Short video contents are approaching the core of media consumption with the refining internet infrastructure these years. TikTok, a short video platform with its community-built similar to social media platforms, had come into sight in recent years and had drawn sufficient attention for its popularity and virality.
What is TikTok
TikTok is a short video platform from China. The Chinese version is called Douyin, issued in 2016 by the Chinese company ByteDance (Omar & Wang, 2020).
The parent company ByteDance, founded in March 2020, is privately owned by Yiming Zhang (CrunchBase, 2020).
TikTok was issued after ByteDance took down Musical.ly in 2018 with 1 billion US dollars (BBC, as cited in Collie & Wilson-Barnao, 2020, p. 175). The popularity of lip-syncing contents and the user base of Musical.ly was adopted and utilized for TikTok to start its market share globally.
TikTok allows users to create, share, and disseminate short videos from 2s to 60s within the app while uploaded videos could exceed the time limit.
Quick Guide to the App
The operation of TikTok is easy to follow. A user needs an account that connects to a mobile number, email address, or Facebook, Twitter, or Google accounts. The account could be set to public or private which limits comments from unfollowed accounts. After authorizing the app to use a microphone, camera, and storage, users could enter the main page.
There would be a prepared string of videos for them to start with. TikTok’s algorithm would predict user preference according to their habits, response to viewed contents, locations (if made available), or searches.
Users could interact with a video clip by liking or disliking, commenting, sharing the video, follow and navigate the publisher’s account, and access the audio clip used by it.
Users could vertically scroll to view the video string, while the current video would loop unless being scrolled or tapped to pause. How a user views particular content would also count towards consumption behavior to be studied by the algorithm (Collie & Wilson-Barnao, 2020).
The seamless conjunction between videos could make “you lose sight of this mediation” (Collie & Wilson-Barnao, 2020, p. 180) and cause possible addiction to it.
In the Internet era, the term attention economy is mentioned frequently that e-commerce and exposure could easily be realized into value. TikTok users in the United States in 2019 was 37.2 million, and the prediction in 2024 reaches 60.3 by Statista.
The duration of contents on TikTok makes the consumption time span on single content short, but the fluid experience through the vertical string might hold people within the app.
A new phenomenon of incidental news arose with the growing engagement of social media stating that people rely on unplanned feeds during their time surfing (Vázquez-Herrero, Negreira-Rey & López-García, 2020). This could apply to aspects other than news, and TikTok’s technological infrastructure which continuously adjusts its feeding string in real-time would grab users’ attention by providing interesting content.
This consumption behavior change was not shaped by TikTok alone, it involved in the transformation process as an affected subject too. The platform itself is not the content producer, and the performance of the entire app also involves the content creators’ work. Thus, the change that occurred on the platform was due to consumers’ demands which were activated by the platform’s technology.
The contents generated by users also adapt to gaining popularity and gratification. Producing viral content on TikTok undergoes an opaque algorithm that researchers mentioned the word “luck” (Haenlein, Anadol, Farnsworth, Hugo, Hunichen & Welte, 2020). However, the time that users would like to spend on a piece of content could be predicted as many content producers are consumers as well (Omar & Wang, 2020).
The number of followers and the statistics of a single video content are not necessarily related (Collie & Wilson-Barnao, 2020). The gap between popular influencers and regular accounts is eliminated to some degree.
TikTok’s Business Model
In the Internet era, when information is overloaded, people’s attention values. Hu (2020, p. 59) cited Chengle that described it as a “scarce resource”. Social media platforms profit from their users as they make the value of the attention.
The business model of TikTok constitutes of open screen ads, information flow ads, live stream product placement, custom challenges, and sticker partnerships.
Open screen advertising would be posted at the opening of the app in the form of an image or short video. Its time duration does not greatly slow down the app’s regular opening process which presents the information directly to the users without intermediaries. Consider its massive user number, the exposure of the ads would be significant (Hu, 2020).
Information flow ads or infomercials embed the promotional information in video contents. These add merge into the content feeding strings that would be present to users without foreseeing its property as advertisements. These company produces or brand-sponsored contents could be classified into commercial contents, which differs from many user-generated contents for the scripting and budgeting. Hu (2020, p. 61) listed four advantages in the paper that these infomercials could reach target consumers without affecting user experiences, and the strong contents are integrated with the platform’s regular contents for easier and favorable secondary dissemination (Hu, 2020).
