TikTok’s rise is meteoric. But the rise of TikTok has wider ramifications, arising from the fact that it was made by, and is still owned by, a Chinese company. Image: Shutterstock
Physicist Michael Goldhaber coined a term in 1997 to describe how he believed the world economic order would change in the internet age. He noted that the present world economy is often characterized as an information economy. However, economies get built on underlying scarcity, whereas information is truly more abundant than ever.
Therefore, he predicted correctly that “seeking attention” would become a core activity of the digital age. He called it the “attention economy” where attention is not only a resource but a currency: users pay for a service with their attention. Goldhaber wrote that the global economy is shifting from a material-based economy to one based on the capacity of human attention.
All consumer decisions are meditated even when seemingly impulsive. Hence we must ask:
Is influence proportional to fame?
Is media exposure as a driver of celebrity sustainable even if effective?
Why does public attention lead to sell-ebrity ?
Has public visibility as a means for personal branding become a free for all in the age of the all-pervasive internet?
As brands worked to build themselves out into social media personalities, individuals on social media worked to simplify and distil their personalities into easily understandable personal brands.
At an exhibition in Stockholm in 1968, the American pop art pioneer Andy Warhol wrote: ‘In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.’ Back then it was an inconceivable, outrageous idea but now reality has caught up. There are no socially acknowledged benchmarks for fame. Virality can propel anyone to instant fame in a blaze of glory. Then, the next dud video takes the star back to relative anonymity.
Now, a run of successful self-shot videos can propel an individual to the orbit of a celebrity creator multi-millionaire. In Warhol’s time, fame was awarded to a few by a small set of gatekeepers -editors, publishers, culture builders, public relations folks. You had to be admitted. Achievement led to admission. And admission, in turn, led to achievement. There was no way to storm the gates. Today, a single, super-fast, ever-mutating social media app with Chinese ownership with an inscrutable algorithm is the biggest fame engine.Also read: The greatest challenge with content creation is that every few months you have to reinvent yourself: Dolly Singh
The science of fame building in terms of network has been very sharply summarised by Albert-László Barabási in his book The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success.
“A few years ago, physicist César Hidalgo and his team devised a way to rank the most famous people of all time. The criterion used for the Pantheon project was the number of languages a person’s Wikipedia pages appear in. The most famous musician? Jimi Hendrix. The most famous American? Martin Luther King Jr. Perhaps inevitably, the classical Greek philosopher Aristotle heads the entire list.
Among celebrities, reality-television star Kim Kardashian comes 14th, although her fame clearly outweighs any recorded achievement “ wrote Mark Buchanan in his review in Nature, the leading science journal
TikTok is not charmed by prior celebrity stature. Anyone has the potential to go viral on TikTok. Its algorithm works on what’s called a ‘content graph’, looking at what folks previously engaged with, rather than a ‘social graph’ – based on followership. That makes it possible for a video to go super-viral from very ordinary origins.
TikTok’s rise is meteoric. Yes, it’s creating a new generation of celebrities – many of whom are younger than the YouTubers who came before them. But the rise of TikTok has wider ramifications, arising from the fact that it was made by, and is still owned by, a Chinese company.
The way we consume content is closely linked to our lifestyles. Today, we live in an on-demand economy. When we care, we share. Mobility is on demand be it Uber, Lyft or Grab. Tinder, Bumble, Raya help us date. Music on demand is a rage be it Spotify or Apple Music. We eat on demand with Uber Eats, Deliveroo, Swiggy or Zomato. We watch content on demand and YouTube is a universe of its own. But there is also Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. We rate services and value experiences. This consumer pays for exactly what he wants and when he wants it. This is consumption maximisation and not demand minimalism. The new ‘on demand’ consumer refuses to pay for anything not needed. We increasingly cut the cord from cable TV companies and use ad blockers.Also read: Deinfluencing, or the art of negative reviewsTherefore, the idea of bringing advertising closer to entertainment and pop culture was always a theoretical no brainer but never a practical choice of the mainstream players. The big spenders invested in branded content as a fad. Through till Y2K, the global mainline agencies carried the mental baggage of the golden era of print and television.
There is no denying that, following the success of campaigns such as BMW Films many similar attempts by brands and talented creatives resulted in failure.
Meanwhile Facebook and then Instagram grew at a never before seen pace.
Then, into such a playing field walked in TikTok.
In Jan 2013, about a year after Zhang Yiming founded ByteDance, a video sharing platform Vine, that was TikTok’s spiritual forefather, came into existence. Every video on Vine had to be 6.4 seconds or less. It gave birth to many of online video’s biggest stars, and had a longer-lasting effect much beyond its actual existence. Without Vine, we wouldn’t have the stars Shawn Mendes, Jake Paul, or Lele Pons. But it was ahead of its time, when social media wasn’t the established entertainment platform.Also read: Why every business needs a digital marketing agenda
Traditional media snootily dismissed any stars of the small screen then with the moniker ‘e-celebrities’ or ‘social media stars.’ This was before YouTubers presented TV shows, sold out stadiums on tours, and topped the music charts.
Vine became a fountain of creativity. Vine’s format had an essential similarity to newspaper comics. There was a set up and pay off in 3 to 4 frames, at best. If you loved it, you’d make it a daily fixture. If you didn’t like it, you hadn’t invested much time in it anyways. Short-form content had never been done, and a whole crop of people learned how to make entertaining content in 6.4 seconds.
Two interconnected things in particular matter– the length of the videos, and the algorithm used to serve up those videos. The length played off the attention spans helping in an era of multi-tasking distractions.
Think about the amount of content it’s possible to consume in an hour on TikTok. If each video lasts 60 seconds maximum, that’s 60 videos, back-to-back, encountering 60 new faces and opening a door into their world – and an opportunity to follow them further and propel them to superstardom. Contrast that to YouTube, where the average length of videos is getting longer and longer hence harder to build a following.
What grabs attention immediately and comes with a novel twist provides a dopamine rush that’ll carry you through to the next video and your fingertips in an endless scroll can flick by at will.
An abundance of information is correlated with exhausting our attention while our urge for newness causes us to collectively switch topics more rapidly.
In the new world of TikTok, Andy Warhol’s infamous 15 minutes of fame have, quite literally, become 15 seconds.
And we have just begun. Shubhranshu Singh is vice president, marketing - domestic & IB, CVBU, Tata Motors. He writes Simply Speaking, a weekly column on Storyboard18. Views expressed are personal.