TikTok Succeeds by Making Copying Easy

What you notice on social media is that people copy each other a lot. We do this in all aspects of life, but within the constraints of social media, it is especially noticeable. Most social media gives you a format to do what you want with. We naturally copy each other.

Social networks want you to create content and stay on the platform. You want social networks to entertain you and raise your status. These incentives are connected. The more content you create, the more likely you create entertaining content. The more entertaining content you create (or watch), the more likely you will stick around. TikTok has succeeded here. They designed a platform that creates massive amounts of entertaining content. How have they done it?

Unlike other platforms, the entire content creation process happens within TikTok. More importantly, they have built copying into the platform itself. By combining these two features, TikTok created a dominant position in mobile video.

Making it Easy to Create Content

If you want to build a new user-generated content platform or social network then the content has to be extremely light. The content creation AND consumption need to happen within seconds, not minutes.

Alex Zhu (Former Head of TikTok)

It must be easy to create content for it to be easy to copy content.

All the tools needed to create content are within the camera.

Video has long been a medium with two sides of production. On one side, you have unedited video for social media such as Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. On the other, you have edited and produced as you see on YouTube and Twitch.

TikTok found a middle ground. It allows users to create lightly edited videos within the app. Much of the “editing” happens in reshooting. Videos are short enough that they can be reshot until it is right. Other features like timers, trimming, and effects (like green screen) are all built-in as well.

You don’t need anything except your phone to make content. No computer, no editing software, no fancy camera gear. Most content is shot with the front-facing camera.

Anyone can create content on TikTok without much effort. What you do or say is much more valuable than what your video looks like. The level of entertainment in your video isn’t driven by the quality of your editing or gear, it is driven by the quality of your content.

The built-in features make content creation easy, leading to large amounts of content being created, but content also has to be entertaining. Here is where TikTok innovates: they build copying into the platform itself.

Building Copying into the Creation Process

Creating entertaining content is hard. When you can film anything, what is entertaining? TikTok solves this by giving users templates to create entertaining content through the memes, trends, and sound on their platform.

Six million videos have been made with this one sound.

Video is a powerful medium because it is information-dense. You can copy a dance or meme just by watching it. It is obvious that shorter videos are easier to copy, there are fewer variables. When on TikTok, you see memes repeated and understand the format. Future memes in that format will gain from your familiarity.

The creation process is tied to the viewing process. When you watch something entertaining and think “I have an idea,” it is two clicks to start filming your idea. No platform makes it easier.

One of the largest drivers of building familiarity is music and audio tracks. The audio provides a repeatable format for content. Similar to how memes on Reddit or Instagram use visual formats, TikTok uses audio. The difference is that Instagram and Reddit do not make making memes easy. You have to know the format, find a site to create the meme (or Photoshop it) then come back to the site and upload. When you click a sound on TikTok it shows all the videos created with that sound and provides a big button promoting creation.

Musical.ly (the predecessor to TikTok) uses music as a raw material. Music is not the end product. It’s a raw material. In contrast, the end product on Spotify, Pandora, etc. is music.

Alex Zhu

The most popular sounds have tens of thousands of videos. TikTok has made music the template. It turns out it is a very good one. We get music stuck in our head all the time, how often does a meme or image get stuck in your head? Not very often. TikTok songs have dominated the top music charts for the last 2 years (and you may have not even realized that).

TikTok adjusts its algorithm for you based on what you enjoy. Videos in familiar formats will show up over and over. This is possible because popular formats have lots of content in each. The combination of easy creation and copied formats leads to large amounts of personally entertaining content for you.

Culture of Copying

Copying people on other platforms is often looked down upon. You lose status if you copy too much. On TikTok, it is promoted, everyone does it. It is a natural assumption that you copy everyone and everyone copies you.

A chain of duets featuring the most popular TikTok creators

Other platforms focus on following people or accounts. TikTok focuses much more on trends and memes. If you like a video with a certain trend, you will likely see more videos from that trend in the future. Everyone’s TikTok experience consists of different videos grouped into trends and memes. That is only possible because copying creates lots of content in each trend.

Other platforms have accepted the idea of sharing. When you want to share someone else’s tweet, you retweet it. When you want to share someone else’s Facebook post, you share it. TikTok doesn’t allow this, which is intentional. Content on TikTok can be shared, but new content must be added on top to do it.

For example, TikTok has a feature called a duet which allows users to show their video next to a video already posted. Another feature allows creators to reply to comments as a standalone TikTok. You even see TikToks on top of other TikToks using the green screen feature.

Every feature on TikTok drives towards making more content, this turns users from passive consumers to active creators. Everyone copies, so you should too. Users that create content are always more valuable than users that only consume. TikTok does a better job at this than any other platform.

The Future of TikTok and Copying Content

TikTok focuses on creation rather than engagement. Other platforms assume experts and professionals create the best content. TikTok assumes that entertaining content can come from anywhere.

If content can come from anywhere, then everyone must have the ability to create. Expect to see platforms controlling more of the creation process and making it easier for everyone to create content. Stories is an example of this. Posts are polished, stories less so; therefore, people will post more stories.

TikTok makes it okay to hop on the bandwagon. They built a platform that acknowledges that new content is built from old content. Users want to copy each other, so let them. Anyone can be successful on TikTok by copying the people around them.

The structure of other platforms makes it difficult for them to compete. They depend on the idea that content deserves to be reshared rather than copied. Resharing isn’t copying, it isn’t creating something new. It is boosting someone else’s work. TikTok forces users to create new content whenever they want to interact with other content (trends, duets, comment replies).

TikTok has aligned incentives. It creates a massive amount of entertaining content in a way that no existing platform can copy. I expect it to have a dominant position in social media for many years to come.


Let me know what you think on Twitter (@ianvanagas).

Can’t get enough TikTok-related content? Read my post on TikTok’s Viral Growth Machine.

Many of the insights and both the Alex Zhu quotes came from Blake Robbins’ notes on an interview Zhu did.

Another related piece is the seminal “Status as a Service (StaaS)” by Eugene Wei.

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