TikTok’s Poison Pill

Just a few months ago, it seemed that the biggest social media news of the year would be Elon Musk’s flirtations with buying Twitter (see, for example, my article from May). Recently, however, a new story has sucked up an increasing amount of oxygen from this space: TikTok’s challenge to the legacy social platforms.

Last February, Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, released a quarterly report that revealed user growth had stalled. Analysts were quick to attribute this slow down, in part, to fierce competition from TikTok, which had recently blasted past the billion user mark. The valuation of Meta plummeted by over $200 billion in a single day.

Forced by investor pressure to respond, Meta began a sudden shift in its products’ features that moved them closer to the purified algorithmic distraction offered by its upstart rival. This spring, a leaked memo revealed Facebook’s plan to focus more on short videos and make recommendations “unconnected” to accounts that a user has already friended or followed. More recently, Instagram began experimenting with a TikTok-style full screen display, and has emphasized algorithmically-curated videos at the expense of photos shared by accounts the user follows.

From a short-term business perspective, these might seem like necessary changes. But as I argued in my most recent article for The New Yorker, published last week, the decision by companies like Facebook and Instagram to become more like TikTok could mark the beginning of their end.

The problem comes from their underlying business models. The social media giants of the last decade have cemented a pseudo-monopolistic position in the internet marketplace because they serve content based on massive social graphs, constructed in a distributed fashion by their users, one friend or follow request at a time. It’s too late now for a new service to build up a network of sufficient influence and complexity to compete with these legacy topologies.

TikTok, by contrast, doesn’t depend on this type of painstakingly accumulated social data. It instead deploys a simple but brutally effective machine learning loop onto the pool of all available videos on its platform. By observing the viewing behavior of individual users, this loop can quickly determine exactly which videos will most engage them; no friends, retweets, shares, or favorites required. The value of the TikTok experience is instead created by a unique dyadic mind meld between each user and the algorithm.

If platforms like Facebook and Instagram abandon their social graphs to pursue this cybernetic TikTok model, they’ll lose their competitive advantage. Subject, all at once, to the fierce competitive pressures of the mobile attention economy, it’s unclear whether they can survive without this protection.

As I argue in my article:

“This all points to a possible future in which social-media giants like Facebook may soon be past their long stretch of dominance. They’ll continue to chase new engagement models, leaving behind the protection of their social graphs, and in doing so eventually succumb to the new competitive pressures this introduces. TikTok, of course, is subject to these same pressures, so in this future it, too, will eventually fade. The app’s energetic embrace of shallowness makes it more likely, in the long term, to become the answer to a trivia question than a sustained cultural force. In the wake churned by these sinkings will arise new entertainments and new models for distraction, but also innovative new apps and methods for expression and interaction.”

In this prediction, I find optimism. If TikTok acts as the poison pill that finally cripples the digital dictators that for so long subjugated the web 2.0 revolution, we just might be left with more breathing room for smaller, more authentic, more human online engagements. “In the end, TikTok’s biggest legacy might be less about its current moment of world-conquering success, which will pass,” I conclude. “And more about how, by forcing social-media giants like Facebook to chase its model, it will end up liberating the social Internet.”

This future is far from guaranteed. But let’s hope it’s true…

12 thoughts on “TikTok’s Poison Pill”

  1. One can only hope you are right. Personally I found some value in Instagram and Facebook allowing me to stay in touch with distant friends. Following around one hundred people I actually want to keep up with (instead of thousands I barely know) meant the content I saw was limited, relevant and could be handled in a few minutes each day. But now that Instagram insists on showing me content from random strangers instead, it has lost that value to me. Facebook is even worse, just a stream of spam and ads that there’s no point interacting with.

    I hope this is a passing phase that will burn out (and hopefully kill off many of these companies). But I can’t help but feel that social media is moving away from the kind of authentic interaction you describe and more towards forcing pointless distraction on people.

  2. Rather than blaming the platforms, I think blame should properly be placed on the investors. Part of any startup’s life cycle is to transition from a rapidly growing new business to an established business with lower growth (averaged over time; declines are expected from time to time) but more stable profits.

