TikTok Boom, book review: The rise and rise of YouTube’s younger, hipper competitor

TikTok Boom: China’s Dynamite App and the Superpower Race for Social Media • By Chris Stokel-Walker • Canbury Press • 288 pages • ISBN: 978-1-91-245479-2 • £14.99   

The early internet — from its founding until around 2010 — was for writers: Usenet postings, blogs, web pages, LiveJournal, early Facebook, Reddit and so on. It stayed that way for so long because video required skill to devise, shoot, and edit. But everyone can write at least a bit 

Even though YouTube was founded in 2005, it wasn’t until smartphones put a camera in every pocket that video really began to open up to the general public on a spontaneous basis. And then came TikTok, the first Chinese technology giant to become successful in the West, and it broke through by providing clever tools to help ordinary people make short videos that others wanted to watch. 

I only see TikTok videos on Twitter. I tell myself it means the best ones are being curated for me — like the injured wild beaver, being rehabilitated in a qualified TikToker’s home, who practices making dams out of shoes and other household objects. But I know the underlying truth: I’m a word person — I am useless at video, and thus remain ignorant of a vast and increasing portion of the internet. 

Fortunately, Chris Stokel-Walker is here to take up the beat. Two years ago, in YouTubers: How YouTube shook up TV and created a new generation of stars, he studied the leading lights of YouTube. Now, he’s back with TikTok Boom: China’s Dynamite App and the Superpower Race for Social Media, a study of its younger, hipper competitor 

Most of the book follows the pattern set by YouTubers: Stokel-Walker traces the origins of the company, examines its business model, and studies how individuals use and profit from the platform. He includes profiles of TikTok stars and TikTok’s efforts to ensure they stay, having watched the failed fortunes of Vine when it didn’t take its top creators seriously enough. YouTube has inspired an ecosystem of third-party services to support its creators; TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, has opted to follow the Chinese norm of building its own ecosystem to provide such help.  

Inside the algorithm

More importantly, Stokel-Walker explores what he can see of the workings of TikTok’s algorithm, which is built on an entirely different model to YouTube’s (and arguably does less damage). TikTok tests videos on a fragment of its audience, and those that are most watched, rewatched, and shared get the highest recommendations and are most likely to land in users’ personalised ‘For You’ feeds. He sees this in operation: after writing about people performing in TikTok videos while at work in supermarkets, “TikTok thinks I like supermarket videos”. (Flashback to 2002 and ‘my Tivo thinks I’m gay’).

To close, Stokel-Walker attempts to answer the question politicians are fretting about: is it dangerous?  

On the whole, he concludes: ‘no’. At least, he does not believe, after investigating the company’s history, development, present operation, and stars, that TikTok is a vector through which the Chinese Communist Party is seeking to spread its values. We need to monitor it, Stokel-Walker says, but he is unable to find evidence of Chinese state control. If values are being spread, so far it’s those of learning choreographed dance routines and performing them in unexpected places, and, like earlier generations of social media, giving a voice to people who previously lacked one.

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