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Analysis | Why Everyone Wants To Be Like TikTok

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Elon Musk’s Twitter Inc. The saga of the deal has eclipsed almost everything else that has happened in the social media business in the past two months, including signs that the industry’s biggest players are trying to emulate an increasingly powerful competitor, TikTok.

TikTok, owned by Beijing-based Byte Dance Ltd., has amassed over 1 billion active users thanks to a captivating stream of short videos edited by AI algorithms, creating what Mark Zuckerberg calls an “unprecedented” competitor. Despite regulatory challenges in both the US and China, consumer use of TikTok has grown as children spend an average of 80 minutes per day on the app. No wonder the platform devs are messing around with ways to copy it. Social media consultant and industry analyst Matt Navara explained how this could turn out in the Twitter Spaces discussion with me last week. Here is an edited transcript:

Parmy Olson: What are some of the ways you’re seeing social media firms break into TikTok’s short-form videos space?

Matt Navarra: We’ve seen Facebook-owned Meta Platforms Inc. desperately try to catch Reels. You can’t get anywhere within Instagram or Facebook without stumbling across the reels. It gets stuck in his 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, similar to a TikTok-only feed of video tweets.

You also see TikTok going the other way, three minutes, then five minutes, then 10 minutes. Finally, Instagram is a really bloated app but slowly becoming a vertical feed of videos and static posts. So there is a Tiktokization of social media and apps in general. Parmy: Are these platforms in the middle, getting closer to five-minute or 10-minute videos?

Matt: I don’t know if there is a definitive answer as to what is the best spot for video content. We’ll definitely see TikTok keep increasing the video length. Some versions of its Asian equivalent apps have 15 minutes or more. But practically speaking, short-form video is difficult to monetize (for example, you can’t play ads in front of every short video). But many creators on YouTube think Shorts is a great format to drive people to their channels with longer content, which is a huge advantage over TikTok.

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

Matt: We’re all vying for people’s attention, and long-form videos take up more of your time. Shorter versions give people the ability to snack on content faster and do more and see more and watch more. Creating longer pieces of video content also takes more time, effort, and skill, and requires more editing. This may require the use of a desktop computer and certain applications. However, almost anyone can do it with a short video.

Parmy: Which app is the easiest to edit 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 overall appeal. Facebook-owned Meta no longer tends to be an innovator and has a hard time understanding the spirit of the times. They find it easier to spot what’s going on, then quickly jump at it, using their engineering skills and money to come up with their own version, and this formula has worked pretty well.

Parmy: Mark Zuckerberg recently talked about moving the Facebook news feed towards AI-powered recommendations instead of what friends and family suggest. How does this have to do with TikTok?

Matt: The news that Facebook has been publishing for years is heavily interactive. Your feed is dominated by your friends, family, and people you follow. TikTok’s feed is driven by the content itself. So being verified or having a million followers isn’t as important as a signal to TikTok’s algorithm. It’s much more about how people interact with content, what they watch, what they like. That’s why we’ve seen such crazy, out-of-the-box viral superstars on TikTok that you don’t see this much on competing platforms.

In Meta’s earnings announcement a few weeks ago, Mark Zuckerberg suggested the idea that you might start seeing more content in your Facebook feed from people you don’t follow. Facebook will inject this new content into your feed based on what they think you might like. Focus on suggestions from AI rather than what your friends share.

This is pretty good in that it gets people out of the filter bubbles and discovers things they wouldn’t otherwise find. It’s also changing the way news publishers, influencers, and social media marketers think about the platform.

Parmy: Considering that Harvard and other colleges are built on the privileged social networks, it makes sense for Facebook to move away from content from your social connections. Are we seeing a broader shift from social bubbles to content bubbles?

Matt: There are many reasons why they are moving in this direction. A big part is the complexity of AI tools. They are more accurate now and it makes sense to use this kind of technology. The other part is that there are persistent concerns in all quarters that we may be too quiet in the way we view content online and interact with people. That we are not open to alternative perspectives. It doesn’t mean that people will suddenly have this open, warm, ambiguous feeling about understanding how different people live and interact maturely online. We know that won’t happen.

Parmy: It’s never happened before.

Matt: This is one of the problems that social media will never really solve. So I don’t think Elon Musk fully understands how to manage content moderation issues for a platform like Twitter.

Parmy: It’s as much a human-nature issue as it is a technology or policy issue. Incorrect information is a big problem, for example on WhatsApp, where people manually send bad information to others. Will content moderation get harder for social media companies as they show more videos? Compared to the text, the video seems much harder for computers to scan for hate speech and conspiracy theories.

Matt: Moderating the text is much simpler. With video there is also tone and context. There are many subtleties and nuances that the human brain can understand but not computers and current artificial intelligence systems.

Parmy: Can you see Twitter switching to short-form video under Elon Musk? It looks like you haven’t discovered TikTok much.

Matt: I can say I tried this [new video-style] Post on Twitter, it’s not very Twitter-like and is clearly meant to show tweets with video. It will probably follow the path of the Fleets. Execution doesn’t feel right to me right now. I think Elon Musk will spend most of his time and effort getting flesh and blood. [subscription service] With Twitter Blue and also free speech and content moderation on the platform.

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

Matt: I think it will. They are available in all their main apps and find the best ways to monetize it. It will always struggle to be a follower of TikTok rather than the first mover, and brand toxicity will always hang on the platform. But for creators and advertisers, I think the scale and size of the platform will continue until we start making significant advances into this metadata area.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• We Pay Too Much Attention to Elon Musk: Mark Gongloff

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

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

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

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

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