This week: A special on #ChinaTech, with chatbots and the TikTok phenomenon. Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week. 

Our guest, Barney Tan 

The stories this week

00:45 – #ChinaTech

09:33 – Is the chatbot hype over?

19:19 – TikTok and short video platforms prompt anti-addiction drive

Xiaoice has millions of fans 

Xiaoice duplex calls 

Our previous chatbot conversation 

Our previous discussion of conversational interfaces  

Microsoft’s racist chatbot 

Microsoft’s politically correct chatbot  

How TikTok is rewriting the world 

TikTok goes global  

TikTok guide  

Jonathan Grudin’s webpage  

Jonathan’s talk on conversational agents at The University of Sydney 

You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunesSpotifySoundcloudStitcherLibsyn, YouTube or wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us online on FlipboardTwitter, or 

Our theme music was composed and played by Linsey Pollak. 

Send us your news ideas to 

Dr Sandra Peter is the Director of Sydney Executive Plus at the University of Sydney Business School. Her research and practice focuses on engaging with the future in productive ways, and the impact of emerging technologies on business and society.

Kai Riemer is Professor of Information Technology and Organisation, and Director of Sydney Executive Plus at the University of Sydney Business School. Kai's research interest is in Disruptive Technologies, Enterprise Social Media, Virtual Work, Collaborative Technologies and the Philosophy of Technology.

Barney is Professor and Head of School (Information Systems and Technology Management) at the UNSW Business School.

Disclaimer We'd like to advise that the following program may contain real news, occasional philosophy and ideas that may offend some listeners.

Intro This is The Future, This Week on Sydney Business Insights. I'm Sandra Peter, and I'm Kai Riemer. Every week we get together and look at the news of the week. We discuss technology, the future of business, the weird and the wonderful, and things that change the world. Okay, let's start. Let's start!

Kai Today on The Future, This Week: a special on #ChinaTech, with chatbots and the #TikTok phenomenon.

Sandra I'm Sandra Peter, I'm the Director of Sydney Business Insights.

Kai I’m Kai Riemer, professor at the Business School and leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group.

Sandra So Kai, what happened in the future this week?

Kai We have a China special, we have a guest today on The Future, This Week. Associate Professor Barney Tan, a good colleague of ours in the Business Information Systems Discipline here at the University of Sydney Business School, and Barney's research is all about tech in China. Barney has done many projects in and across China, looked into how China develops IT, how China uses IT. And so we picked a number of very current and relevant stories that have to do with how consumers in China are using social media and various technologies.

Sandra So before we get into our stories for today, Barney won't you to tell us a little bit about how the China’s tech landscape is really quite different from what we're used to.

Barney Right, now technology in China, it's essentially a parallel universe. It's actually centred on different standards, different practices. For some time people used to think that China is essentially just imitating what's happening coming out of the West. But I think it has gotten to a stage where Chinese tech firms are actually taking a lead in many of the innovations that are happening in the digital space. Now China is essentially dominated to by three largest tech firms, and they're called collectively the BAT firms, which stands for Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. Much of the innovations are driven by these tech firms. Or even if the innovations are not created by these tech firms, they actually acquire a lot of the most innovative startups that are out there, and they will sort of take their products and just blow it up on the larger scale.

Kai So that's a little bit like we've discussed recently with the platforms in the West when Facebook, Google, they're doing much the same. But there's something really different about China when it comes to how media is consumed.

Sandra Yeah, so they're not a one on one translation of Google or Facebook, or Amazon. They're kind of different.

Barney They are different, and a lot of what they do is just tailored to the tastes of the Chinese market. Which can be very different. It's the little nuances that make these technology platforms just unique in their own right. So the classic example of this is Taobao, their version of eBay. One of the most commonly cited reasons for why Taobao beat eBay in the Chinese market is because they were tailored to Chinese preferences. And one of the key preferences then was that they wanted to negotiate on prices. eBay was actually in China first. I'm not sure how many people actually know that story but they had a 70 percent market share of the...

