With more than 1 billion active users and ridiculously high engagement rates, TikTok is a phenomenal success story. Twenty per cent of Generation Z (10-25 year olds) spend more than 5 hours a day on the app. They use TikTok for news, shopping and social search.

The design is so compelling, all other leading social networks are rushing to emulate it.

Social – but better

TikTok has changed social media in the same way the iPhone revolutionised mobile handsets in the 2010s. You have to admire the sheer simplicity of using the full screen for video, then adding a layer of text and other features on top. It makes everything more immersive, game-like and engaging.

TikTok screen shots showing full screen video with text overlayTikTok screen shots showing full screen video with text overlay


In May, some UK users reported seeing the new full-screen version of Twitter that was first announced back in December. Instagram also plans to roll out a full-screen home feed. Last year, Pinterest introduced “video-first” Idea Pins. And let’s not forget the impressive success of YouTube’s TikTok clone, YouTube Shorts. In June, YouTube Shorts reached 1.5 billion users a month.

Also in June, Meta announced it would be changing changing Facebook’s algorithm to take on TikTok. A number of updates to the Facebook app will remake it in TikTok’s image.

This is hardly surprising, because advertisers are starting to leave Facebook. This month, TikTok is set to overtake Facebook in terms of the amount of money US advertisers spend on influencer marketing.

In light of such events, Meta’s chief product officer, Chris Cox, recently issued an internal memo warning of “serious times”. Cox said that monetizing Reels, Meta’s short-form video TikTok copy, “as quickly as possible” was a key priority. Soon, every video posted to Instagram will be a Reel.

Broadcast first

Back in the days when I worked in TV, we used to talk about a “broadcast-first” model. Watching television was a “sit back” experience whereas the internet was “lean forward”. The internet was (quaintly), “two-way” and “interactive”.

When the social web arrived in the early-mid 2000s, social media was all about peer communication, many to many. “People having the power to express themselves at scale” as Mark Zuckerberg described it in 2019.

But now, inevitably, a creator economy is emerging. New media platforms are becoming more like traditional old media companies: curating and commissioning content, with the algorithm as editor.

Here’s social media expert Matt Navarra on social media morphing into traditional broadcast media:

“it’s striking how much social apps are becoming less traditionally ‘social’. Messaging apps have picked up a lot of the things we did on Facebook 10 years ago, while TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram are increasingly more like the modern equivalent of flicking through a seemingly endless array of cable TV channels looking for a flicker of entertainment to hold your attention. They’re just a lot better at it than the cable providers.”

Surveillance capitalism

The TikTok-ification of everything seems a welcome distraction when people are facing a rising number of real world problems. But how will TikTok’s owner Bytedance be using all its data? A recent report found that TikTok US user data is repeatedly accessed from China.

TikTok is “taking surveillance capitalism to a new level’, says tech columnist John Naughton. He quotes academic Scott Galloway who points out that:

“TikTok can extract more granular data from its users than the other companies can. Each video, or “episode”, generates numerous “microsignals”: “whether you scrolled past a video, paused it, re-watched it, liked it, commented on it, shared it, and followed the creator, plus how long you watched before moving on. That’s hundreds of signals.”

We saw what Facebook and Cambridge Analytica did to democracy. Do we want to hazard a guess at what an authoritarian state might manage?

Social zeitgiest

Still, that concern won’t impact on the millions of people who use TikTok daily. It’s one of the tech success stories of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In May 2020, TikTok’s first TV advertising campaign “A Little Brighter Inside” perfectly hit the UK’s social zeitgiest with its focus on uplifting, fun content. An easy thing to do when all everyone wanted was a bit of humour and immersive entertainment.

And that’s what TikTok does so brilliantly.

Big Brother is watching us. He wants to play nicely

Photo: Stefan Klauke