By Steve Kelman

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TikTok: Is the clock ticking for our attention spans?

social media monitoring

The Washington Post ran a story over the weekend that the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) had begun an investigation into the 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly -- a Shanghai-based social media service with a California office and a substantial U.S. user base -- by the Chinese social media company Bytedance. At $75 billion, Bytedance is one of the most highly valued startups in the world, and it used the acquisition to introduce one of its Chinese apps called TikTok into the American market.

I am guessing not many blog readers are TikTok users, but those who with teenage kids had almost certainly heard of it before the recent Post coverage. 

TikTok is the first app from China to go viral in the U.S. It now has as many downloads as Facebook or Twitter, though user engagement with the app -- the amount of time spent on it-- is much lower.

TikTok features videos that are only 15 seconds long, dominated by lip-synched songs, goofy “acting,” and memes of various sorts -- often produced by the teenagers who are the app’s primary audience. Given that the app's user sweet spot is teens, I was moderately heartened when I signed up for the app from Google Play that the “year of birth” field, which is required, included my birth year 1948 as an option. I would have feared that no year before 2000 would be listed.

I had actually heard of TikTok before, and I knew it was the first Chinese app to be a big hit in the U.S. But I didn’t know anything about what kind of content it had until a recent trip to China. I had some lengthy conversations with a grad student in public administration who was accompanying me on a visit I had requested to see Mao Zedong’s birthplace near the city of Wuhan, where I was staying. (The details will be saved for a future discussion!) This student, it turned out, was a huge fan of TikTok, and showed me a bunch of incredibly short TikTok videos, one after another. He uses the app all the time.

I can only say I was frightened to watch this stuff. TikTok users receive a constant stream of new videos, with new stimulation, every 15 seconds. Going at a rapid pace from one micro-length video to another shortens attention spans -- you must attend to a given stimulus for a mere 15 seconds, and then another one appears. And short attention spans, with concomitant weakened ability to concentrate, can in turn produce a number of negative effects, such as poor performance at work or school, inability to complete daily tasks, missing important details or information, and difficulties communicating in relationships.

The relationship of users to TikTok is stupendously passive. I asked the student how he chose which videos to watch. The answers was he didn’t need to -- the app selected videos for him based on his past watching behavior. (Unlike many social media apps, selections are not based at all on who your friends are, but only on your own earlier behavior.)

When you want to see a new video, you swipe down on your phone and -- boom -- it appears. Every time you swipe, a new video. No self-initiated activity even as active as channel surfing on TV or web surfing on the Internet occurs. With its ease of use, there have been many suggestions in China that watching TikTok is addictive, though this elderly and untypical user found these videos quite boring.

I googled TikTok to see what kind of attention it had received from the U.S. media. Not much, is the answer, at least before the recent CFIUS announcement. The most-common links regarding TikTok presented advice to marketers about how to arrange their efforts to appeal to kids with low attention spans. An article appeared in the Washington Post a few weeks ago, titled "TikTok’s Beijing roots fuel censorship suspicion as it builds a huge U.S. audience." The article noted how few links there were on the site to stories about protests in Hong Kong. Then two senators requested an investigation, suggesting that data from TikTok (which includes both demographic and usage data) could be captured and used by the Chinese government.

These political concerns seem to me to be a non-issue. My sense is that only an infinitesimal percentage of TikTok’s actual audience has the slightest interest in the Hong Kong protests. In terms of the senators’ letter, the very passivity associated with the app's use means that, unlike Facebook, TikTok collects relatively limited information about users. It is unclear why China would want to know such facts about U.S. teenagers.

A while ago there was concern from the government in China about pornographic content on the site, prompting the CEO to issue an abject apology: “The product went astray, and content appeared that did not accord with core socialist values.” Bytedance hired a bunch of content moderators.

My worries about TikTok are of a very different source -- that apps like this contribute to lowering young people's attention spans and passivizing them.

About the only good thing you can say about this phenomenon, at least if you are obsessed with competition between the U.S. and China, is that this doesn’t represent an insidious Chinese effort to destroy American youth. Whatever Bytedance and TikTok might be doing to us, they are also doing to themselves to an even greater degree.

The worries I have about TikTok are somewhat analogous to those expressed about the internet more broadly by Nicholas Carr in his 2011 book The ShallowsCarr argued that the plethora of stimulation on the internet, only a click away, encourages people to move all the time from one activity to another, something often misnamed “multitasking” -- the brain cannot actually do two tasks at once, what is meant by this concept is switching quickly from one activity to another. There is research showing that the reduced concentration that comes from quick flips in activities reduces one’s ability to do any of the tasks one is attempting.

The internet makes it easier to move from one activity to another. But you still need to decide -- or succumb to the temptation -- to move. TikTok is worse -- once you swipe down, new stimuli are thrust on you automatically every 15 seconds, with no further actions needed on your part.

These are self-inflicted wounds, but I’m not sure what we can do about them. Parental efforts to interfere with their teens would likely be counterproductive. Perhaps we should try to fight fire with fire with apps where success and enjoyment are tied to the ability to concentrate over a longer period of time. Is any app or game developer -- or a public interest organization -- willing to take up the challenge and put resources into this? It would be good for our future as a society.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Nov 04, 2019 at 11:12 AM


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