Last year I downloaded TikTok for the first time. Over the course of one week, I spent more time on the app and my phone than I ever had before. It was wildly addictive. So much so that after that week I deleted the app and never looked back. I’m trying to spend less time using services that try to suck up and monetize all my attention (although Twitter is my vice).
I forget where but someone recommended TikTok Boom. The book was just okay, but interesting if you want to learn more about TikTok, which I did. I had several takeaways. First and foremost, the work ethic at Chinese tech startups is second to none. They are and will continue to wipe the floor with US companies. 9-9-6 is commonplace (that’s 9am-9pm, 6 days a week). That simply no longer flies with larger companies in the US. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, it comes with its set of very obvious downsides, but it’s definitely a competitive advantage.
The most fascinating thing to me though is that TikTok is the first global AI media company, and it doesn’t produce any of its own original content. It’s not really a social network. Sure you can follow people and like videos, but it’s primary utility is to entertain you with videos its algorithms think you will like. TikTok is arguably the best in the world at understanding what hooks its users and using AI to curate and individualize your feed. It’s a substitute for Netflix, television, video gaming, etc. Reed Hastings once said anywhere else you spend your attention is a Netflix competitor. TikTok has seemingly cornered the market on Gen Z and millennial attention, and they’ve done it brilliantly.
It’s not all bleeding edge AI and technology. They use hyper-aggressive blitzscaling techniques to enter and takeover markets, spending millions of dollars on marketing and creator grants to seed new geographies with content. They’ll woo influencers from Instagram and YouTube to the platform and double and triple down on the strategy. Those expenses are essentially their “programming” expenses. And then it’s rinse and repeat. Spend the money to get the content. Acquire users/viewers. Use AI to curate the feed. Sell advertising as the service scales. Rinse and repeat.
I really didn’t understand TikTok until I viewed it through that lens. It’s a global media company that uses AI to capture your attention so you continue watching the content created by everyone else but TikTok. The world has never seen anything like it before and it’s a wakeup call to the West that the future of media and software can easily come from elsewhere. It already is.