As the internet goes about transforming multiple industries, the last two decades have seen several legacies overturned. One such legacy is the hold that a few people had on content creation meant for widespread consumption.
Prior to the internet, the written word, the recorded sound, and video, as well as photographs were created by a privileged few who had access to the world’s mainstream media channels.
The internet, of course, shattered this status quo and democratized not just content creation, but also content broadcast — not only was it easy to express yourself creatively and make content online but there were also platforms on the internet where such content could be showcased.
But, this process of democratization also required some compromises. One could not expect the same kind of content that used to be created by the ‘experts’ earlier. In fact, the very definition of what constitutes ‘content’ began to change.
The written word became shorter (ridiculously short, at 140 characters, first, on Twitter), the recorded sound and video became shorter (ridiculously short, at 15 seconds, on TikTok) and even the photographed pictures had dimensional constraints (like they do on Instagram).
This so-called compromise actually fit in well with the short attention spans that social media timelines spawned. Eventually byte-sized content became the norm, and the way people consumed content changed forever.
In a way, this compromise could be explained by modifying Andy Warhol’s iconic ’15 minutes of fame’ argument. It became ‘fame in 15-second short videos’, for the internet era — and everybody had a shot at it.
TikTok, a platform now banned in India, is probably the most famous app to mine all these possibilities to the hilt — incredibly easy content creation, rapid content dissemination, and relentless content consumption. The platform faced some problems, like most other viral platforms do when users started misusing the power to create and spread obscene, violent, or abusive content. But there is no question on how empowering the app has been for the masses, across the world.
Before the ban, beyond the several bonafide TikTok stars from the many tier-2/3/4 cities, local professionals like doctors and lawyers had started using TikTok in India. It was becoming the digital equivalent of local cable TV or even wall posters — they were sharing nuggets of their professional wisdom in 15-second videos. This was an easy way to reach local audiences and spread awareness, while also being excellent for self-promotion. If they had tried to do the same thing on local cable TV, there were bound to be gatekeepers who would’ve made things tough. Not only would they have to negotiate an unfamiliar medium they would possibly spend a fortune in terms of advertising monies. On TikTok, it was just them and their mobile phones!
It also helped that the app did not force them to contort to the standards of earlier social media platforms that used the written word as the main conduit. So, no more language constraints for writing or reading… all you had to do was to speak, like you do every day, and present yourself in the most relatable manner. To make things easier, you had to do this for just 15 seconds!
But, like fast food, too much byte-sized content can be bad for the mind. Just like other social media platforms that use several tactics to draw users and make them spend more and more time on an app, TikTok too wanted its users’ undivided attention. And it had mastered the algorithm that would enable that goal. This algorithm understands so much about users, on a massive scale, that it ensures that they spend an inordinate amount of time vacuously consuming content. It gets easier when each piece of content is only 15 seconds long.
To be fair, most content vehicles of the past have been deemed addictive too. People have obsessively read books and kids have endlessly watched television. The difference, though, is in the volume — the amount of content available as books and for television was more controlled. The content on TikTok is virtually infinite, and there is no cost of access either. The app can keep feeding your desire for content like it is your brain’s comfort food.
But is it really free? Users pay TikTok with a far more insidious and expensive currency, thanks to the platform’s phenomenal algorithm —their time. TikTok joins Facebook (with all its products together) in exacting this cost from its users on a global scale.
Like most origin stories, TikTok’s story too presents a fascinating insight into how what we see today took so many different, seemingly unrelated points in the app’s and the founder’s history to come together. Matthew, in this book, spends a lot of time setting the context behind the Chinese technology landscape that spawned a platform like TikTok, with all its previous iterations, and the creation of the algorithm that defines TikTok as we know it today, as much as the stars who power the platform.
Much like the storied history of the creation of Facebook, Yiming’s many choices too define what we see today as the global behemoth called ByteDance, and some of those early decisions mirror Mark Zuckerberg’s approach. Take the most linear connection: FaceMash, the early precursor to Facebook, was an online compilation of photos for a digital ‘hot or not’ game, as much as ‘Hilarious Goofy Pics’ is the early precursor to today’s TikTok!
It’s fitting that Matthew calls his book Attention Factory. I have always wanted to read the sequel to Tim Wu’s 2016 book, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, a sweeping retelling of the media’s industrial-scale harvesting of human attention right up to the internet era. Matthew Brennan’s Attention Factory takes that thread ahead with an essential and detailed look, first within China and then the world, on how the next generation of attention merchants have evolved and what they look like, using TikTok as a framing device.
PS: I was invited by Amazon Westland to write this foreword to the Indian edition of Matthew Brennan’s recent book on TikTok and ByteDance, ‘Attention Factory’.