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Will Microsoft buy the place where everyone gets their 15 minutes?
In an attention economy, fame is simultaneously the currency and the destination.
Similarly in a neo-feudal society where celebrity is the aristocracy, fame becomes the only means by which someone can seek upward mobility. Serfs do their dances and offer their data to the digital gods in hopes that they will be chosen by their fellow captive users to become famous and attain elevated social status and economic power.
There’s a part of me that regrets not pivoting this newsletter last December to be focused on and dedicated to studying TikTok. Granted many of you would have tuned out, but such hyper specialization is what the market seems to desire and demand.
TikTok continues to rise in power and position, in no small part because they appear to be providing a more accessible path to fame for the narcissistic hordes who so desperately want to be famous.
This is partly a result of their algorithms having a different configuration, but it also reflects a different approach to social media overall.
Facebook has (fake) friends, Twitter has (faux) followers, and YouTube has (passive) subscribers. All three treat these as currency, and the focus of the game played on each platform is to acquire more. However your FB friends, your twit cult followers, and your YouTube bots don’t actually see your posts, in spite of them signing up for them. Instead the algorithm stands between you and these constituents.
TikTok on the other hand doesn’t care about friends, followers, or subscribers. On TikTok it’s all “for you” in that by default and by design, users are served content that does not depend upon who you follow but rather where you are and what you’re interested in. In particular, what you’re interested in is not necessarily something you select, but rather is something TikTok deduces based on your usage of the app.
In this sense TikTok’s success is a reflection of its “AI” or suite of algorithms that sort, rank, and classify what you like and what you watch. The ability for the app to zero in on what you’re interested in, with minimal user interaction is impressive. Similarly I suspect they’re able to gather and generate data at a significantly greater scale than their competitors.
While the platform’s success may be a reflection of how its automated tools perform and function, it is the promise of fame that is the real driver of growth.
Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are kind of like a lottery, in that they’re not just a tax on the stupid, but the chances of winning, or going viral, or becoming famous, are so tiny as to make the chances near zero. Or maybe a better analogy is to say that these three platforms are like casinos, in that the house always wins.
TikTok is different in that there is a genuine sense that fame is within the grasp of any user. That anyone and everyone has the potential ability to become a TikTok celebrity. Of course the truth is fame on TikTok is neither random nor accessible, but it is compared to the other platforms. Similarly TikTok fame builds upon the TikTok hype and I’d argue that TikTok fame currently ranks higher than fame elsewhere, and most definitely translates to fame elsewhere.
That TikTok, and more specifically their parent company ByteDance, have invented a better built fame engine (in addition to a better built mousetrap) is significant, not just in an attention economy, but also when it comes to geopolitics. Here we are over ten paragraphs into this newsletter and I haven’t even mentioned China or our friends in the Central Politburo.
I find that the best part. I could go on and on about how and why TikTok is different and I don’t even have to mention the Chinese connection. Yet that remains significant and an important factor in the future direction of the app.
I wanted to write about TikTok today because we discussed it yesterday in our AxisOfEasy podcast. However my editorial spidey senses are such that a news hook spontaneously emerged.
— The Verge (@verge) July 31, 2020
Talk of banning TikTok has now morphed into talk of forcing ByteDance to sell it off.
Personally I was in favour of banning TikTok, in so far as it also involved a ban of Facebook. Wipe the sale clean! Though we all know that was never gonna happen (before the coming coup in November).
Forcing TikTok to be sold off is not as straight forward as it sounds. To the superficial and uninitiated TikTok just appears as a place where kids dance and lip sync.
Yet the reality is that the app is a collection of intellectual property wrapped up in a sprawling sea of data. Untangling that from the parent company will not be easy, nor will it be cheap, and it will not address some of the issues people have with the app, in particular the legitimate national security concerns.
Similarly TikTok is worth billions. The low estimate is U$50 billion, but I can guarantee that ByteDance thinks it is worth far more. Who would even have the kind of cash to buy such a thing, especially if such a sale is forced to happen quickly, i.e. before November when either the regime changes or fights an insurgency?
Breaking News: Microsoft is in talks to buy TikTok, the Chinese-owned video app, as President Trump said on Friday that he was considering taking steps that would effectively ban the app from the U.S. https://t.co/a8jg5DKDT0
— The New York Times (@nytimes) July 31, 2020
The way in which this news dropped today is entirely suspect. First Trump threatens action, and then within minutes Microsoft is the saviour? Although it is not clear how advanced these discussions are, and most of the coverage demonstrates general ignorance of what TikTok is and how it works.
For example, most reports in North America describe TikTok as originating with the Musical.ly app that ByteDance bought and rebranded as TikTok. However the app and platform has evolved considerably since then, integrating advanced automation and algorithms developed and owned by ByteDance.
Hence TikTok is no longer Musical.ly, nor is it a franchise of ByteDance that can easily be spun off. Rather it is part of a sprawling digital empire that ByteDance has built up, and breaking it off from that may not be as easy as many think.
Similarly if I were ByteDance I would not want to sell this valuable IP and AI tech to Microsoft.
Conversely, if I were Microsoft I’d be jumping on this opportunity to buy some Chinese AI technology, especially if it makes the nerds in Redmond Washington look like national champions.
Plus let’s think of the opportunities that arise from TikTok becoming integrated into LinkedIn? Corporations can do lip syncing and dancing while young people can translate their TikTok fame into career advancement in the corporate enterprise! Imagine the possibilities and viral potential!
I jest, but these issues are important, and worth exploring further. We did so in our most recent AxisOfEasy podcast, and I imagine this newsletter will follow this story closely, along with the broader range of subjects that connect democracy and technology.