Is there anything that can stop the viral video juggernaut TikTok?
The latest challenger is Byte, an app that lets users share just six seconds of footage, from one of the founders of Vine, the original pioneer of mobile video clips. It was downloaded more than 780,000 times in its launch weekend and has now surpassed 1.3m downloads; an impressive start.
Three-year-old TikTok, by contrast, has 1bn users and allows users a full 60 seconds of video. It has exploded in popularity over the past 18 months, particularly among teenagers, and features an endless stream of clips, curated for each user depending on how they have reacted to individual videos.
TikTok’s real clincher for hooking users are its viral-friendly features, facilitated by a suite of whizzy editing and visual effects tools. It has struck licensing deals with record labels and makes it easy for users to dance and lip sync to a large playlist of the latest tunes. It also makes it easy for users to respond to videos made by others, recording their own version alongside.
So far, Byte has no such viral, musical or sophisticated editing features, beyond rudimentary video splicing tools.
And to develop a more formidable recommendation algorithm, the company will probably need more data — more content and user responses to that content — to train its computers. At the moment, it is easy to run out of videos fairly quickly and users need to “explore” for new videos among categories such as “cute”, “magic”, “animation” and “gaming”.
But Byte does have a last-mover advantage in one area: influencers.
In their earliest days, Instagram and Snap had an ambivalent, if not volatile, relationship with its online celebrities. Some of the first Snap influencers still complain that the updates and features the company has introduced prioritise formal publishers not organic artists. Neither app really offer creators a slice of their revenues.
Coming slightly later, TikTok was clearly built with support for its creator community in mind — including a dedicated team for hand-holding and helping boost engagement, and the offer of three-figure fixed fees for promoting brand content, for example.
Byte is going further. It plans to be more forthcoming in divvying up its advertising sales with creators, launching a “partner program” which at first will see 100 per cent of ad revenue go to artists. In the longer term, the app will move to a revenue sharing model, it said, though the company promises the majority will stay in the hands of influencers.
Meanwhile, in what should be a relief to users who are tired of ads crammed into every part of their feed on other platforms, Byte is opting to forgo traditional ad placements such as the pre-roll ads that play before a video.
Instead, companies themselves can run “brand campaigns” by making their own ads in the six-second format and it is down to users to actively click on that stream of videos.
So far, the app has wooed some of the original Vine stars, such as Josh Darnit and Lance Stewart, and has an active Nike brand campaign, featuring humorous clips of well-known skateboarders, basketball and American football players.
But its debut has not been smooth sailing. It already faces some of the knotty content moderation challenges — such as a proliferation of spam commenting, fake accounts and toxic material — that continue to hamper its larger rivals today. Within 36 hours of the launch, the company had to put out a statement saying it was “aware of the issues”, “ramping up” its moderation capabilities and had other formatting changes in the works.
In a post-Cambridge Analytica era, Byte will be welcomed by critics of the ad targeting-based business model. But it will first need to clean up the platform and arm potential creators with slick tools and fun formats before the followers will flock.