A Blog by Jonathan Low


Nov 5, 2019

Everyone From Teens To Moms Loves TikTok. Which Is Why Silicon Valley Is Worried

It is the first Chinese app to really grab audience share in the west. And US tech firms are pulling every string they can - including government investigations of its ties to the Chinese government -  to make sure it doesnt become a sustainable rival. JL

Jack Nicas reports in the New York Times and Olivia Craighead reports in the Wall Street Journal:

TikTok allows people to create short, snappy videos and share them around the world. That simple concept has fueled its rise to quickly become one of the world’s largest social networks and to mount the most direct incursion yet by a Chinese company into Silicon Valley’s turf. "We haven’t seen another consumer app make that much headway in attention market share in recent history.” The app’s older users have found it an affirming venue for their more adult concerns. Moms got on Tiktok to understand their kids. Then they stayed. (Though) estimates suggest TikTok does retain fewer users than rivals.
New York Times Teenagers are gaga for TikTok. That’s why Silicon Valley is so worried about it.
TikTok, which is run by a seven-year-old company in Beijing called ByteDance, allows people to create short, snappy videos and share them around the world. That simple concept has fueled its rise to quickly become one of the world’s largest social networks and to mount the most direct incursion yet by a Chinese company into Silicon Valley’s turf.
Now the American internet companies are pushing back. Through knockoffs, potential acquisitions and not-so-subtle references to Chinese censorship, TikTok’s competitors have been trying to protect their home turf from the service’s advancement. They haven’t had much luck so far.
Over the past 12 months, TikTok’s app has been downloaded more than 750 million times, compared with 715 million for Facebook, 450 million for Instagram, 300 million for YouTube and 275 million for Snapchat, according to the research firm Sensor Tower.
But TikTok’s American competitors could still get some help from their government. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a federal panel that reviews foreign acquisitions of American firms, is now reviewing ByteDance’s two-year-old acquisition of Musical.ly, the American company that became TikTok, The New York Times and Reuters reported on Friday. Members of Congress had asked for a review last month.

A government intervention would probably be welcome news to TikTok’s competitors, who have been working from their usual, crush-the-upstart playbook.
Late last year, Facebook launched a TikTok clone called Lasso. That app has been downloaded fewer than 500,000 times, mostly in Mexico, according to Sensor Tower. While many videos in TikTok’s endless feed of 15- to 60-second clips have hundreds of thousands of “likes,” the videos in Lasso’s nearly identical feed typically have a few dozen.
At YouTube, executives are also considering ways to imitate TikTok, including adding similar video-editing software within the YouTube app, according to a person familiar with the conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the plans are private.
Google, which owns YouTube, also held acquisition talks with Firework, a TikTok imitator that is aiming for older users, according to three people close to the talks who requested anonymity because the negotiations were confidential. One of those people said Google decided against acquiring Firework.
Firework, which has less than three million downloads, has also received interest from Baidu, China’s biggest search engine company, and Weibo, which runs the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, according to two people close to the talks. The Wall Street Journal first reported Google’s and Weibo’s interest in Firework.

“They see that TikTok right now is having a moment, and they have natural concern when any other app gains share in attention,” Eugene Wei, a longtime tech and media executive who now tracks the industries, said of the big tech companies. “And we haven’t seen another consumer app make that much headway in attention market share in recent history.”
At Snap, which some analysts believe is most threatened by TikTok’s rise because both target young people, the chief executive, Evan Spiegel, has argued that the companies don’t compete.
TikTok largely gives people entertainment from strangers while Snapchat connects friends, he said. When asked by an analyst during an earnings call last month whether TikTok is a “friend or foe,” he responded that TikTok advertises on Snapchat and has also built services for the app. “I think at a high level, looking at TikTok, we definitely consider them a friend,” he said.
In April, Snap began listing TikTok as a competitor in its regulatory filings.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, told employees in July that TikTok “is really the first consumer internet product built by one of the Chinese tech giants that is doing quite well around the world,” according to a transcript of the meeting published by the Verge.
He noted that it was popular with young Americans and had surpassed Instagram in India. “It’s a very interesting phenomenon,” he said. “So we have a number of approaches that we’re going to take towards this.”
Lasso isn’t Facebook’s only hedge against TikTok. In September, an app researcher in Hong Kong named Jane Manchun Wong noticed some computer code in Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, that revealed the app was testing a feature called Clips. The feature allows users to edit videos much like TikTok, splicing clips together and adding music.

