In June 2021, TikTok executives admitted that the site's users have very poor attention spans. A slide deck shown to Japanese advertisers claimed that TikTok users have such difficulty concentrating that the sites' snappy 60-second videos made it better at engaging them than any other social media platform.
TikTok representatives presented internal survey data, seen by WIRED, which they claimed showed that social media users are “flooded with large amounts of video content.” People’s ability to concentrate was being hit. Nearly 50 percent of users surveyed by TikTok said videos longer than a minute long were stressful; a third of users watched videos online at double speed.
The app overindexed among social media users compared to other large platforms for having just the right length of videos, TikTok data showed. And to hammer home the point, TikTok quoted a speed-watching laborer in his 20s in its slide deck. “It’s not because I don’t have time,” he said, “but because I can’t concentrate. I can’t concentrate.”
Less than a month later Drew Kirchhoff, TikTok’s US product manager, announced TikTok would extend the maximum video length from one to three minutes. Since then, the app has conducted widespread testing of five-minute-long videos between August 2021 and February 2022, and has even tried 10-minute videos among a small group of beta testers.
TikTok is betting that users don’t know best. Short videos can only get the app so far. While TikTok has ridden the wave of popularity that propelled it to the top of app stores worldwide, to sustainably grow its revenue, it needs longer videos, which gain more attention, and allow them to sell more ads. “Ultimately, if five-minute videos help TikTok push their average watch time up by even a few seconds, traditional advertisers may feel they have more freedom, and tech is always looking for as much revenue as possible,” says Karyn Spencer, an industry expert who previously worked for now-defunct short form video app Vine.
Yet while it is trying to tease out longer videos from its users—and longer attention spans from those of us watching—its competitors are chasing shorter videos. Instagram launched Reels and Snap launched Spotlight in 2020. YouTube launched Shorts and Pinterest launched idea pins the following year. All are capped at one minute. Brendan Gahan, partner and chief social officer at Mekanism, a New York creative advertising agency, says TikTok’s success has required it to change. “TikTok's success is a forcing function on the other social platforms,” he says. “They can't ignore the phenomenal growth – it’s so big it may be the future of social.” Videos that were less than a minute long made up 12 percent of total content on YouTube by 2021, according to video analytics firm Conviva.
While most social media watchers are fixated on the concept that TikTok is the place for short form video, its trajectory indicates that is an outdated perception. (The company declined to participate in this story.) In June 2020, a content playbook to teach organizations how to better use TikTok indicated videos lasting between 11 and 17 seconds worked best on TikTok. By November 2021, the optimal recommended video length had doubled to between 21 and 34 seconds. Data that TikTok shared with some creators in early 2022 and was seen by WIRED said that around one in four of the “highest performing” videos on TikTok fall into that sweet spot. Last year, TikTok rolled out smart TV apps worldwide, suggesting it sees a future in people dwelling on videos, similar to the way they watch TV shows.
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The average TikTok user—of which there are one billion worldwide, more than 100 million in the United States, and 23 million in the UK—spends an hour and 25 minutes on the app every day, according to data shared by TikTok in an private presentation to business clients in late January 2022. The average TikTok user opens the app to watch videos 17 times a day.
Longer videos will likely further increase TikTok’s market share, says Gahan. For one, it will compete with YouTube’s longer videos, which make up the lion’s share of content on the site. “Longer form content allows TikTok to more directly take on YouTube,” he says. “Given YouTube is the second largest search engine, even capturing a fraction of their viewership could have massive positive ramifications for TikTok.”
The decision is largely driven by the potential for more advertising revenue, reckons Meg Jing Zeng, a TikTok researcher at the University of Zurich. “The increase in traffic itself brings more profit, but longer videos themselves can be more lucrative,” she says. “For instance, it allows TikTok to work with institutional partners, including commercial institutional partners, to produce content with product placement.” While the company doesn’t share its advertising income, reports out of China claim the company earned $4 billion in ad revenue in 2021.
