Discover the secrets of 250 consumer brands that are winning new customers with emerging technology
Learn more

Premium Content

This article is written exclusively for Premium Subscribers.

Subscribe to Premium

w/Attention Economy

Digital Crack Cocaine

Back Story:  It's a fair assumption that most people have heard of TikTok. Probably as one of those apps that the kids are using. But do they really understand exactly how big TikTok is? How much it is used? What makes it so addictive and what's the science behind it?

In essence, the science behind TikTok can be condensed into these three  attributes:

  • TikTok knows exactly what you like and want to watch better than anyone, even your partner.
  • TikTok has removed all decision-making. Open the app and away you go, no spending time deciding what to watch, the app already knows what you want.
  • TikTok applies "random reinforcement" to keep you addicted and online for longer than on any other app.

Let me start by giving you some of the headline stats just to show you exactly how big and influential TikTok has become:

  • the app has 1.6 billion monthly users, that's more than Twitter, Snapchat and LinkedIn combined,
  • TikTok has been the most downloaded app for the past 5 quarters in a row, and downloaded more than any other app since 2020,
  • its global advertising revenues are forecast to exceed $11 billion in 2022, that’s more than Twitter and Snapchat combined,
  • the average user spends more time on TikTok than on Facebook and Instagram combined….and get this…
  • US users spend an average 26 hours per month on TikTok..that’s equivalent to 36 working days a year scrolling through videos…4 years ago that was only 8 hours a month
  • TikTok also reports that around a third of users (34.4%) watch longer videos at double speed.
  • And to give you an idea of how much the other platforms are worried by TikTok, in the last earnings call from Meta Facebook, they talked about TikTok 5 times, that’s a lot.
"People have a lot of choices for how they want to spend their time, and apps like TikTok are growing very quickly," CEO Mark Zuckerberg told AFP News.
Netflix’s budget for making movies and shows is $17 billion. TikTok’s budget is zero…because all the material is created for free by the users.

How Did TikTok Get So big?  

Science:  TikTok’s rise and ubiquitous appeal is based in some very simple science. Which breaks down into 3 things:

#1 - TikTok knows exactly what you like and want.

TikTok collects more signals about your preferences and personal interests than another social media platform. When you watch Netflix or listen to Spotify, those platforms get to know 1 or 2 things about you in half an hour, an hour or longer. Facebook and Instagram can work out alot about you based on who you follow and the posts you comment on and like.

But, in the case of TikTok, you are going to watch 100s of videos in a very short time. The videos you watch are not restricted or constrained by who is in your network.

On TikTok, if you like videos of cats going over obstacle courses, for example, the app will find that out and serve you up more of the same. And each time gives TikTok more signals about what you do and don't like.

TikTok is not like the other social media platforms. Until recently, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter et al relied on a user's 'connections' or list of 'friends' to serve up content. But TikTok is different because it does not rely on knowing who your friends in when deciding what content to put in front of you. That's why the likes of Facebook are shifting towards serving up curated content based on your likes, not your friends.

The TikTok algorithms figure out exactly what makes you tick. The AI is extremely adept at working out what you really want to see and then feeding it to you.

But more than that, the algorithms also recognise that a user can soon get bored with seeing the same stuff. So the algorithms will start to test out related but different content to see if you like that and to keep you interested.

#2 - TikTok has removed all decision making.

Which makes it instant. You open the app and bam, away you go with the first video. And one that TikTok KNOWS you will love. From here on in, TikTok will just keep feeding you with a continuous loop of what you want to see.

TikTok is so easy to use. You open the app and immediately you’re into a video. If you don’t like it, it is a simple short swipe with your thumb…that’s all…and the next video is more likely to be to your taste than the last one.

The app gets you from the moment you open it up, playing a video that’s been viewed and liked by millions of people. It’s an instant hit of dopamine that rewards the pleasure receptors in our lizard brain.

And that’s how it starts, lots of short, instant dopa hits just like you get when you’re sat for hours at a one-armed bandit, putting coins into the slot machine.

Did you know that households spend an average 10-20 mins a day "deciding" what to watch?

#3 - TikTok’s use of “Random Reinforcement”

Julie Albright, a Digital Sociologist from the University of California, identified that TikTok uses a behavioural science technique called  “random reinforcement”.

