I have a terrible secret – one which would send shivers down the spines of any book lover.
I write in books.
Not just in pencil. In pen. I make notes down margins. I underline passages. I wet the pages with ink. And I push impressions into subsequent pages.
It is part and parcel of how I deconstruct a book. I write marginalia, and then transfer of my thoughts into a separate document for later. I tend to find that the more notes I make, the more interesting, informative, or thought provoking I find the text. Equally, if a text is stonkingly bad, I’ll also write plenty of notes, usually less complementary.
In Chris Stokel-Walker’s 2021 Book, TikTok Boom: China’s Dynamite App and the Superpower Race for Social Media, I certainly made plenty of notes. If you’re looking for a TL;DR, the notes were good.
A rant about reviewing
Alongside the fact I write in books, I’m objectively a bad reviewer. I review things in a personal capacity. Why did I pick it up? Did it nourish my intellectual curiosity? What did I find was missing? How does it interact with my research area? It allows me to put a spin on things and talk about what the book did for me. I do this mostly because I write these reviews for myself, and the (so called) ‘objective’ broad strokes thrown about in other reviews don’t do it for me. What is a review other than an advanced pros and cons list? And pros and cons lists are always personal. So why pretend and hide it?
I also found after this review which was still the blog’s most visited page after my Home and About pages) that some people seemingly like the style. So I’ll roll with it. It is a bit esoteric, but it is my blog. What are you going to do, scream at me like every editor does when I submit something that’s well-over the arbitrary 800-word limit? The same limit the media have implemented in the belief that anything over that 800 words will blow your tiny-minds you and make you switch off? Dear reader, I think much more of you than that.
So, this review comes with a caveat. If I disliked it, it doesn’t mean it was bad, if I found it useful, it doesn’t mean it’s great either.
Why (and from what perspective) did I read this book?
So why did I read this book? Well, it was a product of circumstance. I was doing a dive into the effects of short-form video on political cultures and subsequent issues of mental health and globalisation of art forms, and at the same time the author of this book popped up on my radar after asking for an interview. The book seemed to fit the bill for what I was looking for at the time, so put in a pre-order.
I am, or rather was, someone was deeply suspicious of TikTok. Not in the ‘China Hawk’ kinda way (TikTok is built by Chinese developer ByteDance), but rather with concerns everyone should have when an app is populated by a young demographic exposed to an uncritical view of the wider internet. A theme that fits within my wider content moderation research interest. TikTok’s audience are a group who, generally speaking, have been found to be naïve and gullible when it comes to viewing malicious content.
Searching news about TikTok Reports and you’ll find a reservoir full of negative headlines. From TikTok hosting content promoting alt-right or terrorist ideologies on the platform (Wells, 2019; Weimann & Masri, 2020; Manavis, 2020); sexualisation of underaged users (Cox, 2018); to negative impacts on mental health through the promotion of unrealistic perceptions of body image found within influencer culture (Lowe-Calverley & Grieve, 2021). When you look at headlines like these, any normal person would have valid concerns that the platform represents a continuation of current issues found within social media.
But the troubles do not stop there. There are arguments that TikTok is built from the ground up to algorithmically ramp up negative effects – Hyper-targeting damaging, but addictive, content towards the more vulnerable demographics found online. Just opening up the app, and you’ll be hit with a wall of content, not from your friends (and thus content isn’t mediated by your familiars), but by what the feed’s algorithm thinks will keep you on the app the longest. This content often has been found to be, let’s say, not great for 13–18-year-olds wellbeing.
But at the same time, the platform has spawned its own unique and fast paced culture. One which should not be viewed only through the lens of negative online effects. The app, for many young people, is exciting and world changing in its own way. From giving a younger generation their own public sphere to talk politics, unmediated from older generations: giving us online events from political dances, to embarrassing Trump through mass-fake registration drives. This would suggest that there’s something positive about TikTok. It’s giving younger generations an important platform of expression (Literat, 2021).
Like Facebook for those of my age range, when it was a younger platform and before it became normalised by boomers. I remember how Facebook was the app you turned to when you wanted to create a new student movement – such as the 2010 student protests. You could make similar comparisons to a range of new technologies. From BBS boards to even Sound System culture of the 1950s. Give the youth a platform, let them ruin riot, and you see wonderful creative political action.
