Why is TikTok’s technology so powerful?
The term ‘user experience’ was actually invented in France. Short video is very powerful and it is something that is going to be with us for a long time. Why is that such a powerful format?
Short videos help in learning about the user’s content preferences. On Netflix, you might spend 45 minutes watching ‘A Game of Thrones.’ In those 45 minutes, Netflix isn’t learning much about you. It offers a very passive experience long-form content. If you do something on YouTube, in the same 45 minutes, you might watch ten videos and you have allowed YouTube to learn about your content preferences ten times more and understand you better. On a platform like TikTok with short form video, in that same time period, you can consume perhaps over 100 or 200 unique pieces of content. So they get 200 opportunities to learn about you and understand what you like and what you don’t like.
Lots of people want to be famous online. A big barrier is creativity and not most people have creativity. They can be intimidated by the process. Well, in TikTok, it is very easy.
In the full screen vertical format, you either watch it or swipe it and sometimes comment about it. For each individual piece of content, there are very strong signals from the users which the user experience algorithms pick up and discover content preferences.
Why is TikTok Popular?
The content ecosystem is very dynamic. As a creator, you are encouraged to copy and imitate others and that’s a very different psychology from other platforms that want originality and where you might be looked down upon if you start copying others. On TikTok, it’s okay to do that. A lot of people end up jumping on the trend, re-mixing other people’s content or doing their own version of a challenge or something that’s trending on the platform. So TikTok has lowered the barriers to content creation. This is such an important thing to understand why it is so successful.
If you want to be a YouTube creator, the barriers are pretty high. You will need a professional editing software to do that and you’ll have to create high quality content. It is a very mature platform. Whereas on TikTok, you don’t need any editing software. Everything’s built into the app. Lots of people want to be famous online. A big barrier is creativity and not most people have creativity. They can be intimidated by the process. Well, in TikTok, it is very easy. Every day, it comes up with new filters and the filters completely solve the problem of creating an engaging video. The filter itself is engaging.
There are things that are trending on the platform with a challenge. All you need to do is copy and do your own version. If it’s a dance, you just mimic the dance and put your own twist on it. That completely solves the creativity problem. There’s motivation problem as well. Because the speed at which a content trends on the platform goes up, but the next day something else is popular. As a creator, you need to jump on the trend. That solves the motivation problem as well. So all of these issues have been solved by TikTok. The content side and the technology side combine together to offer a powerful platform. This is something Silicon Valley companies don’t do. They are very data-driven, technical and sort of hands-off with management of ecosystems. Whereas Chinese companies are much more hands-on. They don’t mind getting their hands dirty and doing things that they don’t like. That is definitely a lesson for Indian or any companies around the world that are looking to build internet products.
I am a former employee of ByteDance. I lived in China from 2006 all the way to 2018. I have a fairly decent, ringside view of how these companies operate. Recently, I had a conversation with a senior partner from one of the VC firms that have operations both in India and China. This leader made a couple of interesting observations, comparing the entrepreneurs in India and China.
Business for China; Product for India
The first thing he said was that Chinese entrepreneurs start with the business plan. Whereas, Indian entrepreneurs come with product ideas. It makes a huge difference between the two. He said that the quality of ideas that come out of India is very good but therein lies the problem. We get fixated with the idea. If the idea fails, your business fails.
In China, people come up with a business plan and they broadly know what to do. Even ByteDance had 12 app ideas before they decided which one to go with. This is one area where we, as Indians, need to learn.
Lack of stamina
The second aspect this VC friend of mine talked about was ‘stamina.’ The Chinese are all about going global, not just in business, but every walk of life. For example, I personally feel that Flipkart sold out too early and I’ll tell you why. In 2010 or 11, Yahoo was a significant shareholder in Alibaba. It made an offer to Jack Ma to buy out Alibaba. Those days, Alibaba had not grown to what it is today. But Jack Ma fought it tooth and nail. The government stood firmly behind him and he made a reverse offer to buy Yahoo globally, from China; and that was unthinkable those days. He went ahead and did it and finally Yahoo’s attempt to take over Alibaba did not materialize. It is one of the reasons why Alibaba is where it is today. From this perspective, Flipkart was a very early sell out and we probably had something much bigger. Indian entrepreneurs tend to sell out early. Similarly, they have reluctance to go global.
I have travelled all over the world in many airlines. I think Jet Airways is a fantastic Airline. We have built such brands with a global character but we don’t have the ability to support them big. I don’t want to go into the reasons. Chinese people, wherever they go in the world, use WeChat not WhatsApp. They also get systemic support.
5G is going to be a massive game changer. Video is already the king of content. It is the most consumed one and for all practical purposes, it is really the internet speed that has helped companies like ByteDance or Flipkart. They have all grown massively because the infrastructure has already been built for these companies to piggyback and to have a massive hockey stick growth.
When TikTok was banned last year, there was a flurry of TikTok-ish apps that came in with a strong Indian flavour wanting to occupy the massive space left by TikTok. I created one of them. I co-founded a company called 60Seconds to be in the short format game. The world’s largest search engine is Google. The second largest is YouTube. So videos are already out there to win and the Internet speed is only going to quicken that pace.
Alarming attention span
The second aspect I want to touch is the attention span. I have two teenage daughters and I can tell you that their attention span is insanely short. I don’t think they ever enjoy watching a feature film of two hours duration. They just don’t have the patience. They are attuned to watching short-format videos. At best, they may watch Netflix series of half an hour or 45 minutes duration. Every time these kids watch the short format videos, they get dopamine shots and become addicted. The companies know what sort of video has caught the fancy of the viewers. How long they watch the videos and if they comment—all these provide valuable analytics feedback to the company. It is very easy for them to dissect and find out viewers’ interest. Then accordingly, in real time, they start changing the algorithm and line up videos that capture their attention. The app decides what you want to watch, and because they keep giving you content, you continue to keep watching that. It is just shocking.
Recent reports say that the attention span of youngsters is down to eight seconds. With such short attention span, the average time that an Indian spends on the mobile is 4.6 hours in a day. How ridiculous this is!
Mobile phones have become a part of human anatomy. If you don’t find your phone out there, you almost get a heart attack! We prefer watching vertical videos. The biggest muscles that we use is in fact, our thumb muscles. Entrepreneurs, product heads and marketers have to understand this.
The dark side
However, there’s a dark side to this. If there has ever been a biggest proponent of digital, it’s me. In 1995, I graduated in engineering; It was also the year when the Internet was introduced. I fell head over heels over the Internet; and over the last two decades plus, I have made it my passion and profession. I’ve been a professor, teaching digital to B-Schools. I truly believe that short video apps like TikTok dull your brain like crazy. Many of us have fallen victim to that as well.
The greatest and the most successful people that we admire are all creators. They sit down for long hours, think and create. But sadly, many of us become zombies staring into our screens and consuming content mindlessly. We should encourage our kids to become creators and not just turn out to be mute spectators and brain-dead consumers.