Features versus fandom: Why TikTok is trying to become more like YouTube
Photo: Joshua Rawson-Harris
TikTok’s emergence in Western markets shook the entire social media landscape, by reintroducing what Vine had done over a decade earlier: short-form video. The snappy, to-the-punchline clips were easy to make, easy to share, and easy to consume in a hyper-tailored feed that knew what users wanted to see almost before they saw it.
More than just introducing a new format, however, TikTok introduced a new dynamic; social as broadcast, rather than a network. Instead of trying to blend a feed of personal posts from friends (and friends of friends) alongside ads, the app went straight for the influencer-turned-creator tier. These ‘creators’ were not just anyone, but individuals who understood and could play by the algorithm’s rules, put thought and effort into the content they made, and went out of their way to keep followers engaged. Influencers had existed since the early days of Instagram, and creators since the early days of YouTube – but with TikTok, these roles combined; the creator as influencer, packing personality, brand, and content into easily-digestible clips of which users could consume hundreds at a time. Not only that, but TikTok made average users feel like they, too, could become overnight stars, keeping them hooked with the imminent potential for viral fame.
This format-driven dynamic shift was immediately popular – so popular that it became default, with Instagram and YouTube both launching short-form video propositions, and even platforms like Spotify trying to get in on the trend. Short-form video is entertaining, addictive, and, most importantly, demands full attention, with no multitasking possible. Eyes on the screen or the video repeats itself every 45 seconds; there is no putting the phone down until you are consciously ready to end the session.
Yet the format has perhaps been too successful for its own good. While uptake has been swift and time spent has exploded, revenues are another matter. Back in March, Meta announced an end to its creator bonus trial for short-form video on Facebook and Instagram, citing a need to make the format “ROI-positive”. While the direct-to-creator fund drying up was inevitable, the fact that the company cited continuing issues with the format’s profitability is notable. YouTube strategists have also been open about concerns that Shorts is at risk of ‘cannibalising’ long-form video on the platform, where monetisation is stronger; shorter videos have fewer opportunities for ads and lower click-through rates, which is affecting margins. And now, TikTok itself is looking to offer longer videos, in horizontal formats – indicating a need for strategic diversification from its short-form core.
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Of course, it could just be that TikTok has its eyes on the prize of becoming the default home of Gen Z’s online identities. YouTube has been so integral to the internet for so long, it is akin to our Library of Alexandria – to burn it down, even proverbially, would be devastating to a culture based so firmly in online spaces. TikTok likely wants this place in culture moving forward, and sees itself as having a shot at getting there. Yet, the success of its short format has been rooted in the fact that nothing lasts; trends come and go on a weekly basis, music creators go viral, get signed, and are never heard from again. What appeals to the Id of TikTok is the biggest thing ever today, and cringe tomorrow; it cannot be a cornerstone of culture if the culture produced never really has time to take hold. Creators often complain that remaining relevant on popular platforms is a Sisyphean task. Short-form video comes hand in hand with discovery first, which sounds great to would-be creators – until they realise they are in a game of constantly being discovered, but rarely being able to reach the same audiences multiple times, let alone turn them into fans. This is broadly a symptom of feature-first platforms that focus too much on the mechanism and delivery of content, rather than who is delivering it, what it is, and to whom it is being delivered.
Which is where YouTube and Snapchat differ, strategically. The two are internally more fandom-focused, introducing features not just for their own sake, but rather as optional tools for creators and audiences alike to engage and interact with each other – ideally using a mix, with short form leading to long form, in YouTube’s case, and then long form leading to live chats, follows, and comments. Clearly, this is working, as YouTube and Snapchat both remain steadfast in their adoption rates and weekly use, despite being ‘mature’ (each over a decade old). And clearly, despite TikTok’s rapid growth until now, this is appealing, as the app tries to pivot to add in such features for its own users: longer videos and a horizontal format more befitting non-smartphone devices.
Whether this will work for TikTok has little to do with the features themselves. Rather, it is about how they are used – and whether they can start to foster fandom on the platform or will simply be a new discovery production line for new content, used by creators to funnel audiences to other platforms where they can truly connect with them.