Kai Consumer to consumer sales.

Barney Yes, the C2C, yeah. But they were essentially just replicating what they did in the West. When Taobao was first created by Alibaba, they went 'oh Chinese consumers they like to haggle over prices because that's what happens in a real offline shopping context'. So they catered to that, if you looked at the price of a product, you think it's exorbitant. You can contact the seller and ask them to lower the price directly.

Kai So rather than having an auction like on eBay, right...

Barney Yes.

Kai Where the price just increases and you're just engaging in that typical bidding behaviour.

Barney Yep.

Kai There you could actually contact the seller...

Barney That's right, and haggle.

Kai And haggle the price down, right, rather than bid the price up.

Barney And to Chinese consumers, to them it's a way of lowering uncertainty. This process of negotiation to them is a way of reducing the uncertainty surrounding a transaction. So it's a perception like that, and it's these sort of habits and preferences that these Chinese platforms are catering to.

Sandra And there is another very significant preference in China and that is the preference for a mobile first.

Kai So in the West we are so used to the internet that evolved on the computers, our browsers, and then at some point we added mobile. And a lot of companies then had to evolve and create mobile versions of their websites, whereas in China things developed in a very different way.

Barney If you search on Google 'Chinese people on mobile phones', you get a lot of pictures of how you know it's an entire train carriage for people just looking at their mobile phones. In China you also get signs that are placed on the ground because people would be looking down as they're walking along the streets.

Kai I call people on their phone’s cyborgs, and when I walk to the train station I always have to pay attention because people walk a little slower and they sway a little because they're glued to their phones. But we haven't gotten that far here to put signs on the floor, so that's interesting.

Barney No. Yeah, but that sort of habit just makes it unique the way they consume online or entertainment content. Because if everyone is mainly accessing the Internet to their mobile phones, and you can imagine on the phone the screen real estate is just limited to that 6 inches off that LED screen that you have. So content has to be tailored to fit that format.

Sandra But that also means that the lot of these services have developed for 'mobile first'. Rather than Facebook or even companies like Amazon that developed for a big real estate, for the desktop, in China many of these companies developed services for 'mobile first'.

Barney That's right. And obviously one of the most ubiquitous platforms in China would be WeChat. And to me, one of the reasons why WeChat took off in such a big way is simply because of the nuances of keying in the Chinese language. Keying in Chinese characters is incredibly difficult with a QUERTY keyboard. You have to type in what is called Hanyu Pinyin, which is the phonetic sounds of each Chinese word. It's incredibly clunky and difficult to do. One of the reasons why WeChat took off was because they've allowed the sending of voice messages. And, it's again one of those nuances of the Chinese market, because it's difficult to type in Chinese characters, they would find it more convenient to send you a voice message. But to me I actually find it, you know, as someone who's not in the Chinese market, I actually find. you know, someone sending me a voice message quite kinda intrusive. I like to type my messages, but my colleagues and friends in China, they love to send me voice messages.

Sandra So these are all the people walking on the street holding the phone up to their mouths like a sandwich, talking very quickly into it.

Barney Exactly, exactly. I think it's called the walkie talkie function.

Kai Yeah. And it is a bit like that, like an asynchronous walkie talkie where you don't have to respond directly but you basically have these short conversations. I was in a meeting the other day and a person arrived, a guest from China and another Chinese person was in the room, and that person needed to find the room. And she held up the phone to the Australian woman's face and said 'just tell her what to do', and it was very awkward because it was clear that this was on WeChat and it was very normal to the Chinese colleagues to just communicate that way, but it really sort of...

Sandra Paralysed our Australian counterpart.

Kai Yeah, paralysed the Australian person. She found it very awkward to just talk into it and leave this short message, right.

Barney It's not something that we're used to.

Kai No.

Barney But for them it just makes sending messages a lot easier because the alternative would be to type whatever you wanted to say in a very cumbersome manner through Hanyu Pinyin.

