The Bloodiest Battle in the Shortform Video App War Will Be Fought Through Off-Platform Embeds

It’s not about how many users you have. It’s about how long a half-life your videos have off the platform

Image: Chris Stokel-Walker

So Byte happened this weekend. Dom Hofmann’s shortform video sharing app, the successor to the long-lamented Vine, launched with a flurry of excitement on social media as people wondered if it would recapture the success of the original app.

Of course, it’s been three years since Hofmann’s previous app had its last hurrah, and in the intervening time we’ve seen the conversation around online video dominated by TikTok. (There’s a certain amount of hubris in Hofmann refusing to rename his long-trailed app, despite the fact that its likely largest competitor is owned by a company called Bytedance.) TikTok isn’t going anywhere, and in part that’s down to its miraculous numbers.

More than two million people a day downloaded TikTok and tried it out last year, according to data from analysts SensorTower. In all, 1.65 billion people have.

The numbers are staggering when you consider that half the world’s seven billion-strong population doesn’t have an internet connection, but they’re also underplaying TikTok’s influence. Because in 2020, the number of people cognizant of TikTok — and the number of people that have engaged with its content — isn’t just limited to the number of people who have downloaded and opened the app.

When we reported on the case of Mallory Bartow, the American TikToker who went mega-viral after ending up in raptures about the virtues of British pub chain Wetherspoons, we did so in part because Bartow was tearing up TikTok. But millions more encountered her outside of the app, thanks to Sophia Smith Galer, a BBC journalist, downloading the video from TikTok and reuploading it to Twitter.

Smith Galer’s Twitter reupload of Bartow’s TikTok was seen by five times as many people as the original video. That’s despite the fact that Twitter’s userbase of 330 million monthly active users is a fraction of the likely userbase of TikTok. All of which is to say: TikTok’s enormous userbase is impressive. But its reach is even greater when you consider those who interact with TikToks outside the app’s ecosystem.

The existence of Bartow’s TikTok off the platform is by design. TikTok — and in the last few days, Byte — enjoys a far greater reach thanks to users skimming off the cream of the content and reuploading it elsewhere.

“Over the last year or so I’ve definitely noticed more and more people uploading content with usernames and branding watermarks from emerging social platforms to Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter,” says Brendan Gahan, chief social officer at creative agency Mekanism. “TikTok is the most obvious example, but they’re hardly alone, there’s also Triller, Lasso, and there’s, as of this past Friday, also Byte.”

This isn’t necessarily new: Instagram meme accounts have long existed and thrived by curating the best content from Twitter and reposting it elsewhere, while screenshots of Facebook posts have a curious following on Twitter — as does the best of Tumblr. But porting posts from one platform to another has previously been a friction-filled process: you had to either screenshot a post or download a third-party screen capture app, then save the resulting image and repost it to the app you wanted to share it on. There’s not an easy way to share an embeddable version of the media content on Instagram — the closest comparison, as a visual app — on any other app. And yes, while you can embed a tweet or a Facebook update onto a website, try and embed a tweet onto Facebook, or a Facebook update onto Twitter. You’re left with a link, and friction for a user adrift in a sea of content.

Yet open up TikTok or Byte, and provided the user has enabled sharing, all you need to do is to press the share button to download a pre-cropped, watermarked version of a video from either app, which includes the name of the app it’s downloaded from, and the username of the person who created the content. On Byte, where the six-second video is so short that you could miss it when scrolling past a raft of tweets, the video repeats twice after its original play so that you’re guaranteed to see it in its entirety.

“In the case of TikTok and Byte, these platforms are able to reach and draw in new audiences by enabling easy shareability of their content on other platforms, and they control the marketing narrative by watermarking their content when it is downloaded,” explains Zoe Glatt, who is studying a PhD at the London School of Economics on YouTube.

Again, reposting of content has existed for years in shortform video, too. A large part of the reason many Vine stars became household names is because the best content was clipped and uploaded in the form of compilations to YouTube, the much bigger, more mainstream, platform for that kind of content. But sharing wasn’t built in, and it wasn’t easy. At a most basic level, the aspect ratio of Vines didn’t match the aspect ratio of the YouTube video player. In the years since Vine died, we’ve moved even further away from desktop computing to cellphones, and vertical video works on Facebook and Twitter in a way it didn’t back in 2016 and 2017. And the ability to rip content and reupload it elsewhere has gone from being the purview of third-party apps to being baked in to the design of those services.

In recent months, the legion of internet culture reporters — myself included — have started to consider reposting viral content from TikTok and Byte to Twitter part of our job. (It’s what I call the “here’s what you missed” part of our role.) It’s virtue signalling that we are across our beat, and it serves another, unintended purpose by those who share.

“These emerging short form video social networks are creating features that make it extremely easy to post and share creations from their platforms to other platforms. It’s a brilliant growth hack,” explains Gahan. “For the emerging platforms this cross-pollination sparks a viral loop — driving their comparatively small user base to go and fish for new users on larger platforms.”

It’s the digital equivalent of fly postering, and it’s something that’s implicit in the way we interact with content nowadays. A similar rationale is behind the recent rise in augmented reality Instagram Story filters like ‘What Disney character are you?’. The sheer event of interacting with that content involves sharing it. That playbook is working for TikTok right now, and it’s one that Byte is also following. If you’re following the right people, it’s impossible to avoid at least half a dozen embeds of videos from other platforms in the course of a day on Twitter.

But what of the legacy social media platforms? Are they happy providing free advertising for their newer, nimbler competitors? “There’s always a chance that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter will suppress this tactic,” says Gahan. And there’s precedent, too. In the early days of Instagram you used to be able to post your images direct to Twitter. “They were given the same real estate as a Twitter image,” he says. “Twitter suppressed the growth hack by limiting Instagram images to links. It may only be a matter of time until Instagram and others attempt to do the same to these burgeoning competitors.”

FFWD

Getting you up to speed with the world of online video

Chris Stokel-Walker

Written by

UK-based freelancer for The Guardian, The Economist, BuzzFeed News, the BBC and more. Tell me your story, or get me to write for you: stokel@gmail.com

FFWD

FFWD

Getting you up to speed with the world of online video

Chris Stokel-Walker

Written by

UK-based freelancer for The Guardian, The Economist, BuzzFeed News, the BBC and more. Tell me your story, or get me to write for you: stokel@gmail.com

FFWD

FFWD

Getting you up to speed with the world of online video

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