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Ideas Social Media

The rise and fall of Tik Tok in India

Rushi Bhavsar

TikTok, perhaps the most hyped social media platform of 2018, is charting its own path to success, though it hasn’t managed to avoid all of the pitfalls dogging the industry. According to Sensor Tower, TikTok was the most downloaded iPhone app worldwide with 45.8 million downloads in the first quarter of 2019 (more than Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram). This growth has been fueled by advertising. Over the same period, nearly 13% of app ads seen by users of Facebook's Android app were for TIkTok. The company’s reliance on paid growth may be a necessary departure from past social network strategies pinned on organic growth - they are a relative newcomer in a landscape of dominant players. 

One of the most remarkable, yet under-discussed aspects of TikTok's success has been the app's ability to capture a huge swathe of users from rural and semi-urban India, a population of nearly a billion users who have only just begun to use the internet for entertainment. More than 40% (25MM) of TikTok's 61MM monthly active users (MAU) are in India, and the app is rapidly catching up to both Facebook and Instagram in terms of stickiness (DAU/MAU ratio) and time spent. The app has grown so influential in India that the Madras high court recently banned the app. The court cited pornographic content as its reason, however some believe the decision was influenced in part by the upcoming national elections in India, the first election cycle in India to be influenced heavily by social media.

TikTok’s surge into the zeitgeist is worthy of close appraisal. The app’s success raises a series of important questions — from how the world deals with the global expansion of huge Chinese tech companies, to why housewives from small town India and college kids across the U.S. are spending upwards of 30 minutes a day watching a rapid succession of 15 second video clips. 

What makes TikTok unique, As Eugene Wei hypothesizes here, is its machine learning driven default feed. This algorithmic curation solves two problems that often plague platforms driven by user generated content:

  1. The cold start problem: i.e. how to show users what they may be interested in without having them spend time onboarding and following people they don't know? (like Twitter)

  2. Winner take all issues: how do we prevent early adopters from building the largest follower bases and having an outsize effect on every new user? (like YouTube)

The algorithmic nature of TikTok's default feed means that what you see isn't driven by whom you follow, but what you like. TikTok uses location data as a starting point, and then learns user preferences based on the content in the videos. The simple video-only interface for the app makes it far less elaborate when compared to Facebook or Twitter, and the algorithmic, location driven nature of the feed allows users in rural India to find relatable vernacular language content. This content is often raw, sans filters, and "uncute" as opposed to a platform like Instagram — more geared towards conspicuous consumption and Tier 1 India.

For advertisers, especially in India, TikTok may represent the platonic ideal of a platform for running video ads — the app’s feed consists of short form videos, with users accustomed to content from people they don't know or follow. Additionally, because TikTok videos are heavily driven by music, most watching happens with the sound turned on, a marked improvement over autoplay video ads on other platforms. The platform is already rolling out a biddable ad platform and early campaigns with TikTok in India have shown significant success. It remains to be seen what the impact of the ban will be, though at the time of writing, ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company) had just announced a $1 billion dollar investment in India).