How TikTok turns a generation of video addicts into a data gold mine | John Naughton


Qquestion: what do men and Excel have in common?

Answer: they always automatically turn things into dates when they don’t.

For the youngest – that is, anyone under the age of 20 – Microsoft’s spreadsheet, as essential a tool for accountants as saws are for carpenters, is the contemporary equivalent of mom jeans, handwritten thank you notes and ties: things old people care about. How come then the hashtag #excel had 3.4 billion views on a certain social media platform and an excel expert on that platform has 2.7 million followers and 9.7 million likes for his advice on using Excel?

The answer is that the platform is TikTok, now well known as the short form video hosting service owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, on which you will find an endless stream of short videos (15 seconds), in genres ranging from pranks, stunts, tricks, jokes, dancing, and entertainment to what might be called “edutainment” (like tips on how to do things with Excel). Over the past couple of years, it’s taken over the world of social media, and every other major platform — and especially Facebook — seems mesmerized by it, just like rabbits are by the headlights of an oncoming truck. .

Why is it? It’s partly a question of demographics: 57% of TikTok users are women; 43% are between 18 and 24 years old; and only 3.4% are over 55 (and may have mistakenly stumbled upon TikTok while looking for their real home online, which is now Facebook). You can tell it 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 weaker.

The existential threat that TikTok poses to the social media giants isn’t demographic, however: it’s about attention. As Nobel laureate in economics 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 a fight for it. Since attention is a finite resource (there are only a certain number of hours in a day), the competition between them has become a zero-sum game. The more attention one gets, the less there is for the others.

And this is where TikTok seems to win hands down. Its users currently spend an average of 52 minutes a day there, and 90% of them visit the app more than once a day. According to seasoned tech watcher Scott Galloway, the average session lasts 11 minutes, which is enough to watch 26 videos of about 25 seconds each. It tells an instructive story about what this could mean in practice.

After having lunch at a friend’s house, his host motioned him to observe his 11-year-old son, who “walked over to the sofa and lay down on his side. With his arm stretched out in front of him cradling his phone, he…became vacant. For the next hour he was in a coma. No signs of life other than his open eyes and the occasional nudge. “We have to get him arrested, out, every time,” his father said. My head filled with images of opium dens in China. Something about stillness, about lying on your side.

There are two ideas to take from this domestic scene. The first is that the addictive properties of social media have been further heightened. In metaphorical terms, if Instagram and YouTube distribute marijuana, then TikTok provides “digital cocaine crack”, as Forbes magazine once expressed it colorfully.

The second inference is that TikTok takes surveillance capitalism to a new level. All social media companies monitor their users intensively to extract as much information as possible 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 other companies. Each video, or “episode”, generates many “microsignals”: “if you have scrolled through a video, paused it, reviewed it, liked it, commented on it, shared it and followed the creator, more how long you watched before continuing. That’s hundreds of signals.

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

It’s 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 have to be a spreadsheet wizard to figure out what that entails. There are no right 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, that’s of course the formula bar.

what i read

age problem
Old Not Other is a fine infinite time essay by Kate Kirkpatrick and Sonia Kruks asking why we despise the one group we will all eventually join – the elderly.

pain in assets
A nice down-to-earth blog post is by Noah Smith, Where Does Wealth Go When Asset Prices Fall?

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


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