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Zuckerberg misunderstands the huge threat of TikTok

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“It’s almost like the Explore Tab that we have on Instagram,” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in leaked audio of him describing TikTok during an all-hands meeting. But it’s not. TikTok represents a new form of social entertainment that’s vastly different from the lifelogging of Instagram where you can just take a selfie, show something pretty or pan around what you’re up to. TikToks are premeditated, storyboarded and vastly different than the haphazard Stories on Insta.

That’s why Zuckerberg’s comments cast a dark shadow over the future of the Facebook family of apps. How can it beat what it doesn’t understand? He certainly can’t ignore it. Facebook’s copycat Lasso has been installed just 425,000 times since it launched in November, while TikTok has 640 million installs in the same period outside of China. Oh, and TikTok has 1.4 billion total installs beyond China to date.

TikTok Screenshots

Casey Newton of The Verge today published two hours of audio and transcripts from two internal-only all-hands Q&As held by Zuckerberg at Facebook in July. His comments touch on the company’s plan to fight being broken up by regulators, especially if Elizabeth Warren becomes president. He thinks Facebook would win, but on resorting to suing the government, he says “does that still suck for us? Yeah.” Zuckerberg also describes how Facebook is working to launch a payments product in Mexico and elsewhere by year’s end as Libra deals with regulatory scrutiny.

But beyond his comments on regulation, it’s his pigeonholing of TikTok that’s most alarming. It foreshadows Facebook failing to win one of the core social feeds that its business depends on. Perhaps his perspective on the competitor is evolving, but the leak portrays him as thinking TikTok is just the next Snapchat Stories to destroy.

Zuckeberg’s thoughts on TikTok

Here’s what Zuckerberg said about TikTok during the internal Q&A sessions, (emphasis mine):

So yeah. I mean, TikTok is doing well. One of the things that’s especially notable about TikTok is, for a while, the internet landscape was kind of a bunch of internet companies that were primarily American companies. And then there was this parallel universe of Chinese companies that pretty much only were offering their services in China. And we had Tencent who was trying to spread some of their services into Southeast Asia. Alibaba has spread a bunch of their payment services to Southeast Asia. Broadly, in terms of global expansion, that had been pretty limited, and TikTok, which is built by this company Beijing ByteDance, is really the first consumer internet product built by one of the Chinese tech giants that is doing quite well around the world. It’s starting to do well in the US, especially with young folks. It’s growing really quickly in India. I think it’s past Instagram now in India in terms of scale. So yeah, it’s a very interesting phenomenon.

And the way that we kind of think about it is: it’s married short-form, immersive video with browse. So it’s almost like the Explore Tab that we have on Instagram, which is today primarily about feed posts and highlighting different feed posts. I kind of think about TikTok as if it were Explore for stories, and that were the whole app. And then you had creators who were specifically working on making that stuff. So we have a number of approaches that we’re going to take towards this, and we have a product called Lasso that’s a standalone app that we’re working on, trying to get product-market fit in countries like Mexico, is I think one of the first initial ones. We’re trying to first see if we can get it to work in countries where TikTok is not already big before we go and compete with TikTok in countries where they are big.

We’re taking a number of approaches with Instagram, including making it so that Explore is more focused on stories, which is increasingly becoming the primary way that people consume content on Instagram, as well as a couple of other things there. But yeah, I think that it’s not only one of the more interesting new phenomena and products that are growing. But in terms of the geopolitical implications of what they’re doing, I think it is quite interesting. I think we have time to learn and understand and get ahead of the trend. It is growing, but they’re spending a huge amount of money promoting it. What we’ve found is that their retention is actually not that strong after they stop advertising. So the space is still fairly nascent, and there’s time for us to kind of figure out what we want to do here. But I think this is a real thing. It’s good.

To Zuckerberg’s credit, he’s not dismissing the threat. He knows TikTok is popular. He knows it’s growing in key international markets Facebook and Instagram depend on to keep user counts rising. And he knows his company needs to respond via its standalone clone Lasso and more.