Kai But WeChat, and we've mentioned this previously, has also become a whole ecosystem to do commerce now, right. So that to us in the West sounds quite unusual that a whole commerce empire would emerge off the back of a chat app, because that's not really in line with how business models would work here.

Barney Well that's because they integrate, and more importantly they're allowed to integrate everything. So what's happening would be all of these various businesses would participate on the WeChat ecosystem, setting up what they call 'official channels'. And they would be allowed to set up, I think the Chinese term is literally translated as 'micro programs' where they would have these automated interfaces to serve customers through these official channels.

Sandra But that means on something like which they could check my school records or I could book a taxi or I could order a food, or pretty much do anything I would normally do on the Internet.

Barney That's right and you do either through dropdown menus and buttons that are available on the official channel itself, or you can do it through a bot.

Kai Which is incidentally our first story that we've picked. And the article that we're going to discuss is from UX Design which is on Medium, and it's called "Is the chatbot a hype of the past? What are the key takeaways?". So, this obviously is an article that talks about chatbots in the West, in the US, but we are going to talk about how this translates into the Chinese context and how things are slightly different there with WeChat, and the way in which commerce is done. So the article starts off by saying that in early 2016 chatbots, conversational agents really became a thing. In April 2016 Facebook launched its Messenger bot platform, and later in that year in May Google announced Google Assistant. And then, it took off from there.

Sandra And the hype was born. Back in January 2016 Chris Messina said that 2016 will be the year of conversational commerce. Indeed Facebook, Microsoft, Line and IBM all launched chatbot platforms, and Slack even launched a chatbot development investment fund. And by October the predictions started coming in. Gartner again here, one of our favourites, said that by 2021 more than 50 percent of enterprises will spend more on chatbots than on traditional mobile app development. This was going to be the post-app era where chatbots will have become the face of AI. And by November 2016 Gartner was seeing that 80 percent of new enterprise applications will be using chatbots and that by 2021 most enterprises will treat chatbots as the most important platform. Paradigm 'chatbots first' was going to replace 'cloud first' or 'mobile first'.

Kai And the article makes the point that that hasn't quite happened yet. Of course the hype was fuelled by advances in what's called natural language processing so the application of AI to speech recognition and speech generation, both when it comes to text or speech interfaces. But for a number of reasons, at least in the West, chatbots haven't quite taken off in the way that Gartner and others predicted back then.

Sandra But by late last year people were already there seeing that chatbots are dead and a lack of AI had killed them. They were asking "chatbots where the next big thing. What happened?".

Kai Were they ever alive, right? So, question being, where is this going, what were the problems? And we can go to the article for a couple of ideas about what went wrong, and also, we had Jonathan Gruden here from Microsoft Research. Jonathan is very well known in human computer interaction, so he is one of those really well-known characters who have been around for quite a long time, and he reported on some of the research that was done in Microsoft into what went wrong.

Sandra But in order to grasp that, I think it's quite useful to look at what chatbots are to begin with, and there are really three different kinds of chatbots out there.

Kai Yeah, and just briefly, Jonathan outlined that there are those that can handle a broad range of tasks in a fairly shallow way and these are typically your intelligent assistants like Siri, or Alexa or Google Home. Which basically can answer simple questions, they can retrieve information or execute commands, but they're not very deeply knowledgeable in any area.

Sandra They'll tell you what the weather is like, they'll play your favourite music, they'll help you shop for things.

Kai Yeah. And these things are still around and they are thriving, but the ones that companies were most interested in were task-focused bots. These are the ones that work in a more narrowly defined area but have deep knowledge and can actually help customers with advisory in certain areas, like in banking, or take orders for pizza or in a shopping context more generally. And we're going to talk about those briefly. And then we have what Jonathan called virtual companions and they're supposed to be both broadly and deeply knowledgeable, and really hold conversations in any sort of area.