Beyond that, longer videos could help age up TikTok’s user base, who are more accustomed to YouTube-length videos, rather than ones wrapped up within 15 or 60 seconds. “For mature TikTokers, who are more used to watching longer content on YouTube and less interested in participating in dance challenges or recreating memes, long videos could be suitable products to keep them entertained,” says Zeng. In the UK, 56 percent of TikTok users are still aged 16 to 24, according to internal 2022 TikTok data obtained by WIRED, though that proportion has decreased over time.
Yet extending video length comes with plenty of risks. It sacrifices one key factor that has allowed TikTok to differentiate itself from competitive apps: Its algorithmic advantage. By peppering users with different, shorter videos, TikTok can gain more insights about a user’s interest than fewer, longer ones. “You get more pieces of data on how people are interacting with more pieces of content,” says Hank Green, a veteran content creator and founder of VidCon. “That enables the algorithm to make better decisions.” Three-minute videos, if watched to completion, offer 12 times less data than 15-second videos on TikTok, Green points out. ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, may well have taken that calculation into consideration, and could believe its algorithm is already well-trained enough on user behavior by now to not need as much data constantly feeding it.
Extending video length also removes opportunities to serve adverts between shorter videos—a risk for the app’s monetization goals. “I don’t even know how a mid-roll ad would work on TikTok,” says Green. “I think a user would be pretty angry about one, honestly.”
While some users may dislike longer videos, Marion Thain at King’s College London, whose research found that half of us think our attention span is shorter than it actually is, doesn’t think they will be a deal breaker. “Our study shows that people certainly feel stressed by the distractions of new technologies but, perhaps more surprisingly, it also reveals that a significant proportion think that multi-tasking can enhance their lives,” she says.
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Longer videos that users can watch while doing something else—known as second screening—may mean TikTok is onto something. “Successful tech will find a productive place within our attention eco-systems which does not threaten the quality of life of its users,” she says. It’s an issue that plenty of platforms have had to wrestle with in the past: The small tweaks they make to their algorithms or features can, because of the ubiquity of social media, have outsized impacts on us all.
Whether the videos will be good enough to get people watching for prolonged periods is up for debate. “I think they’re going to have a hard time getting good, long videos,” says Green. The skills required to make an engaging 15- or 60-second video are far different to those required to make longer-form content—which is why some TikTok creators flop when they join YouTube.
Zeng, who uses both TikTok and its Chinese equivalent Douyin, where videos already can last more than 10 minutes, gets frustrated when watching long videos—but not by the length. “Inexperienced TikTokers fail to create a hook, and the audience loses interest quickly,” she says. “When they are done properly, long videos can be as entertaining.” It’s just that doing them properly takes time.
Time costs money, and TikTok’s current creator economics make it a challenge for people to sustain the volume of videos required to stay popular on the app’s algorithm. “There are TikToks I make that take less time than a tweet [takes to write]. In a world where a creator gets paid very little money, that’s fine—because I get paid less for my tweets. But the videos I’m working on hard enough to be three minutes are a lot more work,” says Green. And since TikToks can’t be reposted on other short form video platforms like Instagram Reels or YouTube Shorts—because of their shorter, 60-second time limits—it becomes uneconomical to spend the time creating longer videos. “Undoubtedly, burnout will increase with time,” says Gahan. “Creators who don't invest in teams and processes to manage their output will find themselves on a hamster wheel chasing views.”
The implausibility of individual TikTok creators producing enough longform videos at pace may explain what happened to its sister app Douyin when it pursued longer videos. When the Chinese app began stretching the maximum length of video allowed on the platform in 2019, the type of longer content changed from being dominated by rank-and-file users to more professional production companies. In 2020, Douyin began co-producing variety, reality and talent shows with traditional production houses. “I think it is plausible that TikTok might make similar moves to produce its own programmes, once it’s done sufficient testing, research and improvement of its long video features in the western market,” says Zeng.
For users who worry about the risk of longer videos polluting their For You Page, there is one potential silver lining if TikTok decides to follow Douyin’s lead. On the Chinese app’s web interface, longer form videos are syphoned off into their own section—while the app version is also testing long videos. What you can’t see can’t stress you out.
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