Facebook Lasso Screenshots

Lasso

But while TikToks might look like Stories because they’re vertical videos, and TikTok might algorithmically recommend them to people like Instagram Explore, it’s a whole ‘nother beast of a product and one that may be harder than it seems to copy.

To crystallize why, let’s rewind to Snapchat. With the launch of Stories, it started to blow up with U.S. teens. Facebook’s attempts to clone it in standalone apps like Poke and Slingshot never gained traction. In fact, none of Facebook’s standalone apps have succeeded unless they splintered off an already popular piece of Facebook, like chat and users were forced to download them like Messenger. It wasn’t until Zuckerberg stuck his clone of Stories front-and-center atop Instagram and Facebook that Snapchat’s user count went from growing 18% per quarter to shrinking. There, Facebook used the same strategy laid out in Zuckerberg’s comments — push its good-enough clone in countries where the original isn’t popular yet.

But Facebook was fortunate because Stories really wasn’t that dissimilar to the content users were already sharing on Instagram — tiny biographical snippets of their lives. Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel had originally invented Stories as a vision of Facebook’s News Feed through the lens of an ephemeral camera. All users had to know was “I take the same videos, but shorter and sillier, posted more often and then they disappear.” The concept of Instagram and Facebook didn’t have to change. They were still about telling friends what you were up to. Choking off TikTok’s growth will be much more complicated.

The rise of social entertainment…not media

TikTok isn’t about you or what you’re doing. It’s about entertaining your audience. It’s not spontaneous chronicling of your real life. It’s about inventing characters, dressing up as someone else and acting out jokes. It’s not about privacy and friends, but strutting on the world stage. And it’s not about originality — the heart of Instagram. TikTok is about remixing culture — taking the audio from someone else’s clip and reimagining the gag in a new context by layering it atop a video you record.

TikTok Remixes

That makes TikTok distinct enough that it will be very difficult to shoehorn into Instagram or Facebook, even if they add the remixing functionality. Most videos on those apps aren’t designed to be templates for memes like TikToks are. Insta and Facebook’s social graphs are rooted in friendship and augmented by the beautiful and famous, but don’t encompass the new wave of amateur performers TikTok elevates. And since each post to the app becomes fodder for someone else’s creativity, a competitor starting from scratch doesn’t offer much to remix.

That means a TikTok clone would have to be somewhat buried in Instagram or Facebook, rebuild a new social graph and retrain users’ understanding of these apps’ purpose…at the risk of distracting from their core use cases. This leaves Facebook hoping to grow its standalone TikTok clone Lasso, which TechCrunch scooped a year ago before it launched last November. But as we’ve seen, Facebook struggles growing brand new apps, and that effort is further hindered by its increasingly toxic brand and sheen of uncoolness. Nor does it help that Facebook must divert development resources to comply with all the new privacy and transparency obligations as part of its $5 billion FTC fine and settlement.

The next feed

Facebook’s best bet is to assess the future value of the ads it could run on a successful TikTok clone and apply some greater fraction of that grand sum to competing directly. It’s already made some smart additions to Lasso, like tutorials for how to remix and the option to add GIFs as sections of your video. But it’s still failing to gain serious traction in the U.S. While typical videos on the TikTok homepage where I’m spending a few hours a week have hundreds of thousands of Likes, the top ones I saw in my Lasso feed today received 70 or fewer.