Copying fast-growing upstarts has been a successful playbook for Facebook. Instagram’s popular “Stories” feature, which lets users post short, ephemeral videos, closely resembles Snapchat’s main function.
Mr. Zuckerberg suggested those short “Stories” videos are a way Facebook can compete. In response to a question about Facebook’s “plan of attack” against TikTok, Mr. Zuckerberg told employees in the July meeting that Facebook was making Stories an even more central part of Instagram.
And last month, Mr. Zuckerberg seized on TikTok’s Chinese roots to criticize it publicly. In a speech at Georgetown University in which he promoted Facebook as an American company eager to protect free speech, he said, “China is building its own internet focused on very different values, and is now exporting their vision of the internet to other countries.”
As evidence, he cited reports that there were few signs of the Hong Kong protests on TikTok.
“While our services, like WhatsApp, are used by protesters and activists everywhere due to strong encryption and privacy protections, on TikTok, the Chinese app growing quickly around the world, mentions of these protests are censored, even in the U.S.,” he said. “Is that the internet we want?”
Josh Gartner, a ByteDance spokesman, said that the Chinese government does not request that TikTok censor content and that the app’s content policies are led by a team in the United States and are not influenced by any government.
“We have said clearly that these accusations are false,” he said in a statement. “This is an unfortunate attempt by Mark Zuckerberg to redirect scrutiny onto a competitor that he’s failed to copy.”
TikTok has faced earlier scrutiny. In February, ByteDance agreed to pay a $5.7 million fine to the Federal Trade Commission to settle allegations that Musical.ly illegally collected information on users under the age of 13.