In short, this dichotomy between negative impacts and fruitful self-expressions piqued my interest from my prior work on political representation on social media platforms. What do you do when you have a platform like TikTok? Do you curb it? Let it ruin wild? Or do you try and find some healthy middle-ground with content moderation with state oversight?
So, in sum, I wanted to know more. And outside the library of books about ‘hacking’ the algorithm or other guides on how to be an influencers, there’s not much long-form content out there on the platform. Thus, TikTok Boom, was an obvious read.
The book in brief
While the title might suggest a focus on TikTok, the book is somewhat less about the app itself, but rather how it came to be. The book tells a tale of how a Chinese company by the name of ByteDance broke into the west. The first for a media technology company from the east in a market dominated by Silicon Valley. As such, it suggests how ByteDance, and its billionaire CEO, Zhang Yiming, paves the way for the potential new norm of Chinese-led media platforms in the west, and what this could mean for digital society.
It starts with where the app came from, its forerunners in the short-video market, Vine, and what they did wrong. It talks about how ByteDance took this idea for a platform, but mixed it with Zhang’s pre-existing and extremely powerful recommendation algorithm from Toutiao, one of ByteDance’s previous apps developed as a news aggregator. Taoutio’s success, much like TikTok, rests not just in the Apps functionality, but by the content recommendation algorithm. This book positions that this recommendation algorithm should be taking most credit for the success of TikTok.
The details of how the app works provides a fascinating read, and I found to be written in a superbly accessible format – a difficult feat when writing about tech these days. Although even since the publication of the book, there have been some changes such as an expansion of the maximum length of the video. But this does very little to distract from the book’s core messages.
In short, why is TikTok such a breakthrough success? According to this book, we can talk about five key points:
- The product: A combination of a powerful recommendation algorithm, and an accessible and immersive video platform
- Audience & community management: A new younger generation with the time to be creative and without the hang-ups of a pre-existing elite creative class hogging the limelight
- Zhang’s business acumen
- Aggressive expansion: marketing, celebrity endorsements, and acquisition of other apps
- Timing. Lockdown in many parts of the world kept users glued to their phones for longer, just as the app started to gain popularity.
The above list reads like any success story from any number of business study books. And it’s not a coincidence, Zhang took time to read and study the philosophy of western business leaders which the CEO sought to emulate. Reading, almost religiously, books by Steve Jobs and their ilk to replicate their success. It seems it worked.
Time will tell if other companies from the east can replicate the success, but this story of growth was, to say the least, eye opening. I’m pretty sure there are eyes in Silicon Valley which are paying close attention, which they certainly are, either seeking to launch competing platforms or incorporate parts of TikTok into their own apps.
Is TikTok dangerous?
Refreshingly, Stokel-Walker doesn’t jump into TikTok as a natively bad thing, instead he explores some of the concerns raised by a Chinese company having data on western citizens, concluding that while some engineering and technical data is sent back to China for the software engineers, the platform isn’t a ‘sleeper-agent’ (p.250). That being said, there is certainly some evidence of the platform seeking to remove political content, especially relating to Uyghur Muslims, Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, and also issues outside of China such as Northern Ireland and Ukraine. A real concern in light of the app’s Chinese sibling, Douyin, having a ‘positive energy’ page which showcases content promoting the ruling Chinese Communist Party. And while there is little evidence that the app is seeking to actively control the message of its western users, the fact this can happen should put shivers down the spine of anyone reading about governments seeking to control social media content on any platform.
This speaks to another one of the books wider points. TikTok is a global platform which is situated in a complex and multi-layered world. When culture does not translate well, the platform is often in the firing line. Examples of this are dance routines videos shot outside religiously sensitive locations causing uproar in local media and even causing some sites to put up signs saying ‘TikTok banned’. Likewise, when border disputes between one nation and China fires up, TikTok too finds itself in targets. When the Chinese-Indian border skirmishes began, the app was banned in India, losing the app millions of users.