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TikTok trounces Facebook’s Lasso in the U.S. iOS App Store charts

I had Sensor Tower run some analysis comparing TikTok with Lasso since its launch last November, and found that Lasso gets six downloads for every 1,000 for TikTok in the US. Some more stats:

  • U.S. Total Downloads Since November: Lasso – 250,000 // TikTok – 41.3 million
  • U.S. Downloads Per Day Since November: Lasso – 760 // TikTok – 126,000
  • Average U.S. Google Play Social App Chart Ranking: Lasso – #155 // TikTok – #2

Beyond the U.S., Lasso has only launched in one other market, Mexico in April, where it’s been faring better but could hardly even be considered a competitor to TikTok. Facebook needs to lean harder into Lasso:

  • Mexico Total Downloads Since April: Lasso – 175,000 // TikTok – 3.3 million
  • Mexico Downloads Per Day Since November: Lasso – 1,000 // TikTok – 19,000

Facebook Lasso Logo

Zuckerberg may need to find a coherent place for TikTok-style features inside Instagram and potentially Facebook. That could be another horizontal row of previews like with Stories and/or a header on the Explore page dedicated to premeditated content. Certainly something more prominent than a single button like IGTV that still no one is requesting. One opportunity to best TikTok would be building a dedicated remix source browser into the Stories camera to help users find content to put their own spin on.

Facebook will also need to buy out top TikTok creators to make videos for it instead, and even quasi-hire some of the most prolific video meme or challenge inventors to give users trends to jump on rather than just one-off clips to watch. Its failure to offer IGTV stars monetization has led many to ignore that platform, and it can’t afford that again.

If Zuckerberg approaches TikTok as merely an algorithmic video recommender like Explore, Facebook will miss out on owning the social entertainment feed. If he doesn’t decisively move to challenge TikTok soon, its catalog of content to remix will grow insurmountable and it will own the whole concept of short-form performative video. Snapchat’s insistence on ephemerality makes it incompatible with remixing, and YouTube isn’t nimble enough to reinvent itself.

If no American company can step up, we could see our interest data, faces and attention forfeited to an app that while delightful to use, heralds Chinese political values at odds with our own. If only Twitter hadn’t killed Vine.

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Google Outlines Ongoing Efforts to Combat China-Based Influence Operations Targeting Social Apps

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Google Outlines Ongoing Efforts to Combat China-Based Influence Operations Targeting Social Apps

Over the past year, Google has repeatedly noted that a China-based group has been looking to use YouTube, in particular, to influence western audiences, by building various channels in the app, then seeding them with pro-China content.

There’s limited info available on the full origins or intentions of the group, but today, Google has published a new overview of its ongoing efforts to combat the initiative, called DRAGONBRIDGE.

As explained by Google:

In 2022, Google disrupted over 50,000 instances of DRAGONBRIDGE activity across YouTube, Blogger, and AdSense, reflecting our continued focus on this actor and success in scaling our detection efforts across Google products. We have terminated over 100,000 DRAGONBRIDGE accounts in the IO network’s lifetime.

As you can see in this chart, DRAGONBRIDGE is by far the most prolific source of coordinated information operations that Google has detected over the past year, while Google also notes that it’s been able to disrupt most of the project’s attempted influence, by snuffing out its content before it gets seen.

Dragonbridge

Worth noting the scale too – as Google notes, DRAGONBRIDGE has created more than 100,000 accounts, which includes tens of thousands of YouTube channels. Not individual videos, entire channels in the app, which is a huge amount of work, and content, that this group is producing.

That can’t be cheap, or easy to keep running. So they must be doing it for a reason.

The broader implication, which has been noted by various other publications and analysts, is that DRAGONBRIDGE is potentially being supported by the Chinese Government, as part of a broader effort to influence foreign policy approaches via social media apps. 

Which, at this kind of scale, is a concern, while DRAGONBRIDGE has also targeted Facebook and Twitter as well, at different times, and it could be that their efforts on those platforms are also reaching similar activity levels, and may not have been detected as yet.

Which then also relates to TikTok, a Chinese-owned app that now has massive influence over younger audiences in western nations. If programs like this are already in effect, it stands to reason that TikTok is also likely a key candidate for boosting the same, which remains a key concern among regulators and officials in many nations.