These conclusions drawn from infomercials were all positive while the variation of consumer group is ignored. Users recognize TikTok as a social media platform for entertainment, while contents with a primary aim of promoting do not count as entertainment for many users. For them, being fed by infomercials is disturbing their initiatives by choosing the platform. Though the scripting and budgeting of infomercials need to be stressed, the quality of contents comes from intellectual works instead of quantitative comparison of numbers. Consumers’ psychological inversion and detest of overloaded promotion are ignored which should have an influence on the attitude towards infomercials.
Brands and companies would invite celebrities and influencers to nominate custom challenges. The aim is to encourage users to produce content related to the brand in various ways, for example, using a hashtag with the brand’s name, or make use of their products. The sticker partnership mode is operated by TikTok’s cooperation with them to add customized stickers in its editing function which could be integrated with the challenge (Hu, 2020).
The live stream function allows companies to promote theirs through instant communication to their consumers. The link to the promoted products would be placed on a pop-up window in the live stream room. TikTok provides seamless flow to Taobao as they established cooperation with Alibaba. This method could be further integrated with the information outputs of Key Opinion Leaders and the appeal of influencers or celebrities to grab attention and prove reliabilities. A gift system was introduced for users to pay the anchors by virtual gifts which could be realized to money after sharing with the platform. The ranking system of live stream rooms incites competition between anchors and their fan groups for heavier investments.
Worries and Regulations
TikTok has being blamed for collecting or obtaining user data without permission thus violated user rights. The facial recognition function in TikTok might collect facial information while the produced video content might include personal information.
Its data transforming process was decoded by Neyaz, Kumar, Krishnan, Placker, and Liu (2020) to reveal that the data transformation to TikTok servers located in China is not encrypted.
The distinction between public and private accounts worked only for posting comments, but the uncontrolled visibility of young users’ production has raised concerns toward how they experience the online world.
As the e-commerce model of TikTok heavily relies on promotion and realization of shopping impulses, concerns about the product themselves emerged. The 2019 e-commerce law in China had required the business operators to do full registration of their products, with various types of licenses according to the products. The posting services require specific user information that might breach personal information. The Chinese E-commerce Law enforced protection towards data privacy. The law discussed personalized feeds and user profiling though the definition was still blurred and might not be possible to give a “right” statement in common sense (You & Bu, 2020).
Dive in the Internet Era with TikTok
TikTok’s large user base and the virality of many popular contents have shown the attractiveness of the internet. It would be hard for a person living in 2010 to imagine oneself spend all the spare time on a portable digital device by glancing through short videos even not noticing the time.
Here comes the serious prompt of internet addiction growing simultaneously with the evolving technology. As Burnay, Billieux, Blairy, and Larøi (2015) stated in a psychological paper that internet addiction is affected by impulse and passion. They drew the conclusion that the addiction was the projection of obsessive passion or depression and anxiety.
These are possible factors that prevent people from leaving TikTok’s seamless content string. To draw on the author’s personal experience, and endlessly search for contents would often incite an internal debate between one’s to-do list and the sense of lost or given-up, while the situation might also appear in a reverse way. Cutting out the addiction needs considerable efforts on self-controlling, while a steadily constructed internal world might help.
On the other hand, people recognize the internet as a space isolated from the physical world. Their identities could be shaped by themselves according to their interactions online. Many users document noteworthy, precious moments in life on the platform and establish social connections to new friends (Zhang, Wu & Liu, 2019). From this perspective, they seek pleasure and acceptance from the online world that addiction appears in a utopian way.
TikTok is on the leading edge of the current transformation of consumer preference from traditional media or digitized traditional media to new forms like short videos. Its ever-updating but seamless content feeding string is generated by its algorithm by analyzing every subtle detail on how users react to each piece of content.
However, the significant efforts invested in grabbing attention are to some extent problematic when its user groups might become addicted to it as they devote their aimless time on the platform. The interacting mechanism encourages users to share life pieces on TikTok, while the gratification of being remembered and applauded would drag the users’ attention.
TikTok profits by posting opening ads, allowing infomercials, setting up custom challenges, publishing custom stickers with brands and companies, cooperated with e-commerce redirecting, and developing live stream functions.
TikTok undergoes serious questioning that it might collect personal data or cause a breach according to its unencrypted transferring process to its servers in China. The platforms avoid the political issue on the Chinese version to adapt towards different contexts and occupies its place in the everchanging internet era.
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CrunchBase. (2020). ByteDance. Retrieved from https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/bytedance
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