These global cultural tensions remind me of the importance and relevancy of Appadurai’s article Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy (1990), and the implications of a globalised media is still very poignant in the social media age. And while this book is very much not focused on the academic audience, I’m somewhat surprised with how many points TikTok Boom hits with this nearly 32-year-old article. In some ways, it makes me disappointed the book doesn’t hit on these texts, but I know that isn’t what this book is about – no matter how much I want it to be.
Then there’s the question of data. There are certainly concerns that the apps data on western users could be requested by the Chinese state. However, the book claims it is not the data or culture you should be worried about. While maliciously scraped data is a concern, there are greater issues at hand. Alongside the issues of controlling political content, the author almost shakes the reader and tells them “It’s not about the data, it’s about the algorithm, stupid.”
All this focus on creating a more immersive platform by the company is also creating a more addictive one – with all the problems that comes with that. But, to me, these are not issues immune to TikTok. Video games likewise have been accused of making people addicted (Cieslak, 2021) amongst a range of other issues. So many of these issues aren’t a TikTok problem, they’re an internet problem. And if you want to think about *why* a platform is willing and able to deploy ‘dark patterns’ (Fitton, 2021) to keep users hooked – we need to consider the wider issues of neoliberalism, and the power imbalance between users and platforms.
But the problems surrounding the app don’t stop there. While the technology behind the platform scaled well, the content moderation did not. It is not just the technology of contend moderation the platform has to contend with, but also huge disparities in global or even demographic values. “What may could be considered a playful, joyous and innocent dance by a 15-year old can be thought of as something altogether more sexual by older audiences” (p.155) the book considers. The debate about content moderation in the book highlights the issues raised by Gillespie (2018): content moderation is difficult, complicated, and there’s rarely a rule which suits or matches all contexts. It is a topic covered by the book which is worth reading about.
This leaves me to ask myself, with the information provided here, is TikTok dangerous? Yes. BUT so is every other platform, so is the internet, even if we lived in the 1990s dream of a super-liberal information super-highway. It is just that the challenges are different, the contexts too. In sum my main takeaway is that the sooner we understand that every digital platform is not *good* or *evil*, and the sooner we understand the necessity of oversight and management, the better.
The style of the book
TikTok Boom provides the reader with a series of over thirty short chapters. These not only make a huge range of topics digestible, but they also demonstrate in their own way, why such short form content has proved to be a massive success. By accident or design. It is easy to pick up and jump in without the commitment of a longer read. But you carry on reading anyway.
I really liked this book. It is an exemplar of long-form journalism that you will never get in an 800-word article (or a 30-second video, for that matter). Stokel-Walker creates a wonderful case study into TikTok that is layered with years as a tech and culture journalist. You can’t go out and commission a book like this from some random journalist – this is a book written with years of journalism experience in the area, and it shows.
This of course means it’s non-academic. Some in my circles would scoff at that. “Where’s the theoretical hook?” or “GOOD LORD, WHERE IS THIS THERORY?!?” They’d shout. Admittedly I do some of that later (see below), but that isn’t the point. For those studying in the area, it provides a narrative about how apps like this come about. And narratives start the process of thinking about core issues that need later exploration. That has value.
What wish the book had
Ahh, the fun section of the review. The pedantry. Or as Boris Johnson thinks of it, Keir Starmer’s Forensic dissection time. So ok, what do I wish this book had, or in what ways should I be critical?
Firstly, Chris, if you’re reading this. Please. Please. Please. Be consistent with the figures. There are times when the reader encounters a confusing mix of comparative stats. For example, on page 120 there is a section which explains usership stats and age demographics, while in other sections there’s simply some annoying choices of data presentation like “four in 10” (p.195). I’m not even sure if this is a common writing style in journalism, but PLEASE CHRIS STOP THIS.
Relaying to the discussion on globalisation, I’d love to see what the author has to say in relation to some of these classic works on culture and global media. I’ve actually decided that if Chris is reading this, he can ignore the comments about figures. I want to hear more on globalised media and how TikTok intersects with the works of not just Appaduri (1990), but also McLuhan’s (1964) global village, or theories of media imperialism (coined by those such as Schramm, Mattelart, Sparks, and Mattos), and the wider concerns of Homogenisation or Heterogenization of culture in the age of a single (but highly-targeted) recommendation algorithm. I really do think the author has so much they could say on this.