While they plot to take on TikTok, tech executives have also tried to play down the threat. Mr. Zuckerberg told employees in July that Facebook research shows TikTok is spending a lot to acquire users, who then don’t stick around for long.
Independent estimates suggest TikTok does retain fewer users than rivals. In June, about 26 percent of new TikTok users were still using the app a week later, according to estimates from App Annie, an app data firm. Facebook’s retention rate was 45 percent, Instagram’s was 44 percent and Snapchat’s 32 percent. By September, TikTok’s rate had risen to 39 percent.
“It is growing, but they’re spending a huge amount of money promoting it. What we’ve found is that their retention is actually not that strong after they stop advertising,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “So the space is still fairly nascent, and there’s time for us to kind of figure out what we want to do.”
Wall Street Journal 
As soon as Jamie Garrison signed her divorce papers, she turned up the Spice Girls.
Garrison, a 50-year-old mom of two from North Little Rock, Ark. who goes by @jgfitfam on TikTok, the lip syncing video app popular with teenagers, posted a video announcing the end of her marriage set to the hit “Wannabe” earlier this year. Garrison stands in her living room as text appears around her: “Guess who… never has… to talk to.. her ex-husband… never… ever… again… ME” it reads, followed by emojis wearing party hats and blowing party horns.
Then she breaks into a celebratory running man dance. The clip has been viewed over half a million times since it was posted in July
“I’d seen that kind of video done by other people and I thought, I’m divorced and I had finished up some things with my ex-husband... I’m gonna try to make that one work for me,” Garrison says. “I couldn’t believe how I got such a positive response.”
Like many other TikTok users who can legally rent a car, Garrison got on the app with the help of a teenager, her 16-year-old niece. “I’m an empty nester, my sons are both moved out,” she says. “It gives me something to do when I’m not working, when I’m at home, so I don’t dwell so much on, ya know, that my kids aren’t here.”
In the United States, 60% of TikTok’s 26.5 million active monthly users (out of 500 million global users) are 16 to 24 years old, according to the influencer marketing agency Mediakix. Spend any time perusing the app’s highly addictive “For You” page, where videos are curated specifically for a user, and you’ll find video after video of teenagers dancing, participating in goofy memes and venting about their lives.
But there’s a wide community of mothers who not only know what TikTok is, but are thriving on it. They post videos about parenting, their divorces, even about children they lost too soon. They also post fun dance videos and join in on memes, just like their kids. While teenagers might use the app to crack jokes about AP tests or crushes, the app’s older users have found it an affirming venue for their more adult concerns.
Michelle Gomez, or @whoaitsmichelle, is a 27-year-old mother in Tennessee who, in addition to lip syncing and dressing up as Rosie the Riveter for videos, posts frankly about the death of her son Jacob, whom she lost during her pregnancy.
“It was a very traumatic pregnancy and I was left with PTSD,” she says via email. “I became a [stay-at-home-mom] and TikTok became a great outlet for me.”
On the app, Gomez says she found a community that has engaged with her experience and shared their stories with her. “I truly feel by speaking about my loss and my life I have helped so many gain the courage to do so as well.”
Gomez is certainly not the only mother who has used TikTok as an outlet to share a personal struggle. The videos on the tag #rainbowbaby, a term used for a child lost to miscarriage, have been viewed almost 24 million times. #singlemom videos have been viewed over 92 million times, while #momlife has a view count of over 1.1 billion.
“What is TikTok? For all the moms out there—what is TikTok?!” mom-of-three Reese Witherspoon recently asked her followers in a video posted to her Instagram. Witherspoon joined the platform that day after receiving a tutorial from her her 16-year-old son Deacon. In the Instagram video, Deacon gives a noncommittal “sure” when asked whether or not his mom should get on TikTok before teaching her how to hit the Woah, a popular dance on the app.
Brandy, a 33-year-old single mother in South Carolina who asked to keep her last name private, got on TikTok in July of last year as @kodanstephy after her 15-year-old son showed her some funny videos. At the time, Brandy says, she was going through a tumultuous period in her marriage.
“To me, emotion was weakness, and with TikTok I felt like it was a way that I could put out my emotions without feeling weak,” Brandy says. “It definitely helped me along the path of a lot of decisions I made in the last year—I didn’t decide to file for divorce until after I started on TikTok.”
She now has over 60,000 followers and says she is dating a man she met during one of her TikTok livestreams. After two days of messaging across different platforms, he drove out to meet her with his kids in tow and when he arrived she was dressed as a “voodoo queen,” complete with a dramatic headpiece, a corset top, and elaborate stage makeup. (“‘Cause I was doing TikToks!”) In TikTok discourse, meeting someone from the app in real life is called “Breaking The Distance,” and Brandy says she has met over 100 people in person.
“It felt like I had already known them—like I had grew up with them almost,” she says.
The platform has even served as a tool to discipline her kids. Earlier this year, Brandy suspected her son had tried marijuana for the first time. “I popped a drug test on him and I made a TikTok out of it!” she says. Having a space to openly discuss the trials of single parenting has brought her an outpouring of support from the community. “It’s hard, but putting it out there, there were other people who were like, ‘Yeah I had an issue with my son last year,’” she says. “It’s nice to feel like people out there are giving you that pat on the back.”
What do kids think about their moms becoming internet personalities? Brandy says her son “actually thinks it’s funny most days.” Sometimes he and her daughter will even help her set up a particularly involved video.
Jamie Garrison’s sons are fully grown, but still weigh in on their mom’s posts. “I send them all my videos and they’ll let me know, ‘This one’s really good, Mom.’” When Garrison posted a video that was backed by a song that used a racial slur, they called her out on it and she deleted the post.
“It’s the type of family that you didn’t know you needed,” says Brandy.


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