Hey, I'm Dan! I invest in early-stage startups at Madrona and write a weekly newsletter called the DL

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Why I'm Obsessed with TikTok

If you’re someone who cares about tech trends, then you need to get on TikTok. As of this fall, TikTok is officially more popular with teens than Facebook, and it’s growing rapidly (1.5B users, 500M+ added this year).


So what is it? TikTok is an app with a feed of short videos set to music (here are some of my favorites). It launched in 2017 through a merger/acquisition with Musical.ly, and the product is seeing amazing adoption. Here are three reasons it’s doing so well:


#1 - Iterative Content Creation = Higher Quality Videos

the Haribo Challenge on TikTok

the Haribo Challenge on TikTok

For “old” people who don’t get TikTok, the best analogy for how content gets created on TikTok is the Ice Bucket Challenge. Someone creates a meme, lots of people go and recreate that meme with different takes, and the recreations often become more popular than the original video.


TikTok’s “memes” are based around music and sounds, so if you see a video you like, you can tap the sound and see all the other videos that have used the same sound and/or use that sound to create your own video.


The example above (link to watch) shows a popular meme called the #haribochallenge where people line up gummy bears like they’re at an Adele concert. If you look it up on TikTok, there are now literally a million variations of the original gummy bear video.


This is one of the magical parts of TikTok because it’s a lot easier to be funny and creative when you are starting with something interesting, and it keeps content fresh for much longer than the typical social network because more people contribute and share with their friends.


#2 - AI-Driven Curation = Can’t Stop Watching

highlights from TikTok's 2018 Rewind video

highlights from TikTok's 2018 Rewind video

When you open TikTok, it drops you straight into the “For You” page, a mash up of Instagram’s Discover, with YouTube’s autoplay, and Spotify’s recommendations. In the For You page, content isn’t based on who you follow or subscribe to, it’s just based on what TikTok thinks you’ll like.


ByteDance (TikTok’s owner) has a long history in AI content curation, and the best way to experience the algorithmic addiction is to just spend an hour (or ten) watching and liking videos. As TikTok starts understanding what you like (e.g., sports highlights, pranks, funny kids, dancing, etc.), your For You feed becomes an endless stream of 15 second dopamine hits.


Also important to note, TikTok gathers a ton of data. Unlike a YouTube video that lasts ~10 minutes, TikTok videos are ~15 seconds, so in 30 minutes you’ve probably given TikTok your thoughts on 100+ videos.


#3. Followers Don’t Matter = Potential for Overnight Fame

1M likes and 3.8M views on her first video!

1M likes and 3.8M views on her first video!

Because of the non-follower-based content feed in TikTok, a new user can set up a TikTok account today, create an amazing video, and have millions of views by tomorrow.


TikTok pushes videos out to users based on their “AI” understanding of the video and other users’ interests. Then, if people engage (e.g., watch the full video, like, comment, etc.) at a high enough rate, they will show it to more and more users, and the most popular videos can rack up millions of views.


In a world where the top career choice for kids is YouTuber, this is a pretty compelling reason to create content for TikTok. Of course, the flip side of a non-follower-based feed is that there’s no guarantee future videos will get the same distribution as the ones that go viral.


All in all, it’s exciting to watch the rise of a new social platform, and there are a lot of lessons to learn from their approach to content creation, curation, and distribution. So go check it out! Also, here are some links to articles:

  • Dan’s Favorite TikTok Videos (Twitter)
  • How TikTok Holds Our Attention (New Yorker)
  • TikTok’s Chief Is on a Mission to Prove It’s Not a Menace (NYT)
  • The Complete Beginner’s Guide to TikTok (Medium)

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