RFI : You write that TikTok’s recipe for economic success is its ultra-personalized video feed. How original is it?

Oceane Smith : The particular thread at TikTok is this thread of videos which are displayed continuously and which are selected not by the user on the basis of their subscriptions (which is what the other platforms do) but on an algorithm which will choose itself the videos that will be offered to the user according to the interests it perceives. It can be influenced by the likes », the accounts we follow, but also mainly by the time we spend on videos. The user gives the reins to the algorithm to suggest what he is going to watch.

You say Facebook and Instagram know about our outer life. And TikTok, our inner life…

Yes, that’s the feeling of one of the users I interviewed who had a rather special relationship with this application. She feels like she really found her community, or rather that TikTok found her community for her.

TikTok is on the rise, but its financial results are still very opaque. We are reduced to estimates. What do we know?

ByteDance, parent company of TikTok, is not listed on the stock exchange so it has no obligation to publish its results. We know that advertising results are growing strongly.TikTok will hit $15.2 billion in global ad revenue in 2023, according to Warc Media. But TikTok also spends a lot of money on its development. From what we know, the company is not yet profitable.

In your book, you come back to the story of this economic success. For the record, this is not the first platform to have embarked on the concept of full-screen video. One of the pioneers was French…

Indeed, her name was Mindie. It was created by three students who had decided to launch a short video application, in full screen, adapted to the iPhone. At the time, it was innovative to take the whole screen. There was also Vine, but it disappeared after it was taken over by Twitter. Mindie then inspired Musical.ly, which was later acquired by ByteDance, resulting in TikTok.

One thing leading to another, it was the Chinese who picked up the idea…

That’s it, and they implemented it, because it also needed that ability to scale this app, make it global, and give it the success it has today.

The idea flourished in the 2010s with ByteDance founder-turned-multibillionaire Zhang Yimin. Who is he ?

He studied computer science and he quickly fell in love with American tech entrepreneurs. He decided to follow in their footsteps with one certainty: in the world of future platforms, at least in his time, it would no longer be the users who search for the content, but it would be the content that would find the users. He launched a news aggregator, Toutiao, which had great success in China before switching to short video with the Douyin app which is currently the equivalent of TikTok for Chinese users.

You talk about a strong culture of secrecy in this company. Everything happens in China and everything is decided in China…

TikTok is based in several countries in Europe. For example, they are established in Ireland, like many tech companies. They also have quarters in Singapore. But what I learned from speaking with employees, especially European and American, is that there are very regular exchanges on important decision points with ByteDance employees who are in China. It’s a global company, but the decisions are made in China.

This desire to export beyond the borders of China worries Western countries who accuse TikTok of looting personal data. Does this concern TikTok?

In any case, they decided to take decisions to reassure Western countries. In Europe, they announced that they would store user data locally. It is exactly the same project that is underway in the United States with Project Texas. Its survival in these markets is in question. This is particularly seen in the United States where the Biden government is lobbying and even considering a comprehensive ban on the country.

Donald Trump also tried it, he rather broke his teeth…

It was just before the 2020 election. It failed because China quickly showed its teeth by tightening export rules for companies like TikTok that use AI technologies. The Chinese platform could therefore not be sold to an American company as Donald Trump would have wanted.

Another question that challenges at the international level: the remuneration of content producers. For example, in Senegal, the Restic (Gathering of companies in the information and communication technology sector) has decided to file a complaint against TikTokpartly for this reason…

This is a question that is quite fundamental and that comes up more and more in the debates of creators, since they ultimately provide the content offered by the platform, which then allows it to offer advertising revenue. Several applications have also launched into short video: YouTube, Instagram, Facebook. There is therefore a form of competition between these companies which must keep content creators with them. And so, in certain markets such as France or the United States, TikTok increases the remuneration of content creators. This is not yet the case in Africa.

A creative economy has arisen around TikTok and other platforms. But is the cake big enough? Many young people invest their time to try to earn money…

There are several ways content creators can fund themselves. There is the funding offered by the platforms, but which constitutes a small part, in this case for the creators of short videos. There is sponsored content where brands will offer products to creators who will promote them for a fee. That is the main financial windfall for these creators. Today, what we observe is that a lot of companies are shifting their advertising expenditure to the platforms because that is where the users are today, at least the young people. Afterwards, we must remain realistic, there is a fairly minor part of content creators who really live from this activity and who earn a substantial income without having a professional activity.

Cover of the book Le Système TikTok (Éditions du Rocher) by Océane Herrero, journalist at Politico Europe. © Editions du Rocher

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