TikTok, Vine, and the Monetization of Creativity

Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and VIine logos

We’ve been talking about TikTok a lot lately, and not just as an excuse to post our favorite videos (though that is certainly a nice bonus). And in a bit of accidental prescience last week we compared them to the rapidly sinking Quibi, a company whose ambition exceeded its understanding of the mobile market.

TikTok, already extraordinarily popular (even with its eviction from India) took a step toward dominating even more of the mobile-entertainment market this week when it announced the creation of a $200 million fund to pay the nascent Nolans of the world for their content.

That’s right — TikTok monetization is here.

TikTok (whose original incarnation, incidentally, was developed in a mere few weeks) is launching its first major monetization at a time when bite-sized bits of community entertainment are downright therapeutic.

Two-Sided Symbiosis

TikTok’s leverage with creators is size. They have the viewers who will actually see this brilliant content you’re making.They give you the tools of creation. But just because those are two great draws doesn’t mean they also don’t need a third one: money.

A lot of companies in this space (hi, YouTube) have perfected the art of the two-sided entertainment market. Rather than being responsible for the creation of content, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok provide the platform and the ads — users supply their own product.

The draw as a user, of course, is control and the absolute customization of what you want to see. Rather than hunting for the show that suits your fancy, or waiting for it to be created, you can make it yourself. If you’d like a Wes Anderson take on surviving a global pandemic, you can have it. From the platform’s perspective, it’s a far easier thing to aggregate users and have them create products for each other than it is to create your own product. You take care of the code; you slot in the ads; users supply the value.

Except with so many platforms to choose from (from Instagram to TikTok to YouTube) it’s increasingly important to draw users/creators to you. Would Vine have survived to become our indispensable entertainment app if it had begun paying its more popular creators? Hard to say, but when Vine closed its doors as more and more content creators migrated (back) to YouTube, they were just starting to negotiate payment deals. Too little, too late, and with Instagram debuting video clips that very same month, Vine was left out in the cold.

Now, it’s worth noting that until earlier this year Instagram didn’t pay content creators and influencers, either, but they also offered more than just a platform for short videos. So Vine’s offering was so rarefied, and its payment system so…nonexistent, there was nothing to tie users to the app once the initial blush of popularity faded.

TikTok’s getting ahead of that. And even though they are about as popular as an app can be (with 800 million active users), consumers are fickle. And once we stop using the platform as our go-to for silliness in the midst of a dark historical moment, what’s to keep the best content creators from jumping ship?

Tik Tok video of a pasta dinner being made

Content Control

From a strategic perspective this is good for TikTok in terms of controlling the quality of their content. In just six months TikTok removed 49,247,689 videos for violating community guidelines. And since India’s ban (which has caused massive upheaval and worry at parent company ByteDance) was initially precipitated by the large number of inappropriate videos on the platform, it makes sense they’d want to institute quality control in a way they never have.

Will it be the same? Will the bankrolling of the post popular accounts hurt the communal, free-for-all spirit of TikTok? Certainly YouTube is a different universe now than it was when you could get views just by playing with your cat in an ill-lit room. Much of what made TikTok special was the pure, democratic nature of its videos.

But now we’ll know that what we’re seeing is monetized and commercial, and somehow that feels somehow less…joyous.

User-created content rules. And perhaps it is the immense feeling of helplessness caused by the pandemic that intensifies our need to feel like the centers of our own universes, entertainment or otherwise. TikTok let users become stars.

We hope that in protecting their brand they don’t dull the shine.

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