I would have also liked to have seen is a bit more comparison. After speaking with policy teams from a range of platforms, each of them claim to have the most intelligent and accurate recommendation algorithm. Facebook once told me their system is designed around 10,000 bits of data. So, while the differences in the AI are apparent in the book (social vs content graphing), what makes TikTok so much better? What is stopped the Metas (Facebook), Twitters and Googles of this world from creating success based on their own pre-existing datasets and AIs. What is so special that can’t be replicated?
And finally is an issue that I don’t think the author could solve themselves, but one we should all reflect on when researching these media-savvy digital platforms. And one I have contended with when working on a research project about Facebook, and funded by them at the same time. How do we know we can be impartial when discussing these platforms? The book itself notes how difficult platforms can be to talk to, yet ByteDance has remained strangely accessible as part of the PR charm offensive. With so much contact between the author and highly skilled PR teams, how much has this influenced the author? This isn’t to say the author has written a biased account ‘stanning TikTok and seeking to redeem them, but where has there been potential that a friendly PR team has shifted the story, just that bit closer to being positive than negative?
I was speaking to a family member after reading this book, and they told me how they used the app, how they spent so much (often too much) time on it, what they liked about it. Beforehand, I think I would have had the negative opinion that “idiot, stop using the app so much”, now I’m more like “The apps working as intended then.” It’s though books like this that you not only understand the platform, but the people who use them.
This is a book for those who want to know the in depths of social platforms, and I think those who use TikTok would use the platform in a slightly more aware state after reading this book. For those researching the platform, the context given in this book has been invaluable, and I will certainly be using the case study provided in this book in my future works.
So, should you buy this book? Probably. I doubt I’d have written a 3,300+ word review about a book that I thought was rubbish. Although I’m coming to the sudden realisation that NOBODY is going to have read a 3,300 word review. If you did, please let me know – I’ll love you forever, even If I don’t know you.
Can I just say, I’ve loved having the time to review this book, and do some writing which I know won’t give me some sort of research impact, won’t be used to somehow calculate my worth at a next job interview, or anything like that. It is so freeing. I wish I had time to do more of it, I have missed it.
Appadurai, A. (1990). Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy. Theory, Culture & Society. DOI: 10.1177/026327690007002017 Cox, J. (2018). TikTok, the App Super Popular With Kids, Has a Nudes Problem. Motherboard. Available at: https://www.vice.com/en/article/j5zbmx/tiktok-the-app-super-popular-with-kids-has-a-nudes-problem Fitton, D. (2021). The rise of dark web design: how sites manipulate you into clicking. The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/the-rise-of-dark-web-design-how-sites-manipulate-you-into-clicking-168347 Gillipsie, T. (2018). Custodians of the Internet: Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions That Shape Social Media. Yale University Press. Literat, I. (2021). “Teachers Act Like We’re Robots”: TikTok as a Window Into Youth Experiences of Online Learning During COVID-19. AERA Open. doi: 10.1177/2332858421995537. Lowe-Calverley, E., & Grieve, R. (2021). Do the metrics matter? An experimental investigation of Instagram influencer effects on mood and body dissatisfaction. Body Image, 36. doi: 0.1016/j.bodyim.2020.10.003 Manavis, S. (2020). How the alt-right is pivoting to TikTok. The Newstatesman. Available at: https://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/2020/04/how-alt-right-pivoting-tiktok-tommy-robinson-britain-first Matos, C. (2012) Globalisation and the Mass Media. Pre-print Available at: https://openaccess.city.ac.uk/id/eprint/5542/1/mass%20media%20entryglobalization.pdf McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McGraw-Hill. Weimann, G., & Masri, N. (2020). Research Note: Spreading Hate on TikTok. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. doi: 10.1080/1057610X.2020.1780027 Wells, G. (2019). Islamic State’s TikTok Posts Include Beheading Videos. Wall Street Journal. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/islamic-states-tiktok-posts-include-beheading-videos-11571855833 Cieslak, M. (2021, Dec 22). Gaming disorder: Inside the clinic helping addicted teens. BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-59744569