Matthew Brennan

Most Chinese tech companies tried to figure out what US consumers wanted before they entered the market, but Bytedance did not care when it launched Tiktok in 2018, says internet veteran Matthew Brennan in his book “Attention Factory: The Story of Tiktok and China’s Bytedance.” The lack of strategy almost backfired, but after some hiccups, the company became a runaway success, Brennan writes in an excerpt in Technode.


“Why are moms using Tiktok? Why is anyone using Tiktok?” shouted the world’s most popular Youtuber towards the camera. It was late 2018 and Swedish gamer Pewdiepie was recording his second of fifteen “Tiktok Cringe Compila­tion” videos after the first had proved to be a hit. Each episode was ten minutes of him reacting to painfully embarrassing Tiktok videos.

Tiktok hadn’t paid anything to Pewdiepie. The A-list global internet mega-celebrity was creating video after video about Tiktok because his audience loved it. This should have been the kind of authentic influencer promotion that online marketers dreamed of. Every video was essentially a free ten-minute advert for Tiktok distributed out to a loyal 80 million follower base. Yet, at the same time, Pewdiepie wasn’t exactly endorsing the app.

Tiktok was bizarre. An endless stream of people posting weird con­tent with almost a total lack of self-awareness. Mindless comedy skits, lip-syncing, and just outright wacky oddball creations. The kids making these videos could be forgiven; they were just kids. But the adults posting on the app came off simply as creepy and weird. Countless numbers of Tiktok cringe compilations started appearing on Youtube, many with mil­lions of views. Criticism of the app became widespread, with the sham­ing of Tiktok users becoming a regular occurrence on Twitter and Reddit.

In China, Douyin, the domestic version of Tiktok also operated by Bytedance, had first garnered attention as a popular app for ur­ban youths, associating itself with art students and fashionable hip-hop lovers. Yet in America, it was the absolute opposite. Tiktok had entered the public consciousness as a cringe app for losers and misfits. What was going on?

More in Technode.

Matthew Brennan is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need him at your (online) meeting or conference? Get in touch or fill in our speakers’ request form.

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