It’s been only three years since TikTok landed in the US, and its success is unparalleled. The Chinese ByteDance-owned app garners around 100 million active users in the country, with most of them under the age of 40. With its short videos, its fantastic selection algorithm, and its strategy to increase the duration of the posted videos up to three minutes, TikTok is getting ready to face-off with well-established social media platforms such as the also video-based app YouTube. While those tech moguls try to use envelopment strategies to suffocate TikTok, the app is thriving among young users and companies. As of now, we doubt that any amount of “copy and wait” will be sufficient to crush TikTok.
The then 15- to 60-second video platform was founded in late 2017 and merged with Musical.ly in August 2018. Since its founding the app has faced several obstacles, such as the controversial ban that former President Trump wanted to impose on TikTok a year ago. The ban did not go through, and TikTok continued business as usual. But now, the platform is entering a new arena. The app is launching a new feature to allow videos to be longer, up to three minutes. The design puts it in direct competition with YouTube and Facebook-owned Instagram’s Instagram TV feature. Both provide the tools to creators to upload longer videos instead of having to divide them into several clips. With TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube offering the same tools, it could just become a battle over network effects—which app has more “friends” in it to guarantee new users.
YouTube, which still has over 2 billion active monthly users, would be the obvious winner. What’s more, the Alphabet-owned platform is fighting back and has rolled out Shorts, a feature that allows users to upload 15-second videos adding music. But that would work as a pure envelopment strategy and we would have to assume that most TikTok users are also YouTube users. However, the answer is not as obvious. TikTok has become the app of a generation and perhaps the user base is not that common. Popular among GenZ, TikTok aligns perfectly with this generation’s way of interacting. It’s fun, fast, uncomplicated, and ironic. While Instagram and YouTube were the apps for millennials, TikTok is the one for GenZers. Millennials on Instagram needed to show life at its best—white beaches, perfect vacations, fun times. But the generation after them wants to see life as it is, not a glossier side of it. That’s why on TikTok—and partially on GenZ’s Instagram accounts—one can find a wider variety of content, from users sharing their private thoughts and feelings, without makeup, to funny dancing videos filled with filters. The grip TikTok has over a large percentage of the population is evident. An example is how the app is being used to find jobs, with GenZers sharing their resumes as videos to get hired, as reported by the New York Times. But TikTok is not the only enemy YouTube has. Amazon-owned Twitch is also competing with the video platform as the go-to place for streamers.
The social media wars have just begun. The most used strategies are either acquisitions or envelopment techniques: platforms copying the same features other social media platforms use and hoping to capitalize on their network effects. One example is the stories feature, with pictures or videos being posted online and disappearing a few hours later. It started with Snapchat, then Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp followed. And even Linkedin jumped in. Now we see the same in the video space. Facebook already copied TikTok with its platform Lasso, which was not very successful. Now, YouTube is doing the same.
When all apps offer the same, the winner stems from a combination of network effects, usability, and luck. In short videos, Instagram and YouTube are larger than TikTok, but the latter is the preferred platform among a generation that is growing up and gaining acquisition power. Instagram was able to crash Snapchat somewhat when it integrated Snapchat’s features into the app, but the same segment of the population—millennials—was using both platforms at the time and most Snapchat users also had Instagram accounts. TikTok is different and now has an advantage in terms of network effects—who isn’t on the app these days? But the power of these can vary because of the “influencer effect”: depending on which creators decide to stay on one platform or the other they will carry behind them large numbers of followers. For that reason, both platforms are offering packages to move influencers to their apps.
We have yet to see if YouTube and Facebook’s envelopment strategies succeed. But, as of now, we wouldn’t be surprised if they failed in the short term. TikTok is GenZ and GenZ is the present.