November 8, 2023
April 6, 2022

TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, and The Battle for Algorithmic Attention

Joe Hall
Co-Founder & Chief Product Officer

TikTok is different.

The traditional line of thinking for YouTube, Instagram, and all the other social networks is to make content for your followers. Not so on TikTok.

A new line of thinking has arisen within the ranks of the TikTok-erati that says, "Make content for the people who are not your followers." Why? Because the goal is to go viral and on TikTok, anyone can.

And not just anyone, but anything. TikTok has the ability to give anything its 15 minutes of fame. It's a meme machine that spreads cultural trends and behaviors at an unprecedented pace. Just try to keep up. It's not easy.

"TikTok is an insatiable sorting algorithm that will eventually turn all human behaviour into trending content," says Ryan Broderick, creator of the newsletter Garbage Day (The Sydney Morning Herald).

TikTok's algorithm intentionally exposes viewers to videos that don't have a "huge number of likes" (TikTok Newsroom). It's working, and it's unlocking massive attention, which is why creators have noticed TikTok is different.

But they aren't the only ones who have noticed. TikTok has become so successful that Instagram launched its competitive product, Reels, in 2020, and YouTube launched its competitive product, Shorts, in 2021 (which recently passed 5 trillion views). They can copy features, but can they copy the algorithm? More on this later.

As other social networks attempt to beat TikTok at its own game, TikTok is coming after their advertising revenue.

Recently, TikTok increased its maximum video length to 10 minutes taking direct aim at YouTube (The Verge). Longer videos mean more watch time, and, according to social media consultant Matt Navarra, this will make the content "easier to monetize". With TikTok's aiming to drive revenue from $4 billion in 2021 to $12 billion in 2022, the move makes sense.

Or does it? There is a risk. Longer videos could actually work against TikTok.

The Verge's James Vincent says, "A switch to longer content may hurt the firm by limiting the amount of data it can collect on users' watching habits, which is what allows it to customize the algorithms it uses to attract users in the first place." (The Verge).

The data is the fuel that feeds the machine. But you can't copy the algorithm if you don't have quality inputs.

That's why back at Meta, the Instagram team is testing changes that would incorporate posts, reels, and stories into a single, full-screen, swipeable, and consolidated feed. This would mirror interaction patterns that have taken hold since the rise of TikTok, but even more importantly, this would provide stronger signals to feed into the Instagram algorithm.

With little to no more features to copy, this isn't about the features anymore; this is about providing the right inputs to the algorithm. Because, as we've learned, it's the algorithm that drives attention in today's world. And that's what Instagram is trying to copy.

Instagram is playing to win. How serious is YouTube? At the moment, it seems like not very, but time will tell. After all, just surpassed as the most visited domain in the world in 2021 (Inc), perhaps signaling a sea change of how consumers use technology to search and discover. One thing is certain: If YouTube (Alphabet) truly wants to compete for the future, it's going to have to move much more quickly.

TikTok is currently launching stories, with still images to come next. Instagram is likely to consolidate its products into a single feed and mirror the TikTok experience. YouTube continues to experiment in short-form content.

All the "social" networks are converging as they vie for attention. TikTok is different, but one question remains: Can it last?

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