Book review: Attention Factory tells the story of TikTok and the mysterious art of converting attention into dollars

Attention Factory manages to tell a story, humanise the company behind TikTok, dispel myths, and decode the power of short videos that changed the world in 2020

Kusumita Das October 09, 2021 08:58:39 IST
Book review: Attention Factory tells the story of TikTok and the mysterious art of converting attention into dollars

While the world is no stranger to the unrivaled success of Tik Tok, little was known about its origin story until Matthew Brennan’s book Attention Factory: The Story Of Tik Tok And China’s Byte Dance was published last year. Given how far away from Silicon Valley this chapter in tech history unfolded, Tik Tok was, and perhaps still is, quite the enigma - a force that came from the left field and impacted people’s Internet habits in a way no one could have predicted. It was the most downloaded app in 2020, an online quarantine refuge that captured the imagination and attention of more than a billion active users around the world. At the time when the book was being written, Tik Tok and its parent company, the global behemoth ByteDance, was valued at $100 billion dollars.

Brennan is a well-known writer, entrepreneur and expert on Chinese tech companies, including WeChat, China’s uber famous messaging app, and ByteDance, the parent company of Tik Tok. The author, who speaks fluent Mandarin and has been living in mainland China for over 16 years, wrote the book during the outbreak of Covid 19 in China, and subsequently around the world. The book is known to be the first of its kind deep-dive into the story of Tik Tok and ByteDance written in English. In fact, even in Chinese, there is only one book on the subject, albeit with a different approach, as Brennan reportedly said in an interview. A lot has been said and written about Tik Tok by tech analysts, academics and journalists; but what lends Brennan’s book a compelling edge is that it is a first hand account of his own observations sitting on ground zero. Sitting in China, he witnessed the real time rise of Douyin, the original Chinese version of Tik Tok, in late 2017. The book is a sum of his observations, interviews with some of the original ByteDance staff members, analysis of Internet trends that transformed the ecosystem of Chinese social media and anecdotes that were well-known in China but yet to make their way into English on a global level. Brennan has also corrected several inaccuracies and dispelled a few myths that were rampant about the lesser-known ways of the Chinese tech industry.

The book is divided into two parts and each part goes into very extensive detail that spans across China and then straight into the heart of Silicon Valley, with even a little bit of France and Japan thrown in. Brennan’s style is conversational and his storytelling tone makes the wealth of information seem accessible and understandable to the average reader. However, given the nature of the subject, it does get deeply technical time and again, and one would perhaps need to read and reread to fully grasp the goings on. Nonetheless, it’s never dull. In fact, parts of the book sound like they’ve been lifted off a thriller, when the reader is taken into the underbelly of warehouses in China, and given a glimpse of how ByteDance in its early days would pre-install its apps in Android phones, and had developed a system of simple give-and-take business wherein store managers in the country would ensure that users would activate the concerned apps. It’s the quintessential Chinese grey market practice – after factory, before consumer.

The early chapters in the book delve into the life of Zhang Yimming, the CEO of ByteDance – it paints a picture of his childhood followed by his college life, and the individual he grew up to be, shy and sharp, always craving excellence and never taking the beaten path. Here is a man who developed a software to crunch the numbers when he was looking to buy an apartment, instead of taking the standard approach of talking to friends and family, and approaching real estate companies. His way got him a property that had more than doubled its price in less than a year. So there’s out-of-the-box and then there is Zhang Yimming. It is this kind of thinking that eventually paved the way to changing the Internet for good. However, the journey to the top was a zig-zag route, wherein Yimming made sure he learnt from every minute observation and the littlest of mistakes. Brennan takes his readers through a detailed journey of the evolution of ByteDance, right from the time the company worked out of two apartments in Beijing. From choosing an English name to be more accessible to global users, to employing the system of personalised recommendation to cash in on the new era ushered in by smartphones, and tapping into user behavior every step of the way to convert attention to dollars – there are many things that ByteDance did right. Yimming brought in his learnings from every bit of practical experience he had gained working in a real estate start-up, a travel search engine, not to mention his brief stint in Microsoft, whose ways he deeply disregarded. It was Yimming’s epiphany on the power of recommendation that proved to be a game changer for ByteDance – “the shift from people looking for information to information looking for people” in his words.

The rise of the recommendation engine is something the book goes into very deeply. Stumbleupon was among the earliest pioneers of content recommendation, Brennan points out. An important and interesting aspect of his book is how he delves into the parallel histories of other players in the game, such as YouTube, Dubsmash, Musical.ly, a French app called Mindie and closer home ByteDance’s very own Toutiao and Douyin. Tik Tok’s success story cannot be separated from these vital chapters of tech history. And for readers it’s interesting to learn how these apps and websites were beaten into shape. Brennan dives deep into the then rising phenomenon of machine learning, Google Brain, AI, Deep Learning, providing rudimentary graphs and flowcharts to illustrate how the numbers moved in these areas. Riding on this enormous research, the book is really an exploration of why and how the full-screen, vertical short video format became the most unexpected success story, the reason behind the ever-formidable Facebook not being able to counter the rise of Tik Tok and how exactly Tik Tok blindsided every bit of competition that came in its way. Through the Tik Tok story, Brennan lets us in on the competitive dynamics of large Internet companies existing during the rise of the mobile Internet, where no two days were the same.

Essentially, this is a story about how the world of Chinese Internet collided with that of America, and then integrated and converged over the past decade. Tik Tok has changed the way the world thinks of China and Chinese technology. Come to think of it, Tik Tok in many countries, including India is still perceived as low-brow and largely tacky – a lot of trashy videos, singing and dancing and silly comedy. Yet, the technology behind it is so advanced and Brennan explores this interesting juxtaposition. How does the legendary Tik Tok algorithm work? What little growth hacks did ByteDance use on its way to the top? Who exactly is Zhang Yimming, the company's mysterious founder? These are questions the book gets to the bottom of.

Attention Factory, for the most part is a business-focused book, something that investors, industry insiders and academics will find great value in. But, at the same time, it manages to tell a story, humanise the company, dispel myths and decode the power of short videos that changed the world in 2020. Today Tik Tok is as much a home to the world’s funniest cat videos, as it is a force of digital activism led by Gen Z, be it against communal violence in India, or #BlackLivesMatter in the US. For curious minds, the book is a chronicle of this long, winding road, touted to be the most far-reaching exploration of its kind.

Kusumita Das is a freelance journalist from India currently living in Jerusalem. She writes on cinema, culture and travel, and in her free time tries to string together sentences in Hebrew.

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