Sandra And indeed we've seen the most popular ones probably in the West are things like Alexa and Siri and really the smart assistance and to a lesser extent the task-focused bots, which you might encounter when you order your pizza, or indeed when you interact with your local bank. And this is where things actually started to break down.

Kai So, these task-focused bots that companies were supposed to rebuild their commerce platforms on, failed for a couple of reasons. The first one is usability or the inefficiency of engaging in long conversations to just order a pizza or something, and the article points out that they become inefficient when the content area is too complex. But more importantly, an effect that Jonathan Gruden calls 'falling off a cliff' is when customers ask the bot something that they think is relevant, but then slightly outside of the area that the bot is trained in. He gave the example of the Olympics, and they had a chatbot that was really knowledgeable about all the athletes, and the events and the history of the Olympics. But when someone would ask it where the nearest toilet block was, the agent was completely lost for words. And so he made the point that when this happens, customers lose all trust, and then would not continue with the conversation. And so it is often very difficult to build these things in a way that comply with the expectations of the customers.

Sandra And this is why we still see chatbots surviving in very clearly-defined contexts, things like banking where everything that we ask is within a very defined set of problems, but they have failed to spread as widely as it was predicted. But there is one area where conversational agents seem to have made good inroads, and that is especially visible in places like China.

Barney Yeah, I think bots are especially suited for the tech environment in China. I mean if you look at WeChat, you know, it's essentially a chat platform, so that lends itself really to the implementation of chatbots. And indeed if businesses have official accounts on WeChat, all of those official accounts usually come manned by a bot. So you can, for example, go to the official channel of DiDi which is their version of Uber, and whatever you say to them, whatever you type into that channel, essentially a bot would reply and ask you if you would like to book a taxi, or book a passenger car, or book a ride. So the environment that WeChat provides is very conducive for the implementation of bots. But earlier you talked about the three types of bots, and I'm thinking that even though there seem to be three distinct categories, I feel like the lines between them are actually blurring, because each of these have their own limitations. One interesting implementation of bots in China would be virtual companions, and I'm aware that there's a Microsoft product called Xiaoice that is gaining some traction in the Chinese market. And I think it's these sort of virtual companions, at least in China, it's really geared towards fulfilling a latent need within the Chinese market. I'm not sure if this compares to what's happening in the West, but in China people tend to work long hours. It almost mirrors the situation that's happening in Japan. Work takes up a large proportion of the people's lives, and because of that social interactions get pushed to the background, you get very limited opportunities to interact with other people. Maybe there is a general sense of loneliness in the population that has to be fulfilled, or you know it's a need that needs to be met to some extent. And that's why virtual companions could have a distinct place in China.

Sandra And you mentioned Xiaoice, and she has 660 million followers and users online. And although she's not real, she gets gifts, she gets invited out to dinner, people want to date her, write her love letters, send her all these presents and things that they've made for her. So it's a real presence in people's lives.

Barney I think it's because Xiaoice has sort of a personality that the developers have given her. Xiaoice is female and she's young. So you know when you give characteristics like that to a bot, people tend to create their own mental impressions of the bot, and they would treat her like a person of that characteristics would be treated.

Kai And so we want to remind our listeners that Microsoft has had some mixed results with building these types of bots. So, we discussed Tay, the bot that Microsoft launched in the West, the one that famously became racist within 24 hours. But Microsoft has learned from this, and Jonathan Gruden talked a lot about what they did in the background to build all kinds of safety nets, and use AI to weed out certain things that users might try to actually manipulate the bot. And Xiaoice seems to be a really successful implementation that plays into the Chinese mentality, as we heard. And I think it's probably not just loneliness, because we've discussed previously that loneliness increasingly is an epidemic in the West as well, we don't tend to flock to bots. So there's something else I think going on in China, where interactions online tend to be a little bit different, but increasingly may be spilling over to the West. And I think this is where we want to bring in your story that you brought for us today.

Barney I think one of the things that Xiaoice succeeds in, is it limits itself to fluffy topics, fluffy content, and it doesn't ever allow itself to get racist like the previous implementation of their bots.

