How Snapchat’s Spotlight feature turns TikTok on its head

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Today, let’s talk about the deceptively bold way in which Snapchat has reimagined TikTok as part of its new feature, Spotlight. A new milestone on TikTok helps to explain the opportunity.

I.

Over the weekend, TikTok saw its first creator reach 100 million followers. The creator is Charli D’Amelio, who hit that mark just 18 months after she created her account. That speaks to the broad appeal of her personality and her videos, which often feature popular dances of the moment. The mark also reflects the rapid growth of TikTok, whose shortform videos are rapidly taking over all social networks.

But in another way, D’Amelio’s achievement wasn’t remarkable at all. In fact, in many ways, it was textbook: a fast-growing new platform, a young and beautiful creator, and recommendation algorithms that drive more and more attention to the early winners over time. YouTube once had human editors choosing videos to go on its homepage; later, it added recommendation algorithms. Both contributed to the rise of early YouTube stars. Instagram often promoted new creators on its own Instagram account; later stars emerged through its recommendations-driven “explore” tab.

TikTok’s approach to promoting videos differs from its predecessors in notable ways. It opens to a feed of videos that have been chosen for you based on whatever the app has gleaned about you, whether you follow anyone or not. This following-optional model has meant that the app is as likely to make a star out of a dance or a snippet of audio as it is to make one out of a human being.

That’s a primary reason why TikTok now feels like a vital engine of culture in a way that other social networks don’t. Instagram mostly knows how to promote influencers; TikTok, on the other hand, spreads dances, sounds, and jokes.

All of this has had a democratizing effect on the kinds of videos that go viral. The app’s For You feed is one of the most delightfully unpredictable spaces in social networks — even as it learns your preferences, TikTok still manages to surface truly strange and compelling new things.

Yet, despite those differences, TikTok’s influencer economy looks much like any other platform’s. A handful of creators attract many millions of followers; those creators get sponsorship deals; and thus, the rewards to individual users follow a rich-get-richer distribution. Even TikTok’s plan to pay US creators $1 billion over the next three years seems designed more to retain top creators than to establish new ones.

II.

What Snap is asking with Spotlight, the company’s own take on shortform video, is whether you can build an engine for culture that benefits many thousands of people, rather than hundreds. The company’s idea is to replace public follower counts, likes, and comments with something that more closely resembles a lottery — and at least through the end of this year, the company will pay out $1 million a day.

Here’s Sarah Frier explaining Spotlight in Bloomberg:

To earn the money, video submitters to Spotlight don’t have to have large followers — or even have public profiles. Instead, an algorithm will determine what to show Snapchat users based on how often others view the post. If others view the same video repeatedly, for instance, that’s a signal it’s catching on and will spur the algorithm to distribute it more widely. […]

It’s unclear whether the random chance for a big payout will pull users’ great ideas away from TikTok and Instagram, but Snap provides a unique option: a video’s maker can choose to be private, offering a break from influencer culture. Snap has previously benefited by betting on a product that lowers pressure for users.

For TikTok to succeed over the long term, it has to retain D’Amelio and its other top creators even as their success continuously brings them new opportunities. For Snap to work, it only has to regularly convince average people to play the lottery in between messaging their friends. This bears close watching. Messaging is the stickiest user behavior that exists, and people really, really like lotteries.

Snapchat has a lot of potential entrants in its daily talent show: 249 million daily users, the majority of which likely live in the countries in which Spotlight will initially be available: the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and France.

The app’s popular map feature has already shown that Snapchat’s community will contribute public posts to the network. Now, with Spotlight, they’ll have an ongoing (if fuzzy and possibly only theoretical) financial incentive to do so.

Notably, that incentive is placed at the level of the content, rather than the creator. While some Spotlight posts bear the creator’s name, many really are anonymous — allowing people to profit from their posts without having to develop (and eventually become boxed in by) Snapchat-specific personas.

That’s not to say Snapchat couldn’t develop an influencer ecosystem that closely resembles its peers. In fact, the company keeps taking steps in that direction. Earlier this month, for example, Snapchat began allowing its creators to publicly display their follower counts. Creators with large followings would seem to have an initial advantage in the daily lottery; it remains to be seen how many average citizens will win big.

I hope that many do. The real opportunity for Snap here isn’t that it incubates the next Charli D’Amelio in Spotlight — it’s that thousands of creators make real money on the platform, either once or a large handful of times, and we never learn their names at all. That would be something truly new in social networks — intermittent financial rewards just for using the platform as intended. And it would create a popular destination for Snapchat to show ads, too.

Is it possible that daily rewards paid directly to creators could create a healthier network than our current marketplaces for attention? I don’t know — and when I chatted with folks at Snap last week, they admitted to not knowing themselves. But they very much felt that something like this was worth a shot, and so do I.

This column was co-published with Platformer, a daily newsletter about Big Tech and democracy.

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