Random reinforcement is a concept that explains gambling on a Las Vegas slot machine, where you just keep pulling the lever one last time.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t, but you keep pulling the arm on the hope that the next video will be a win, giving you the dopamine hit you’re looking for.

Addiction:  Watching TikTok has the same addictive characteristics as putting a coin in a slot machine, pulling the handle, and watching the wheels spin. All the time hoping that this next go is going to be "the one".

This means that it is not only physically easier to use, it is also psychologically easier too.

Studies show that adults make about 35,000 decisions over a 24 hour period day, some big ones, but many are small, insignificant ones that all add up over the course of a day.

And these all take effort which is why we are often more productive first thing in the morning and ready to sit on the couch and dumb out at the end of the day. The last thing we want as users is to have to make more decisions.

Despite their best efforts, platforms like YouTube and Netflix still require us to make decisions, but TikTok has totally removed that. The most you’re going to have to do is move your thumb an inch and go to the next video.

It’s also easier to fit TikTok in. The average TikTok session is only 11 minutes, enough time to watch dozens of videos that you’re bound to like. Not the same with YouTube or Instagram or Netflix or Spotify

Dangerous To The Developing Mind

Here's the thing, for young people TikTok is especially dangerous. The brain does not fully develop until we’re into our 20’s. The ability to make judgements and decisions is not fantastic in younger human beings, which means their ability to put the app down is impaired and not fully developed.

This is why TikTok has introduced a feature that will warn users to take a break and put the app down.

It started in China for users under the age of 14 and using the Chinese version of TikTok, called  Douyin.

Instead of getting an endless stream of vacuous influencer dancing videos, Chinese kids get fed science experiments, museum exhibits and patriotism videos. This is because China wants its youth to be educated and aspire to be astronauts and scientists and not chase a career on Love Island.

Time on TikTok for children is also limited to 40 minutes a day and restricted entirely between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am. If you're 14 or younger, come 10pm, TikTok is closed to you and, crucially, for all of your friends too. This removes FOMO and allows youngsters to do anything else other than sit on their phones at 1 am in the morning.

The other measure introduced on TikTok is a mandatory 5-second pause every so often to ask the young user if they'd like to get up and do something else.  In other words, this is a nudge to go do something else instead of mindlessly scrolling through the short-form videos.

TikTok's Big Picture

The question of "why" leads us to ask question like "what's in this for TikTok?" There are many theories about China and surveillance and manipulating nation states via influence. There may be some truth in these, which i will cover in another post.

But for me, when I think of TikTok, I think of "Social Commerce."

It's a $40 billion industry in the West and almost $400 billion in China! Social Commerce exploits the overlap between what a brand wants to say and what the audience want to hear. In order to sell more stuff.

That stuff includes music, where TikTok has had a significant impact on the music industry. TikTok appeals to a Gen Z demographic who are listening to their favourite artists for free. This young  demographic don't listen to the radio, Spotify or iTunes. They're getting their music based on viral trends on TikTok.

With TikTok videos now up to 10 minutes long, this has given artists and influencers even longer to access a fan base without the control and barriers of the traditional music industry.

And here's the thing about shipping music for free on TikTok. It comes back to Social Commerce.

Because in Social Commerce, artists promote products and things to buy in their music, videos and promotions. They reach and influencing a brand's target demographic more effectively than if they were placing ads on Facebook or Instagram.

Just see for yourself with Charli D'Amelio if you want to see how powerful this is! Here's D'Amelio promoting Prada to her 146 million followers....


unboxing @prada #pradatropico

♬ original sound - charli d’amelio

...this video has been watched 10.5 million times!

Problems down the road?

Regular readers of my work know that I take a particular interest in the impact of social media on human behaviour. I believe that one day in the future, humankind will look back  at the last decade and decide that net/net, there was more harm than good from social media.

And that the people running social media knew this all along. But chose to ignore taking action, putting profits before people. But that's just my POV (and bias).

It’s too early to know definitively the full impact of TikTok (and social media) on human behaviour. However, I see enough information at the moment to say the warning signs are there. I've already seen reports of TikTok addiction, and evidence that links specific issues like eating disorders to TikTok usage.

