Matthew Brennan – Attention Factory. The Story of TikTok and China’s ByteDance

  • Attention factory (book summary). Considered hard to review or even to summarize, the book “Attention factory. The story of TikTok & China’s ByteDance” written by Matthew Brannan presents the story of Zhang Yiming (Ch.1) and his company. So, the following chapters are about: Toutiao platform (chapters: 2, 3 & 4), Douyin platform (chapters: 5 & 6) and TikTok platform (chapter 7 & 8). These three platforms belong to ByteDance company.
  • Great FireWall. This is the internet security filter that is dividing the world in two halves: the internet ecosystem inside the China; and the internet ecosystem outside the China. For instance, in China we have the Baidu research engine, but not Google. While in the rest of the world, we have the Google research engine, but not Baidu.
  • kingdoms (other names used in the literature for “the kingdoms”: the giants, the kingmakers, the players). By this term Matthew Brennan is putting the equal sign between one kingdom and one internet ecosystem. An internet ecosystem is an internet company, an internet star. In the literature concerning ByteDance, the scholars are usually referring to alliances between kingdoms as the following:
    • BAT = Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent
    • TMD = Toutiao, Meituan and Didi Chuxing
    • GAMFA = Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon
    • FAANG = Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google
    • Chunmeizi Su (in her book “Douyin, TikTok and China’s online screen industry”), as well as Matthew Brennan (in his paper “Attention factory”) are using also two other expressions linked with the term “kingdoms”:
      • ghosts and shells. The “shell” is the ByteDance company, for instance, that has three “ghosts”, i.e. three platforms: Toutiao (a platform for news), Douyin and TikTok (two platforms for short videos)
      • fangs’ beast. The “beast” is the platform that has activated many applications (or “fangs”). For example, Douyin has the following fangs: Xigua (Watermelon) video, Huoshan (Volcano) short video, and (Awesome me). Also, TikTok is full of fangs like: Flipagram,, Lark & Feishu, CapCut, etc
  • hero’s journey (the basic plots). These two expressions, used interchangeably, saw the light under the pen of such authors as: Carl Gustav Jung, Joseph Campbell and many others like Christopher Booker. On the internet platforms, Matthew Brennan identified some “memes”, some specific steps the hero took in his/ her journey; or some specific subplots of the main plot:
    • reveal memes = “involve a short set up, followed by a dramatic transformation or reveal”. Some “reveal memes” are: “Don’t Judge Me Challenge”, “Karma’s a Bitch”, “The Harlem Shake”, etc
    • dance memes = “involve mimicking a set sequence of dance moves or hand gestures that accompany the lyrics or beat of a song”. Some “dance memes” included those aired by Baby Ariel
    • challenge memes = “involve completing a difficult, unpleasant, or skillful task”. For instance: “Ice Bucket Challenge”, “Bottlecap Challenge” or the now infamous (example of eating disorder): “A4 Waist Challenge”
    • filter memes = “are based around the use of a specific special effect”. For example: “Mirror Reflection Challenge”
    • concept memes = “[is a concept] that is novel but sufficiently replicable by others who, in turn, may add their own twist”. Brannan is speaking of “Planking”, “Mannequin Challenge” or “Gummy Bear Challenge”
  • skeletons in the closet (other names used in the literature are: the elephant in the room, the black box). The skeleton in the closet/ cupboard is an expression used as least as early as November 1816. Similarly, the elephant in the room is an idiom first introduced by the poet and fabulist Ivan Krylov in his 1814’s fable “The Inquisitive Man”. Finally, the phrase black box entered the English language around 1945. These three phrases are pointing to the algorithms of the internet platforms and Matthew Brennan is presenting two models of what are supposed to do these algorithms:
    • Zhang Yiming & Louis Yang model: “In a short 2017 presentation at Tencent Media event in Shanghai, Louis outlaid his thoughts regarding the use of technology”. This model was previously put forward by Zhang Yiming: “By late 2013 (…) Yiming was invited to give a presentation at a small industry conference where he laid out a complete picture of his thoughts”. This model comprises 4 types of engines:
      • subscription: “<Sign up for our newsletter> has been the primary website call to action [since back in the 1990s] (…) with inboxes becoming increasingly cluttered ever since”
      • curation: “A key characteristic of portal sites is that human editors decide which content to display and give prominence to”
      • search: “[by the mid-1990’s] search engines were [used (…)] to solve a pressing need – locating precise information across an unimaginably vast decentralized network”
      • recommendation: “[the differences between search and recommendation are characterized by] the shift from people looking for information to information looking for people”. Up to nowadays, there are three different types of recommendation systems:
        • content-based filtering: “A content-based filtering system will recommend content to [only one user similar to what he/ she already liked to consume]”
        • collaborative filtering: “A collaborative filtering system will base their recommendations on finding groups of users who enjoy similar content”
        • hybrid filtering: this type is combining the previous two types
    • Evan Spiegel model: Contrary to the Yiming & Yang model where the accent is on the competition of ByteDance with the other kingdoms, the Spiegel model considers that ByteDance is a friend, not a foe, to the other kingdoms and especially to Facebook. Therefore, here, we cannot speak of competition, but of cooperation:
      • self-expression: “Spiegel conceptualized a three-level pyramid of communication technology with the base being composed of self-expression (…): he classified [it] as universal behavior that anyone would feel comfortable doing”
      • status: “[On top of self-expression is the layer of status] (…) Social media in its original construct is really about status, showing people that you are cool, getting likes and comments”
      • talent: “The final pyramid layer was termed <talent>. Talent based content was more interesting than status-based content. It consisted of people creating media to entertain others. Producing this content took time and creativity”
  • up the hills and down the valleys (also known as the model comprising the following performers: the innovators, the early adopters, the early majority, the late majority, the laggard). This idiom is pointing to the “diffusion of innovation”. The literature on this phenomenon babbles with such pen authors as: Everett Rogers, Geoffrey Moore, Gartner company, Larry Downes, Paul Nunes or Clayton Christensen. More importantly, Matthew Brennan is depicting some important groups targeted by ByteDance along its history. A short list will follows:
    • creators
    • art college students
    • misfits & loosers:
      • furries
      • cosplayers
      • gamers
      • etc
    • celebrities
      • Jimmy Fallon
      • Ellen DeGeneres
      • etc
    • veterans
      • Zhang Lidong (former Beijing Times editor-in-chief)
      • Xiang Liang (former Hulu researcher)
      • Yang Zhenyuan, Zhu Wenjia, Chen Yuqiang (former Baidy talents)
      • Vanessa Pappas (former YouTube executive)
      • Blake Chandlee (former Facebook vice president)
      • Erich Andersen (former Microsoft executive)
      • Roland Cloutier (ex-U.S. Air Force combat security specialist)
      • Kavin Mayer (former Walt Disney executive)
      • etc

