Fifteen Seconds of TikTok Fame
TikTok has rapidly developed from a punchline for jokes about "kids these days" into a social media juggernaut. The speed of this development is unprecedented, even in the rapidly-changing world of social media. The TikTok app was released in the United States in August of 2018. In 2020 it was already the most downloaded App across all application stores, beating out social media heavyweights like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.
TikTok represents the synthesis of three of the most powerful features of social media:
the intuitive combination of catchy meme-like video and audio content;
algorithmic recommendation that structures the user's experience and enables what we call "virality-from-nowhere," increasing the likelihood that a video can be seen by millions without first cultivating an audience;
and the mobile-phone-centric interface, which enables users to consume and produce content on the platform with extraordinary ease.
Given these powerful features, we studied this platform. Hereby, we map out some of TikTok’s unique features by focusing on “political TikTok” at the onset of the 2020 US election. We identified and analysed 12000 political accounts on TikTok, which, in total, produced 2 million videos between 2018 and October 2020. We compared TikTok to another platform with similar features: YouTube.
Here is what we found:
In terms of ease of production of content, we find that among the people who leave comments on TikTok videos, a greater share of people produces content themselves compared to people who comment under YouTube videos. This shows that TikTok gives its users easier access to content production compared to YouTube. It also means that the pool of potential creators is larger: you might be a good dancer, but your video will have to compete with the videos of hundreds of other dancers waiting in the wings.
With regards to the importance of the algorithm, we find that the relationship between the number of subscribers of an account and the average views of a video on that account is weaker for TikTok than for YouTube. This implies that incidental exposure is more common on TikTok than on YouTube, because the algorithm plays a bigger role than your follower-base in driving viewers to your content.
Finally, we also find that video views per account differ more dramatically on TikTok, compared to YouTube. It’s much more common on TikTok to find accounts with one or two extremely popular videos, whereas the rest of the content only has a fraction of the audience. This is another consequence of the “virality-from-nowhere” effect, which highlights the algorithm's central importance on TikTok. It also implies that creators on TikTok cannot just rely on the fact that their videos will always perform well even if they have a decent follower size and this means that there is consistent pressure to seek out viral hits.
In sum, our research shows that the combination of mobile-first, algorithmic-centric, easy-to-produce video content is what makes TikTok so special. It lowers the barriers to entry, encourages a high number of viewers to become content producers themselves and go viral: everyone can get their fifteen seconds of fame!
If you are curious about more of this research, read our pre-print, soon to be published in Computational Communication Review. We also conducted an analysis of right vs. left-leaning political accounts of political TikTok and how they interact with each other, which you can find here.