A Wall Street Journal investigation last year involved creating a dozen automated accounts on TikTok. The team of journalists registered as 13-year-olds and found that the popular video-sharing app’s algorithm served them tens of thousands of weight-loss videos.

The video included tips on how to live on 300 callories a day, or go days on just water, or use the so-called “corpse bride diet”. These were all fed to the journlists within a few weeks of joining the platform.

I wrote this Insights article about a BMJ report into the rise of people reporting motor and verbal tics, the kind of uncontrolled behaviour you see in people with Tourette's Syndrome. In 2020, a  rise in cases reported in the US, Canada and the UK was linked to users who had been watching TikToks about people with Tourettes, leading to the actions being mimicked by the TikTokers.

Doctors determined that these people did not have Tourettes, instead they had functional neurological disorder.

At the time of writing, the TikTok hashtags for #Tourettes and #TourettesSyndrome had over 6 billion views between them.

TikTok Won't Let Go Of Our Attention

The point is that TikTok has our attention, which means that it is a perfect vehicle to influence.

Take “Buy Now Pay Later” finance, aka point of sale loans. The issue is that the algorithms are behaving the way that they are meant to behave, which is to look at patterns of content that get your interest and attention. Then feed you more of the same content to groom your behaviour and eventually build addictive behaviour in the user. The trouble is that this is a blunt instrument and the AI does not differentiate between healthy and unhealthy content (and frankly, how can it?)

It is too easy to blame the technology when the real culprit is the business model behind it. All the time that the platform's economic model is directly linked to how much time you spend on the platform, the algorithms are going to keep finding ways to get you hooked and coming back for more.

China has already worked out that Government intervention is needed because BigTech isn't going to regulate itself (remember, the current laws on Internet age were written in the last century after the tech industry successfully lobbied for the online age of consent to be raised from 13 to 16.)

In China's BigTech Crackdown, TikTok's Chinese equivalent Douyin has already been forced to introduce measures that restrict the amount of time spent online and forces interruptions every 5 mins to break up addictive patterns of behaviour.

TikTok Pushes Teen Safety Measures Internationally

TikTok is making a promotional push in Europe and Australia around a bundle of safety-focused features. The company remains the target of a major consumer protection complaint in the region.

This has led to active monitoring of its policies by the European Commission. The measures being (re)announced by TikTok include a permanent in-app guide which pushes teens to engage with a ‘4-step’ process (aka: “stop, think, decide, act”)

The video-sharing platform has been facing months of scrutiny by regulators in the EU following consumer protection and privacy complaints. An emergency intervention in Italy last year related to concerns over a ‘blackout challenge’ which local media had linked to the death of a child.

In the latter case, TikTok removed more than half a million accounts in Italy which it had been unable to verify did not belong to children under the age of 13.

The big question for me is simple. Is this enough, or too little, too late? Only time will tell (although I'm pretty sure that I know the answer!)

Further Reading

Data Sovereignty is Driving Biden’s New Laws to Stop TikTok
Wiser! Essay: Donald Trump huffed and puffed over TikTok, but it was all hot air. Joe Biden now seems to be doing the same. Why? It’s all about data sovereignty and stopping the other side from getting their hands on it!
Teenage Anxiety Linked to Social Media (Again)
Wiser! Essay: A UK study of 84,000 teenagers has identified a link between heavy social media usage and teenage anxiety. They also found it affects girls between ages 11 and 13. Whereas for boys, the sensitive period is 14 and 15.
Social Media Has Not Done Enough To Curb Hate Crime.
There’s a worrying connection between Social Media, the rise in hate crime, and the battle for free speech. The mass killing of Black people in Buffalo by a young white male is yet another example of the toxic mix of freely available guns and the wide spread dissemination of conspiracy theories.
What makes TikTok so addictive?
Wiser! Essay: TikTok is the most addictive platform on Social Media. Leaked documents reveal the how and why.


🤖 Massively Improve Your Productivity With GENEI, The AI Writing Tool

Improve your personal productivity with GENEI.AI

📰 The Newsletter of Newsletters: The Sample

The Sample is an AI-powered newsletter recommendation machine. You tell The Sample the type of newsletter content you like. And leave it to The Sample to recommend a newsletter based on your preferences.

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
You've successfully subscribed to Wiser!.
Your link has expired.
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.
Success! Your billing info has been updated.
Your billing was not updated.