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  • Matthew Brennan (2020): “Attention factory. The story of TikTok & China’s ByteDance”,
  • Chunmeizi Su (2023): “Douyin, TikTok and China’s online screen industry. The rise of short-video platforms”, Routledge
  • Joseph Campbell (2008): “The hero with a thousand faces”, Joseph Campbell Foundation
  • Carl Gustav Jung (2014): “The collected works of C. G. Jung”, Princeton University Press
  • Christopher Booker (2013): “The seven basic plots. Why we tell stories”,
  • W. R. S. Ralston (1871): “The inquisitive man” in “Krilof and his fables”, Strahan & Co. Publishers, pp. 43-44
  • Everett M. Rogers (2003): “Diffusion of innovations”, Free Press
  • Larry Downes & Paul Nunes (2014): “Big Bang disruption. Business survival in the age of constant innovation”, Portofolio Penguin
  • Geoffrey Moore (1995): “Crossing the chasm. Marketing and selling high-tech products to mainstream customers”, HarperBusiness, A Division of Harper Collins Publishers
  • Jackie Fenn & Mark Raskino (2008): “Mastering the hype cycle. How to choose the right innovation at the right time”, Harvard Business Press
  • Clayton Christensen (2016): “The innovator’s dilemma. When new technologies cause great firms to fall”, Harvard Business Review Press

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