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Why Everybody Wants to Be Like TikTok

The saga of Elon Musk’s Twitter Inc. deal has overshadowed nearly everything else happening in the social-media business in the past two months, including signs that the industry’s biggest players are trying to imitate an increasingly powerful competitor: TikTok.

Owned by Beijing-based Byte Dance Ltd., TikTok has amassed more than 1 billion active users, thanks to a mesmerizing stream of short videos curated by AI algorithms, creating what Mark Zuckerberg has called an “unprecedented” competitor. Despite regulatory challenges in both the US and China, consumer use of TikTok has swelled, with kids spending an average 80 minutes a day on the app. Little wonder the platform giants are dabbling with ways to copy it. Social-media consultant and industry analyst Matt Navara explained how that might work out in a Twitter Spaces discussion with me last week. Here is an edited transcript:

Parmy Olson: What are some of the ways you’ve seen social-media firms move into TikTok’s space of short-form videos?

Matt Navarra: We’ve seen Facebook-owned Meta Platforms Inc. desperately trying to play catch up with Reels. You can’t go anywhere within Instagram or Facebook without stumbling across Reels. It’s being rammed down your throat. There’s also Spotlight on Snapchat, YouTube Shorts, and various versions of a vertical feed appearing in different apps. Even Twitter. My version of the Twitter app now shows me a new feed for the Discovery area where it looks like a TikTok feed of video-only tweets.

You’re also seeing TikTok going the other way, to three minutes, then five minutes, then 10 minutes. Finally, Instagram is a really bloated app but it’s slowly becoming a vertical feed of video and static posts. So there is a Tiktok-ification of social media and of apps in general.Parmy: Are these platforms converging in the middle, toward five-minute or 10-minute videos?

Matt: I don’t know if there’s a definitive answer to what the sweet spot is for video content. We’ll definitely see TikTok continue to increase the length of video. Their equivalent app in Asia has 15 minutes or more in some versions. But also from a practical point of view, monetizing short-form video is challenging (eg. you can’t play an ad in front of every short video). But a lot of creators on YouTube are finding that Shorts is a great format to lead people into their channels with the longer-form content, which is a big advantage over TikTok.

Parmy: Why has short-form video become so compelling right now? 

Matt: We are all competing for people’s attention and long-form video takes more of your time. Shorter versions give people the ability to snack on content at a faster pace and do more things and see more things and watch more things. Creating longer pieces of video content also takes more time, effort and skill and requires more substantial editing to be done. That might require the use of a desktop computer and specific applications. Whereas with short video, almost anyone can do it. 

Parmy: Which app is the easiest for editing short videos? Is it TikTok?

Matt: TikTok is clearly the leader of the pack in terms of ease of creation, the reach you can get and general appeal. Facebook-owned Meta tends to not be an innovator anymore, and struggles to understand the zeitgeist. They seem to find it easier to spot what has happened, then quickly jump on it, using their engineering prowess and money to pump out their own version of it, and that formula has worked quite well.

Parmy: Mark Zuckerberg recently spoke about moving the Facebook newsfeed more towards AI-powered recommendations, over what friends and family are recommending. How does that relate to TikTok?

Matt: Facebook’s feed for years has been predominantly based on engagement. Your feed is dominated by your friends, family and the people you follow. TikTok’s feed is driven by the content itself. So whether you’re verified or have a million followers is not as important a signal to TikTok’s algorithm. It’s far more about the way that people are engaging with content, what they’re watching, what they’re liking. That’s why we’ve seen such crazy, out-of-nowhere, viral superstars on TikTok, which you haven’t seen to such a degree on the rival platforms.

In Meta’s earnings announcement a couple of weeks ago, Mark Zuckerberg pushed this idea that you’ll start to see more content in your Facebook feed from people that you may not be following. Facebook will inject that new content into your feed based on what they think you might like. So much more focus on recommendations from AI rather than what your friends have shared.

That’s quite a good thing as it gets people outside of their filter bubbles and discovering stuff they would not otherwise have found. It does also change the way news publishers, influencers and social media marketers will have to think about the platform.

Parmy: It seems pretty significant for Facebook to move away from content that comes from your social connections, considering that it was founded on the exclusive social networks of Harvard and other colleges. Are we seeing a broader shift from social bubbles to content bubbles?

Matt: There’s lots of reasons why they’re pushing in this direction. A large part is the sophistication of their AI tools. They’re more accurate now and it makes sense to employ this sort of technology. The other part is that there’s been ongoing concerns from all quarters that we may be too siloed in the way that we view content online and interact with people. That we’re not open to alternative viewpoints. That doesn’t mean people are suddenly going to have this open, warm, fuzzy feeling of understanding how different people live and interact in a mature way online. We know that doesn’t happen.

Parmy: It hasn’t happened at all, till now.

Matt: It’s one of those problems that social media is never really going to solve. That’s why I don’t think Elon Musk fully understands what it is going to be like to manage issues with content moderation for a platform like Twitter.

Parmy: It’s a human-nature problem, as much as it is a technology or policy problem. Misinformation is a huge problem on WhatsApp, for instance, where people are manually sending bad information to others. Is content moderation going to get much harder for social-media companies as they show more video? Compared to text, video seems much harder for computers to scan for hate speech and conspiracy theories.

Matt: Text is far simpler to moderate. With video there’s also tone and context. There’s so many subtleties and nuances that the human brain can understand but computers and current AI systems can’t.

Parmy: Could you see Twitter moving into short-form video under Elon Musk? He doesn’t seem to have discovered TikTok all that much.

Matt: I can just say having tried this [new video-style] feed on Twitter, it doesn’t feel very Twitter-like, and it is clearly geared to show tweets with videos. It will probably go the way of Fleets. The execution right now doesn’t feel right for me. I think Elon Musk will spend more of his time and effort fleshing out [subscription service] Twitter Blue and also with free speech and content moderation on the platform.

Parmy: Do you think Facebook can succeed with Reels, its TikTok alternative?

Matt: I think it will. It is in all their main apps and they will figure out the best ways to monetize it. It will always struggle with being a follower of TikTok rather than a first mover, and the brand toxicity will always hang over the platform. But in terms of creators and advertisers, I think the scale and size of the platform will carry it through till they start making significant inroads into this metaverse space.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• We’re Giving Elon Musk Too Much Attention: Mark Gongloff

• Musk and Other Tech CEOs Are Out of Control: Parmy Olson

• What If the Technology We Created Turns Against Us?: Tyler Cowen

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, she is author of “We Are Anonymous.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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