Kai So it stays very conversational, small-talk type of conversations.

Barney That's right, that's right. And I think it really speaks to the way Chinese consumers are evolving in terms of their preference for certain social or entertainment content that they're consuming. One of the latest platforms to come out of China, that has actually caught fire globally, is this platform called TikTok. Its origins is a Chinese platform called Douyin. And what it does, Douyin, is just allow people to upload short videos of 15 seconds.

Kai So that's a bit like Vine used to be.

Barney It's a bit like Vine. But as we all know, Vine collapsed. It's gone now.

Sandra Vine used to have six second content.

Barney And maybe that's the reason why it failed. Six seconds may simply just be too short for anything interesting or substantial to unfold, whereas maybe 15 seconds is the magic number.

Kai 15 seconds is plenty, that's all you need.

Barney But apparently Douyin has caught fire in China in such a big way that it has millions of users. And we get phenomenal stories like a farmer who uploads her daily life to Douyin, and somehow you know the things she says, or the things she does would be particularly interesting. And people would just sort of gravitate towards that. And as a result of that we see these influencers on Douyin just emerging, making a lot of money just from, you know, endorsements and product sponsorships. This becomes a viable career path for some of these people. Now TikTok is a very interesting platform, it's video sharing, short. It's like Vine, but like I said, it's only 15 seconds. People are allowed to buy gifts for influencers, that they think they like, they are allowed to follow them. You can think of it a little bit like Instagram, but the format of the media that is being exchanged is 15 second videos. Within 15 seconds, you can't do very much with those videos. It's generally just almost mindless fluffy content.

Kai So what makes it a phenomenon then?

Barney Well I don't know. People just get very addicted to the content. What's interesting about TikTok is they actually use artificial intelligence to continuously push you content that they think you'd like. They learn your habits, they learn what sort of videos that you like. And based on that, based on what they know about you and what they learn about you, they're just going to continuously push you a stream of related videos. And it's not uncommon to turn on TikTok, watch the first video, and then the next thing you know you've found that you have spent actually three hours on TikTok.

Sandra And that is actually what happened to both Kai and I last night, where we spent hours looking at this. Because it's a very different experience, right, it really hits you. You get into it and there is nothing there except content for you. There are no friends. There are no links, you don't have to befriend anyone, there is just an algorithm that learns what you like and then keeps presenting you with that content.

Kai Yeah, it's unlike any other experience of so-called social media platforms that we've had, and so we got into this and we read up on it a little bit and there's a number of articles that we'll put in the shownotes that talk about supposedly what it is and how you use it. And a lot of what happens on TikTok is subsumed by the word cringe, right. So there's a lot of videos of people doing all kinds of silly things.

Sandra For 15 seconds.

Kai Yeah, for 15 seconds, and then imitating each other. And so you can post so-called duets where you imitate someone else's video, and your video will appear next to theirs. There's challenges that are attached to hashtags where everyone is dared to do something.

Barney Challenges are amazing and they basically came out of China, and you have all kinds of challenges, weird and crazy ones. I think there's something like the A4 challenge where you're supposed to hold an A4 paper in front of your body and your body is supposed to be smaller than the A4 piece of paper, just to show that you're slimmer than the A4 piece of paper.

Kai That sounds a little unhealthy.

Barney There's another challenge, where it's basically a transformation challenge and, you know, you have some music playing in the background about a break up. And then, you know they'll cover the camera and then when they lift the cover the person is transformed. So it's sort of a make-up challenge, before and after.

Sandra Or there are challenges to lip-sync to famous videos while you are imitating other people who've lip-synced to famous videos.

Barney Yes, or finger dancers, you would dance with your fingers.

Kai So the platform makes it really easy to create your own content. It gives guidance, it's a step-by-step process. So it really puts up a very low hurdle to actually get involved.