    The way investors are currently treating Facebook–and really all new companies (note the transition from “new company” to “startup” in our language!)–is perverse. They expect sustained exponential growth, which is simply mathematically impossible. This is, not coincidentally, the same math that drives pyramid schemes. This creates a situation where executives are forced to constantly find ways to “grow” the company, in an environment that simply isn’t growing (population is rising on Earth, but available Facebook users aren’t growing significantly on a quarterly basis). The only way to do that is to create the APPEARANCE of growth, by syphoning off people from one area (ideally another company) into your preferred area.

    The losers, of course, are the users. Facebook in particular has value–it’s the new photo album, essentially–and that value is going to be lost by these proposed changes. I’m on Facebook to see cute pictures of my nieces and nephews, plus some gossip about friends. The introduction of ads was obnoxious; losing the photos I want to see in an ocean of celebrity and influencer garbage would remove the one value the platform has.

    The key to stopping this would be for executives to grow up and admit that they’re not dealing with startups anymore. It’s not their job to blindly follow investor demands; any monkey could do that. Their job is to have a clear vision for the company and push towards it–and the vision for Facebook should be to transition from hot new startup to a stolid, established enterprise.

  3. Sorry, but your summary of how TikTok works is absolutely not true and a misunderstanding of what makes their algorithm work. It relies on accumulated social network data to work: it tracks who you follow, what posts you like, etc. It tracks what videos you comment on, who you message, and many other social graph related things. It is not distributed, it is just as centralized as every other platform. And it is hard to compete against (by new entrants or old) because it has the same (if not even better) moat of vast troves of data on all of its users and their interests and, yes, a social graph to boot.

    To say that TikTok “doesn’t depend on this type of painstakingly accumulated social data” is at best extremely ignorant.

  4. I know you’ve talked about Substack some, but I think there’s a burgeoning movement there too. Right now, it seems to present a possible option for engaging with friends online in a way that feels more like the Facebook and Instagram of old.

  5. This has happened over and over in Silicon Valley: when Yahoo stopped focusing on their core business to try and take on Google with a search engine of their own, and burnt their core businesses to the ground with the effort. When Google tried to take on Facebook with its ill-fated Google+ – didn’t quite sink Google, but wasted billions of dollars and years of engineering. How is it that corporate thought leaders still don’t see this fatal pattern?

  6. From photos to chats to videos, this progression of how and what captures human attention has been seen before, it is just being repeated in the digital world. Next step will be more immersive experience, no wonder social media giants are focusing their energies on metaverse. The Matrix is here 🙂

  7. The way I see it is this- from the mid twentieth century until 2020 was The Big Tent- everyone under the same shelter watching the same circus.

    Now the show has ended, the punters are leaving and the clowns and the magicians and the acrobats are doing whatever they can to get the audience to continue to focus on their show.

    But the energy isn’t there any longer. From my standpoint as both a writer and a reader all of the really interesting stuff is being made away from algorithm-driven apps. Substack and Discords seem to be where things are happening.

    The collective water cooler moments have been lost (which I am somewhat nostalgic for) but on the otherwise things are returning to what you might call a ‘Digital Localism’ which I think is more conducive to both Digital Minimalism and greater creativity

  8. I really appreciate your perspective on social media. In this post and elsewhere, you point to a future moving away from expansive monopolistic social platforms to more niche platforms. I’d be curious how you see the users and their use of IG and a move towards niche social platforms reflected in this study. It strikes me that beyond the breaking up of large all-in-one platforms into smaller, focused platforms, we may see users creating niche communities or strategies for navigating and employing within larger platforms, such as these tattoo artists (which isn’t necessarily new). Just curious on your reaction: http://www.journalssystem.com/shagh/pdf-150194-77046?filename=The%20Poachers%20of%20Instagram.pdf

  9. Hi Cal, I read your article, it’s really nice. I have a question for you. In your previous articles, you wrote an article called “Let’s bring the blogs back”, I wonder where the status of blogs is going, where is blog writing going? Can you publish an article about it? Thank you


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