TikTok is a big success story but also a big political issue. A lesser-known part is how TikTok is disrupting the social network model in its virality. It reminds me of the old debate, which is more important, personal interests or social networks.
Is it possible that the traditional social network concept has reached its limits? Is the TikTok model changing the whole social platform landscape?
Over 15 years ago, a small team and I started what was probably the first social network data analytics company in the world (Xtract). This was well before the success of Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. We started to work with different kinds of companies that had some social connection data, including telco and online services. We made tools to analyze the data with the intent of targeting marketing activities.
Our software analyzed billions, even trillions of data points, and we did research, too, on how influence in social networks works. Why would people be influenced by other people to buy something, churn or become active users? The outcome was that it was not only the influencer or social network that mattered. It depended also on the context, for example, which product was in question. It is quite natural to understand how one person can influence you on which car to buy, and another person which books you read, and sometimes your own opinion might matter more than that of your social network.
There are many ways to analyze consumer behavior to understand preferences and how best to profile them. Profiling can be based on all kinds of available data, but we can divide it into four main categories:
Demographics (e.g. age, gender, living area, education)
Behavior (products you use and buy, newspapers you read, music and movies you like, hobbies, etc.)
Social network (whom you are connected to and how strongly)
Psychometrics (e.g. personality types).
Social network services have been a big success story during the last 15 years because they have been able to capture user’s time and also advertisers. Social graphs play a vital role in those services, i.e. people share content with their contacts and its how things spread among the users.
Now we come back to TikTok’s model. It has snowballed, with over 500 million users globally. But TikTok is not really a social network service, even though virality is at its core. People are sharing videos, not primarily to their social network, but instead based on categories and hashtags. Users have excellent tools to make their videos, and they can utilize existing ideas and materials, e.g. duets with other videos, and then share them. They can also see how different categories and hashtags get views and also target their videos based on this and in that way to utilize ‘trends’.
This model also gives much more opportunities to new users to attract lots of viewers. In the traditional social network, it takes a time to get contacts and followers. And in the conventional video services (like YouTube) the algorithms favor those who have published for a long time and amassed a large number of views. It is sometimes said the Chinese business model with less respect to IPRs and copyrights allows everyone, every day to take the latest ideas and products and try to make them better for tomorrow. TikTok, in a way, follows that principle, everyone can see the trending content and utilize it to build his or her own success.
This is not only relevant for TikTok and videos. In a recent discussion with the chief scientists of our earlier data analytics company, we came back to the old theories on how personal interests and social networks drive behavior and could we see TikTok phenomena in some other services too.
We concluded that actually, we see limits in social networks in having discussions about interesting topics. For example, on Facebook, your discussions have been limited mainly to people who are your contacts. If you have a special interest area, after a few years with the same friends, it is not so fruitful to discuss there anymore. Hashtags don’t work on Facebook. It is the same issue in many social networking services, including LinkedIn. On Twitter, you can better follow specific topics. Still, it has so many messages that also there you must typically focus on the most popular messages from those who have a lot of followers.
Then we come to another problem of social networks. They have a lot of fake profiles, and people’s networks have been diluted when they have accepted too many friends. So, social network services have a dual problem: they limit your discussions and available content, and they don’t actually represent your real network. For example, if asked by each of your LinkedIn contacts if you would make an introduction to a close contact for each of them? I couldn’t do it because my network is so extensive, and I don’t know all my contacts well enough. When we can only have one network in a service, it includes too many connections for multiple purposes, like building real trust, but too few contacts for special interest area topics.
Could this mean that TikTok is not the only video platform that is a problem for many politicians, but the first sign of a new type of internet service to come? Could we start seeing more services that can combine people’s different interests better, help to get attention to interesting content without a huge follower base and enable us to create social networks around different interest areas and purposes? We would also need services where you can build trust networks for various purposes. Who are people you can recommend, who you trust to get business introductions, who you want to network with for your work, and what is your real personal trust network?
Maybe we will soon step into a post-social-network time that tries to better combine natural behavior with personal interests and different networks for different purposes. This can mean, we see two types of networks: 1) those that enable you to focus on your interests whether music, literature, science, special hobby or whatever; 2) real trust networks for different purposes, for business, personal life, hobbies and personal interests. The current social networks are now too much of everything and too little of anything.