Sandra And it gets past that idea of a self-directed experience, once you go on Facebook or even on Instagram, it is to some extent a self-directed experience. You have to pick things that you like, you have to choose people that you want to follow, whereas on TikTok everything is triggered by an algorithm and designed for you, based on your preferences. So it takes that challenge off.

Kai So we've found a good article in The New York Times which made the point that unlike other social platforms TikTok is and I quote, "more machine than man", because it's unapologetically driven by an algorithm that will present, from the first moment you sign up and open the app, stuff that is relevant to you. And it will constantly learn and feed more 15 second videos, to the point where it really becomes very addictive.

Barney My question is, what's wrong with that? And maybe sometimes it's all about keeping people occupied. People will look for entertainment if they're bored, anyway.

Kai There's nothing wrong with that per se. I think what I want to discuss is to what extent does that actually resemble the social media that we're used to? Because it's often put into the same category as Instagram or Snapchat or Facebook. When in fact I think what TikTok does, it reduces the social element to a bare minimum, right. When you look at the history of social media in the West for example, Facebook is all about creating relationships, communities. So you will connect with your real life friends, you make new online friends. But everything revolves around a social graph, which is relationships between people, a social network. On the basis of that, you'd then have interactions with people who share content. Over time Facebook injected more content from other places, news and things, and they figured that they could actually engage people more if they algorithmically configured the content that you see and it evolved from there. To the point that today, they're in the business of selling people's attention to advertisers so they optimize a lot for attention-grabbing and time spent on the platform. And I think what TikTok has done, is they have gone straight to that metric, without actually the necessity to build a social fabric, a social network, relationships. They go straight to interactions between people that are algorithmically configured, and so in that sense they're not really a social network, or a social platform, but more like an interaction entertainment platform that brings people together in a very fluid and sometimes ephemeral way.

Barney But maybe that's not what TikTok is configured for, I mean the social aspect, or helping people establish relationships, because they're never going to supplant Facebook and WeChat anyway.

Kai No, but that's my point, right. We shouldn't call them a social network and compare them with Facebook I think they complement Facebook, as a sort of an entertainment platform, but their competitors are more other entertainment platforms, like Netflix, or YouTube, or these kinds of platforms. They're not really a social media...

Sandra I would argue that it's still social, because you're still engaging with other people. It's all about what other people are doing and how you see other people.

Kai That's true. But that to me would be the narrowest definition of social, would be it's just a bunch of people. Because normally when we talk about the social, it's about communities, relationships, norms. This is collective for sure, but it has taken the social to really, a minimum layer.

Sandra So it's a collective network, but it also, at the same time, it actually if you think about it does away with all the problems that Facebook has. It's very difficult to use something like TikTok for manipulation or to influence people during elections, or to hijack it for any other purposes other than entertainment. So it does away with many of the things that Facebook is now saddled with, because the metric has become engagement, and because it can be co-opted to serve some more nefarious purposes.

Barney Well I think the biggest difference between TikTok and platforms like YouTube or Instagram, is the artificial intelligence engine behind it. And they don't even give you a choice of what to watch. The moment you log onto TikTok, the content starts playing, and then you are immediately engaged, you're immediately hooked. As opposed to Instagram or YouTube where you actually pick people to subscribe to or follow. There's really no need to do that on TikTok. And I think most people use TikTok, just, you know, you log on and you just continue watching. You wouldn't necessarily subscribe or follow a particular influencer, because the best content tends to emerge organically anyway. And TikTok knows what videos are trending, what content are trending, and they will push you based on what you like or dislike, or your past behaviours.

Sandra And let's just remind our listeners that it's incredibly, phenomenally successful so it has more subscribers than Facebook. It actually I think had over 800 million active users on it.

Kai That's in the West.

Sandra And the parent company is valued that about 75 billion dollars, so that is more than a company like Uber is valued at the moment. So phenomenally successful.

Kai And so TikTok was set up in the West as a sister product by, what's it called again?

Barney Douyin.

