At the end of June 2022, a video was posted on TikTok with the theme, “I know Victoria’s secret.” The secret was that Victoria was “an old man who lives in Ohio making money off of girls like me … cashing in on body issues.”
The song was written by Jax, a digital media singer-songwriter, in response to a body positivity rebranding by the lingerie retailer Victoria’s Secret. Just two weeks later, the cultural moment was amplified when Hulu released a documentary about an association between financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and the founder of the intimate-wear company. By August, the Jax song was charting on Billboard and the CEO of Victoria’s Secret had been drawn into the discussion.
For over a decade, we have studied the way things spread on the internet. We wrote a series of Harvard Business School case studies between 2009 and 2011 exploring viral videos—United Breaks Guitars, the JK Wedding Dance, and how Ford used influencers to launch the Fiesta car. What struck us right away was how fast “Victoria’s Secret” had spread, at least five times faster than the United Breaks Guitars video.
The reason, it seemed, was that it spread not from person to person, but by algorithm. It spread because the algorithm noticed that if the song was served to people on TikTok, many of them “liked” it, and within days tens of thousands had made their own versions of it.
The rise of the internet democratized the publishing and distribution of information and entertainment. In the process, it created an enormous discovery problem. Those with an idea or product to sell had to find those who wanted it.
The second solution was to create social media, whose audiences voluntarily gave up their privacy. Facebook, LinkedIn, and Snapchat require you to sign in, making your identity known to the platform. Users’ interests can be inferred from the interests of their friends and the groups they follow.
TikTok and YouTube are a third solution, based not on social media but on entertainment media. Entertainment algorithms loop back and forth from content that’s offered to a response detected until they identify something that appeals to you. Then they send more of it.
TikTok’s short-form video content is designed for short attention spans, but sampling seems to lead to craving—people rarely watch just one. Among digital media, the data show TikTok holds its billion users for an average of 95 minutes every day. While YouTube has more than twice the number of users, it holds them for 74 minutes each day. Among social media, the average Facebook session is half as long, Twitter a third, and Snapchat a quarter.
On a mobile phone, the TikTok picks are presented in an endless scroll. And that’s where the two platforms diverge. The YouTube scroll intersperses longer-form algorithmic picks with its new YouTube Shorts. TikTok presents only short-form video, one at a time. The difference may seem slight, but it is not. YouTube is a general-purpose video tool, while TikTok optimizes for addictive engagement.
YouTube has twice as many users and also spreads its content by algorithm. YouTube mainstreamed user-generated content, which had a vibe so different from television that the measurement services did not count YouTube as TV. Although much of its content is longer, YouTube has recently launched YouTube Shorts, which is growing briskly.
What’s new about TikTok is that it has significantly lower barriers to posting than its competitors. All you need is a smartphone. You don’t even need an idea because what you watch often supplies the idea. You can tap a button to grab the “original sound” of someone else’s TikTok, record your response, and seconds later you have your own video. It doesn’t have to be particularly clever or funny or even look good from a production standpoint. Because, unlike on social media like Instagram where content is crafted to project an idealized, aspirational self, TikTok’s creations go out to an audience of people you don’t know.
Many popular YouTubers have production teams, offices, camera people, and editors. While there is certainly some professionalism on TikTok, and many TikTok posts attract millions of views, most do not.
In the case of the “Victoria’s Secret” song, tens of thousands of people riffed off the post with their own video, and few were seen by more than a handful of people. So why do they bother? The point for many people on TikTok is to join in on a game with no winners, an infinite game in which one person’s contribution is fodder for the contribution of the next “player,” and fodder for the algorithm.
TikTok is experienced differently by different users. This is by design, baked into its method. Like a friendly dog, it wants nothing more than to please you, but as the “you” changes, TikTok changes. To people accustomed to tools that are good for specific purposes, the way it bends to be what each user wants it to be can be confusing.
Here is our sense of some of the diverse ways TikTok is currently being used.
TikTok is evolving in directions that seem to be reducing its distinctiveness.
Search. Because TikTok can be searched, and because users are spending so much time on it, they are turning to it for purposes quite different from entertainment. A search for a lunch idea on TikTok returns a collection of videos instead of a list as might be found on Google. A search for a news topic produces creator curations. A July 2022 report showed that TikTok’s reach for news increased to 7 percent, up from 1 percent in 2020, making it the fastest-growing source of news consumption; half of consumers are between 16 and 24 years old.
Live broadcasting. This copies a feature available on YouTube, Instagram, Twitch, Facebook, and others.
Commerce. TikTok is testing a shopping feature in Indonesia that enables merchants and creators to showcase and sell products promoted by creators. YouTube, Instagram, and Pinterest all have shoppable posts.
Longer-form content. TikTok began with a 15-second limit. It announced in February that it will accept videos of up to 10 minutes. Longer videos create more opportunity for advertising, so TikTok is building out its ad sales force. More advertising means that it can offer creators the revenue opportunities long available on YouTube. TikTok recently announced an ad revenue share program available to the top 4 percent of creators, directly comparable to YouTube’s.
TV distribution. The difference between an experience optimized for viewing on a small screen and one designed for sit-down watching is likely to be lost.
Early in YouTube’s life, it was known for cat videos. As time went on, it evolved away from jokey novelty into a broad range of video entertainment and information content. TikTok today has the same quirky feel that YouTube once had. It is small revenue-wise, compared to YouTube. Although it does not report financials, plausible estimates place its annual revenue at about $4 billion, way short of YouTube’s $28.8 billion. It will probably not be able to command that kind of revenue without going outside its present niche.
YouTube’s formidable revenue growth happened only after it became less quirky, implementing initiatives to ensure that the largest brands would want to invest marketing dollars there. TikTok may find YouTube’s path irresistible; it may mature into just another mainstream video platform, big but always playing catch-up to YouTube.
There is an alternative hypothesis. TikTok may surprise us with innovation in unexpected directions. In particular, it could build on the devotion of its billion users to add functionality and become what’s called a superapp on a global scale. It could follow the path of WeChat, often described as a Swiss Army knife of digital tools, which started as a messaging app and now brings together direct messaging, group messaging, video conferences, games, banking, and payment systems. A China-based superapp with global reach? Many hurdles would have to be cleared first.
John Deighton is the Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School, and an expert on digital marketing. Leora Kornfeld is an independent researcher, writer, and podcaster.
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Image: Unsplash/Amanda Vick