The US Government is reportedly weighing a full TikTok ban, and if that happens, you can bet that many other nations will follow suit. Many government organizations are also banning TikTok on official devices, based on advice from security experts, and with programs like DRAGONBRIDGE also running, it does seem like Chinese-based groups are actively operating influence and manipulation programs in foreign nations.

Which seems like a significant issue, and while Google is seemingly catching most of these channels before they have an impact, it also seems likely that this is only one element of a larger push.

Hopefully, through collective action, the impact of such can be limited – but for TikTok, which still reports to Chinese ownership, it’s another element that could raise further questions and scrutiny.

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The Drum | Trump’s Instagram & Facebook Reinstatement Won’t Cause Marketers To Riot Yet, Experts Say

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The Drum | Trump's Instagram & Facebook Reinstatement Won’t Cause Marketers To Riot Yet, Experts Say

While the reinstatement of Donald Trump’s Twitter account in November had some advertisers packing up in protest, many will strike a different tune with Meta-owned Facebook and Instagram, experts predict.

Meta Wednesday announced that it’s lifting the ban on a handful of Facebook and Instagram accounts, including that of former US president Donald Trump – who was suspended nearly two years ago following the January 6, 2021 riots at the Capitol.

In a blog post yesterday, Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, explained the reasons for the company’s decision, saying that it “evaluated the current environment” as it pertains to the socio-political landscape and security concerns and determined that “risk has sufficiently receded.” As a result, the company will welcome Trump back onto Facebook and Instagram.

The former president will be expected to comply with Meta’s user policies, but, considering his past violations, will face “heightened penalties for repeat offenses,” Clegg explained.

While it’s unclear whether Trump will become an active user on either platform following the decision, media and marketing experts are already sounding alarm bells at his potential return.

In particular, experts are cautious considering recent developments at Twitter. Elon Musk’s turbulent takeover – which has included mass layoffs, dramatic platform changes and the decision to reinstate the accounts of controversial figures like Trump and Kanye West (whose account has since been re-suspended) – has led to an exodus of advertisers. Could Meta’s decision to reintroduce Trump invite a similar fate?

‘Fear, frustration and protest’ could catalyze drawback

Concerns regarding brand safety and suitability on Facebook and Instagram are piquing among marketers. Trump’s presence on social media has long proven to exacerbate the spread of misinformation online. The risks of a potential recession, paired with new political tensions spurred by the 2022 midterms and the anticipation of the 2024 presidential election, may only up the ante.

“Misinformation on Meta’s platforms was an issue prior to Trump’s ban, during the ban and will likely continue to be an issue, even with the new [policies that] Meta has put in place,” says Laura Ries, group director of media and connections at IPG-owned ad agency R/GA. In light of this fact, Ries says, “Advertisers will need to continue to consider the type of content they’ll show up next to when evaluating whether or not to advertise on the platforms, especially as we march toward the 2024 election.”

She predicts that Meta may see some advertisers leave Facebook and Instagram “out of fear, frustration or protest.”

Others agree. “I suspect advertisers will not be pleased with this move and might make reductions in spend as they have done with Twitter,” says Tim Lim, a political strategist, PR consultant and partner at creative agency The Hooligans.

Although some advertisers are sure to pull back or cut their investments, the number will likely be low – largely because the scale and reach promised by both Facebook and Instagram will make it hard for most advertisers to quit. Smaller brands and startups in particular often rely heavily on Meta’s advertising business to spur growth, says Ries.

A ripple, not a wave

Most industry leaders believe Trump’s reinstatement won’t cause anything more than a ripple in the advertising industry. “Marketers who advertise on Facebook and Instagram care about their own problems, which generally [entail] selling more products and services,” says Joe Pulizzi, an entrepreneur, podcaster and author of various marketing books. “If Meta helps them do that, they don’t care one bit about brand safety – unless this blows up into a big political issue again. It might not, so marketers won’t do a thing.”

