October 2, 2020
October 1, 2020

Can the copycats capture TikTok's magic?

TikTok was the most downloaded app of 2020.

Go figure.  

Yeah, more than insta, more than facebook, more than ZOOM!


A few months ago, I didn't get it.  I tried to understand.  I asked friends WHY would I want TikTok over Instagram? What is the benefit?  There were no clean answers.

But like millions of other quarantined Americans, I caved. I downloaded TikTok.

And what I once thought was a mystery playground of dance moves and GenZ secrets quickly became my most used iphone app.


So, how do you define the TikTok magic?  And now that it is caught in the court system, on the brink of a national ban, will any of the short-video format competitors springing up be able to take over market share?  Five themes drive this assessment, here we go:


1) Platform Purpose

This is first as it is likely the hardest for competitors to replicate.  TikTok was developed from its origin for creators. From the US roots of Musical.ly, which allowed users to create 15-second lipsync videos (TikTok entered the US market it merged with Musical.ly in 2017), the structure of TikTok was unique.  Many social media platforms functioned off of a follow graph- meaning you entered the platform, sought out people, and then followed their content. TikTok could be deemed a consumption graph.  You can just go and watch.

Other platforms will struggle in making this switch.  Reels, for instance, which launched last month springs off of Instagram- a clear example of a follow graph model.  And due to this, Reels is buried within the app, living amongst posts, stories, and InstagramTV, its all a bit confused.  But that is a product of Facebook doing what Facebook does--- find great features in other apps and find a way to smush them into its platform. The origins differ, so this might prove to be too much smushing.


2) Engagement Journey

Springboarding off of the concept of "consumption graph", a user's engagement journey will naturally expand.  It may appear more random than a follow graph usage pattern, but only because if Instagram's follow graph is a typical novel, TikTok's consumption graph is a choose-your-own-adventure book.  Especially on the "FYP" (For You Page, the auto-fed content within the app) users are not following a person or a hashtag. They are just being fed random videos and if they like it, they can chose to go down several different associated rabbit holes.  Cool sound?  Hit the sound and watch dozens of other user videos made to that same sound.  Cool person? Check out their library of TikToks.  Interesting content?  Get lost in the sea of comments of other users who thought the same.  Cool theme?  Check out the hashtag (although this seems to be used far less necessarily than in other apps).  You don't know where you will end up at the end of a TikTok session.  And that's sort of the beauty of it.


3) Sound Library & Audio Memes

When Instagram started taking over Facebook as the go-to- app, it was all about the visual.  The image-only feeds on Instagram just dwarfed the addictiveness of the text/ad/image mishmash on Facebook.  

Well the five senses are taking turns, and this shift has more to do with sound.  

The Muiscal.ly lip-sync origins of TikTok ensured a focus on being able to mix and match and edit sounds in a way that no other social platforms could.  The sound library on TikTok is unmatched by Facebook, Triller (one of the latest TikTok-esque apps) and even the new-kid-on-the block YouTube Shorts.  And while Reels still has no official statement on the type of music and audio that will be allowed on the platform, Facebook has stated that its launching licensed music soon but its not known if it will be comparable to TikTok's and/or included in the Reels feature.

The sound library has also evolved into a new version of a meme: a sound meme.  Similar to a meme, but with audio instead of visual, sound memes have naturally developed on TikTok, taking an original theme and imitating it from person to person while carrying much of a symbolic meaning or representation of the original theme.

"Nobody's gonna know.  They're gonna know. How would they know?"

"Don't be suspicious, don't be suspicious."

"Awww. She passed away? Aw. Oh. Alright."

If you get it, you get it.


4) Less Polish

The Instagrammable, perfect-aesthetic, precisely polished feed may have just backfired.  TikTok is known and lauded for being more authentic and truer to real life.  Perhaps this is it's relative newness, previous young consumer base or quickly fading lack of ads and consumerism, but TikTok has an authenticity that has been lost in most other heavily edited platforms.  

Is it the For You Page? The magic algorithm that feeds up a home makeover tip, immediately followed by a home cook making a gourmet meal for their hamster, followed by a mini case study into a new hinge cut invented by a woodworker and right into a lipsync video. The videos are varied and uber creative and all, somehow, more real.


5) Discoverability

It's perhaps a perfect little TikTok recipe: Consumption Graph + Algorithm + For You Page + Authenticity + Creative Content = Discoverability.

TikTok is a home of one-hit-wonders, people who have 20-30 views on most of their videos and then wake up one day to a video that went viral and has millions of likes.  It happens all the time. And it is fun on both ends.  

The algorithm shows those viral videos on its own, making it more automated than a the standard version of virality, but essentially ensuring the For You Page is filled with mostly the best, most popular and most engaging content for every user.  On the flip side, this potential to "go viral" at any time, makes content creators feel like they are always just about to hit the TikTok library!

And they do.  

While there are some mega-influencers on TikTok (Charli D'Amelio and Addison Rae, for example, are both teenagers on TikTok who have millions of followers), being "tiktok famous" has a stark difference than being an influencer. Just like fame is fleeting, one video posted might strike a chord and be seen millions of times, and then content dip down in engagement drastically after that.  But it's the potential of those five minutes of fame that keeps the hope alive.


It seems like established companies and new apps are taking on the short-form-video market more and more each day.  What other elements of TikTok magic do you think they need to cover in order to come out on top?