Not Really A Recipe for Short Video Platforms

—Ep1: What Short Video Is and Is Not

When I made the plan for this series of essays weeks ago, the title for this first essay was “Why Short-Video Matters”. Then I realized that it’s probably better to change to a more neutral tone since “short-video” has become a “market darling” already.

(tl;dr at the bottom)

To set the stage for the rest of the essay, let’s align on the background:

When people talk about the trend of short-video, oftentimes they are thinking about a company we all know (though probably not anymore recently), and they are actually talking about a mixture of things, of which the most important ones are: the short video format and the algorithm.

The dominant opinions of why short-video matters usually include: shorter attention spans of users; increased distractions in the digital era; video is more effective in grabbing attention; barriers to produce is lower, etc. Though each of them contributes to its popularity, I’d like to share my understanding of its implication.

What Short-Video Is

Fundamentally, it’s a media, so all the conventional analysis of “content” and “distribution” (and “monetization model”) still applies.

  1. It’s more of infrastructure rather than an App/feature
Elements that Constitute the Different Types of Media

Taking a look at the history since (or even before) the early days of print media, you will find that with the modernization and tech advancements, more options became technically and economically accessible in producing and distributing content, giving birth to countless permutations which form a myriad of products, use cases, host devices, behaviors, and monetization models.

Short Video as an Infrastructure to Different Categories of Content

The short-video world we are familiar with as of today, mobile apps allowing you to scroll up and down through a video feed put together by the algorithm, is only a prototype of the full potential yet to be materialized. The impact of the combination of AI algorithm and short format will grow out of its current content genres, use case, and even business model eventually.

2. one small step for distribution, may be one giant leap for media

Among the three elements — content category, content format, and distribution — distribution tends to initiate the most transformative changes throughout the value chain and generate the most profit. And in Jonathan Knee’s examination of different media industries in 2009, he found a consistent pattern: the closer toward the retail end of the value chain, the more competitive advantages and intense concentration was found.

The conclusion is still relevant today, though his analysis was done in a time when smartphone penetration in the US was only 18% and Facebook just started to expand into older demographics. In 2020, AppAnnie shows that the total time spent of US users on the top three Apps on Android apps is more than that of the #4-#20 combined. And iOS shows a similar pattern. Not surprisingly the top 3 include a video platform, social media, and a mobile browser (each represents its era), all of which are downstream aggregators of the content produced by an indefinitely large number of producers.

Android Top Apps by Total Time Spent per Week by All Users Aged 16 to 24 in the US, 2/23/2020–2/20/2021 (Source: AppAnnie)

As you can also find on the table, TikTok rose quickly to the 4th and approaching Facebook already. You may blame the algorithm for making it so addicted or you may think it’s the limit on the length that inspires more creativity. In fact, the pairing up of algorithm and short format is the complete recipe. It offers two competitive advantages: 1)the upper limit on the length makes data more structured and comparable; 2)within the same span of time, more videos are consumed and in turn, more data points are fed into the ranking system. This perfect pair takes the content distribution one step further (and quicker) and is very likely to eventually impact not only the industry dynamic in distribution but also the upstream of the value chain.

What Short-Video is NOT (at least for today)

  1. It’s not the younger generation only

Though no one can deny the fact that the users on TikTok is skew towards Gen Z and Millennials, the infrastructure of AI and short video don’t discriminate people by their age. Actually, The only argument that might make sense is that with more younger users on the platform, the content is more likely targeting the younger generation and the algorithm is better at predicting younger users’ preference as it received more training on it.

The reason why it’s still more popular among younger generations may be explained by 1) the younger generation tends to be more open to innovative products; 2) a self-reinforcing loop — younger early adopters, younger brand image, more younger users. From our conversations with some users from older generations, we learned that some of them don’t use Tiktok even after downloading it out of curiosity. It’s not that they don’t like short videos (they are watching them on other Apps), but simply because they think “it’s an app for teenagers”. I tend to believe that short video will eventually grow its penetration in the older generation just as the OG of UGC video did.

2. It does not mean any short video is better content

Both sides of the marketplace matter. Though you can already find a variety of content on short video platforms, the range is still small compared to the broader content world. As more users spent longer on the platform, they will ask for more.

The good news is that the size and the growth of the audience are attracting more and more players to supply short-form content, but making the video shorter won’t make the magic happen. How to better empower or even educate them to create better content that can retain the audience is something that we are all still learning.

But to be successful online, a magazine can’t just take what it has in print and move it to the electronic realm. There isn’t enough depth or interactivity in print content to overcome the drawbacks of the online medium.

Bill Gates, 1996

3. It’s not evil. Don’t blame the algorithm ever! It’s always human!

Though you may have heard it many times, I would still like to emphasize: Don’t blame algorithm. It’s as innocent as you are. If for whatever reason that you find the experience with any content platform unpleasant, it’s almost always the human beings not doing their job well. It’s either the people fine-tuning the algorithms, or the team responsible for the safety check, or the group labeling the content, or sometimes it could be the executives setting the wrong goals. Also, don’t forget the people producing those disturbing content in the beginning!

The Future—a humble outlook

As mentioned above, the rise of short-video products showcases the power it brought to the distribution infrastructure. This infrastructure can live up to its potential as more contents become available, more players join and more use cases emerge.

Whoever harnesses this tool to meet the growing needs of its users is better positioned to win a large share in today’s war for user attention as the predecessors in content distribution did.


Tiktok is not the only way the short video can look like. It’s the strength of the underlying infrastructure, short format, and AI algorithm combined, matters.

Some drivers lie in the short video’s future include:

  • more diverse and premium content available
  • more use cases beyond the current entertainment format
  • more adoption among people across age groups
  • better collaboration between humans and algorithms

The companies that can solve the challenges and leverage the infrastructure to better meet the growing needs of its users is better positioned to win a large share in today’s war for user attention as the predecessors in content distribution did.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —


Bill Gates, Content is King, Jan 1996

Darcy DiNucci, Fragmented Future, Print Magazine, April 1999

eMarketer, The US Short-Video Landscape, March 2021

Jonathan A. Knee, The Curse of the Mogul: What’s wrong with the world’s leading media companies, BC Greenwald, A Seave, 2009

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