The sentiment is underscored by Dr Karen Freberg, a professor of strategic communications at University of Louisville, who says: “Facebook and Instagram are key fundamental platforms for advertisers. Marketers may … be aware of the news, but I am not sure if it will make a drastic change for the industry.” She points out that Twitter’s decision to lift the ban on Trump’s account in November caused such a big stir among marketers advertisers that Meta’s decision to do the same may come as less of a shock.

Trump’s return may even benefit Meta’s ads business by giving the company new opportunities to serve ads to Trump devotees, says Pulizzi. Ultimately, he says, Meta “needs personalities like Trump,” who, whether through love or hate, inspire higher engagement. “With Facebook plateauing and Instagram now chasing – and copying – TikTok at every turn, Trump’s follower base is important to Meta, which is hard to believe, but I think it’s true.”

But while some users may be energized by the former president’s return to Meta platforms, others may be outraged – even to the point of quitting Facebook and Instagram, points out Ries. In this case, she says, “advertisers will need to follow them to TikTok, Snap or other platforms where they’re spending their newfound time.”

R/GA, for its part, which services major brands including Google, Samsung, Verizon and Slack, will work on “a client by client basis” to address concerns about Facebook, Instagram or any other platform, says Ries. “R/GA recommended pausing activity on Facebook and Instagram after the insurrection and won’t hesitate to do so again if another incident occurs.”

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Snap Launches New Ad Campaign to Showcase its AR Offerings

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Snap Launches New Ad Campaign to Showcase its AR Offerings

Snapchat has launched a new promotional campaign which leans into the uniqueness of its viral AR trends, with a showcase of bizarre effects, as a means to present people with a different perspective on the real world.

Pretty trippy, huh?

As explained by Snap:

At Snap, we celebrate the joy, irreverence, and spontaneity of communicating with your real friends in fun, unexpected ways. Over the years, we’ve pushed the boundaries of how people see and experience the world through augmented reality. AR makes conversations and experiences better, and unlocks new ways to connect with others, learn about the world, shop, and more. [Our new campaign] shows you what it’s like to see the world the way Snapchatters do.”

It’s pretty weird, but will that get more people using Snap?

Certainly, the campaign will grab attention, and with 72% of active Snapchat users already engaging with AR elements in the app every day, there’s clearly a lot of interest in these types of weirdo activations that provide a new way of seeing the familiar.

Maybe that’ll prove to be a good lure to get people into the app, and broaden its user base. I mean, at the least, it’ll spark intrigue, which will likely get at least a few more people downloading the app to see what they can do.

AR is a key focus for Snap, and despite operating at a much smaller scale than Meta and Apple, which are both also investing big in AR projects, Snap has continued to punch above its wait in this area, by continually coming out with AR content that grabs attention, and engages audiences.

Meta is still struggling to maintain relevance with younger audiences, a key element that could de-rail its metaverse vision, while Apple has actually leaned on Snap to help showcase its advanced AR tools over time.

If nothing else, Snapchat has its finger on the pulse, which is why virtually every AR trend – from anime filters to baby faces, from crying faces to vomiting rainbows – all of these have originated from Snapchat, and that’s remained consistent over time, even with newer platforms like TikTok entering the same realm.

Snap is very in-tune with its user base, which is also why its Snapchat+ subscription offering is already doing better than Twitter Blue, even with the addition of tweet editing verification ticks (Snapchat+ has over 1.5 million paying subscribers, versus an estimated 325k for Twitter Blue).

That community sense has helped Snap maintain growth and relevance. But it also needs to expand – and maybe, through a bizarre showcase like this, that could help to make more people aware of the things that they can do in the app.

And this is how Snapchat Lenses tend to be shared. Somebody uses it, then they just have to show their friends.

In this respect, it seems like a good initiative, which could help Snap spark more interest and engagement.

It also serves as a demo of scanning in the Snap camera – if you want to try out any of the Lenses featured in the ad, you can scan the screen in the Snap camera, which will then open up whichever Lens is featured at that moment.

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