Business Economy

The unique dance of TikTok

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on November 08, 2021

The book gets under the skin of ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming and dissects his rise

Tik-Tok is a phenomenon - a subculture - that has baffled marketers and sociologists alike. Why did this Chinese short videos app, with rather low- brow content, become such a global obsession, not just confined to teenagers but adults too?

Other platforms such as YouTube and Facebook allowed video content creation, but it was TikTok that truly democratised the art of making and sharing videos, and made it an utterly fun, zany thing. It may be banned in India, where it gathered 200 million users, many of whom became celebrities thanks to the platform, but despite losing its biggest market, Tik Tok is still the fastest growing tech company in the world.

In Attention Factory, Matthew Brennan, founder of China Channel, which organises China’s largest WeChat digital marketing conference, has dived deep into the success of TikTok (known in China as Douyin). Brennan who has been based in China for over 16 years and has been focussed on understanding China’s internet and tech innovation, brings loving research into this book, which is packed with interviews of employees of ByteDance, the company behind TikTok, as well as competitors, investors and a host of people to put together a compelling narrative of how this app got such a massive following worldwide.

What makes this book so authoritative is that Brennan has personally used ByteDance’s product suite extensively, and also that he comes to this story with a strong foundational understanding of how the Chinese internet economy operates and a deep knowledge of ByteDance’s rival, Tencent.

Although a fascinating read – especially the sections on the personality of Zhang Yiming, the founder of ByteDance, it’s not a book you can read in one sitting.  For, often it gets technical when it gets into details like how click farms operate, how the recommendation algorithms work – which actually is at the core of TikTok’s success - and comparative analysis of tools and features versus rival apps.  Brennan packs the book with a lot of charts and presentations, so there is much to assimilate and absorb.  

But mind you, the book is not all just about analysing the product. It gets deep into the people side as well. So apart from fleshing out Yiming’s personality with fascinating anecdotes about the man, it actually gets into a lot of detail about the talent and team at ByteDance and how they influenced the app’s journey.

The book is divided into two sections.  The first part is the back end, which devotes a lot of time to understanding Yiming’s persona, right from his childhood to college, how he sets up ByteDance in 2012 after stints at Microsoft and Twitter clone Fanfou, and the company’s gradual evolution, from making test products like Hilarious Goofy Pics to Implied Jokes (which actually made it difficult for it to get funding) to its eventual flagships. There is also a lot of context setting about global developments – where search engine development was going, how internet information distribution was moving, and so on.  So, as we read about Byte Dance’s evolution, parallelly we travel with Facebook’s journey, get to know what Google, Sina Weibo, Tencent, Instagram et al are up to.

Part Two – which Brennan terms the “Front End” takes us on a global tour, Japan, Europe and Silicon Valley,  and is a lot about the short video format, the integration of musical.ly (which Byte Dance acquired), and the international success of the impossible to ignore app.   

Yiming comes across as an utterly fascinating unique personality and Brennan really gets under his skin. He writes, “Yiming runs his life as if it were a software product undergoing constant tests and iterations to reach optimization . To that end, he has created a set of formulas that help make life choices..”

For instance, Brennan describes how Yiming chooses his college. Unlike most people who would consult with parents and peers and do some evaluation and research on the college pedigree and such, Yiming ruthlessly examined what outcomes were important to him. He narrows it down to four – finding a girlfriend (which he decides would be tough in a science-based university which would have an imbalanced gender ratio), being near the ocean in order to enjoy appetising seafood, has to be far from his hometown, and should snow in winter. There is only one university – Nankai – that satisfies these four criteria so there he goes. While a good college, for most students it would not be a top choice, points out Brennan, adding that this anecdote reveals Yiming’s decision-making process.   

Through the book, we see examples of Yiming taking extraordinary decisions that set him apart from the norm. 

But the story of Byte Dance, which has forayed into gaming, edtech and so on is far from over. Even as this review was getting written, Zhang Yiming has stepped down from the company’s board and the business is going to be restructured. As Brennan himself says, “One thing I’m sure of, this won’t be the last book written about the company.”

Attention Factory: The Story of TikTok & China’s ByteDance

Mathew Brennan

Westland Books

Rs 399; 245 pages

Check this book out on Amazon

Published on November 08, 2021

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