Kai Yes, and how TikTok evolved is that the company bought which was very popular among younger users, teenagers and younger children, for sharing little music videos, and so was fully integrated into TikTok and it gave it an instant user base but it has evolved from there to become popular with all kinds of user ages.

Barney And because of the demographics of the user base it has actually caused some concerns about, and we hear of news reports about how adults were contacting children and teenagers unsolicited. That has led to some concerns.

Sandra And that is in the article that started this whole conversation. The article that you've brought up from the South China Morning Post, which talked about the fact that China had launched these anti-addiction drives to protect young people from the short video watching addiction.

Kai Yeah, from both, right? The inappropriate content on the platform, and you know, incidents you talk about, but also from just spending way too much time on the platform.

Barney Well parents are able to limit the amount of time that children can spend on the platform, I think to about 40 minutes. And even for adults, you would get a handy reminder every 90 minutes that it's time for you to probably take a break.

Kai What I find fascinating about TikTok is that it seems to be a perfect mirror of where entertainment goes in our times. It's very in the moment, right. It's really creating a present, without the baggage of the past, it's not tied into the relationships that you have as in Facebook, where you need to be mindful of what you post because you don't want to present yourself in front of your friends in a certain way. There's not really a future, because you're not building a body of content, a timeline that would stay with you. So it's really reduced to the moment, and it reduces the barrier of what you do, right, it takes away the shame aspect, and it really becomes quite silly and engaged, so...

Barney Well, nothing can be held against you...

Kai Exactly.

Barney Essentially. And that's sort of the trend I see, you know most technology platforms that have emerged, that have caught fire in recent years, have gone down this route. Like for example, Snapchat. What is it with pictures that disappear? Why can't you ever keep records of pictures? I'm not sure if it speaks to the attention-span of a new age of consumers, or just the fact that consumers don't want records of their behaviours in the digital space held against them in the future.

Sandra Or maybe it's a slightly liberating that you don't have to post every day, if I'm on Instagram, or if I'm on Facebook, I have to post something for all my subscribers every day to keep them engaged on the platform. Whereas on TikTok you could post one video, or you could post ten, or you could stop posting for a while. It's not like you're big followership will miss that if you don't do it for a day.

Kai And also when you think about recent discussions around Facebook, and addictions on Facebook, and how the company reacted when Zuckerberg came out and presented this mantra of 'time well spent', right, so it's got to be more meaningful. I think TikTok is unapologetically going the other way. It's just about spending time, right. They don't even pretend that this is about creating purpose and meaning in life. It's just to be there and spend your time.

Sandra And what's wrong with having some fun, sometimes.

Barney Exactly.

Kai No, no, nothing is wrong. In the West we tend to think it's wasting time, right. And we might say I don't want to use it, maybe because it takes away time that I need to spend on more meaningful things.

Sandra Meaningful or efficient things, because in the West a lot of it is about spending our time efficiently. Unless we're, you know, developing skills, or developing a followership, or being productive, or being yet more productive, it's not time well spent.

Kai Exactly, and this is where Silicon Valley has a hard time understanding the way in which TikTok operates, because Silicon Valley is so attuned to self-optimisation, and making the best use of your time. And then something like TikTok comes along that plays well in China, and takes off in the West, which for all intents and purposes completely ignores this philosophy, right.

Barney But this has always been happening. Like if you go to the cinemas and you're watching a slapstick comedy. Why do you want to watch it? It's meaningless. You should leave your brain at the door as you walk into the theatre. But that's all has been happening throughout time, so I guess TikTok just fulfils this need, inherent need, in society. Leave your brain at the door, and just go in to the world of TikTok, enjoy yourself for that moment, and that's it.

Kai And I remember when I was a teenager, right, there were these extended periods of boredom where we had nothing to do. And TikTok comes along and fills that niche and says, you know 'rather than do nothing, you can do anything, right, on the platform. Just spend time and enjoy yourself'.

Sandra Or you can do nothing on the platform.

Kai Yes that's right. And just watch and fill your time. And I think in that respect, it really plays well with younger audiences.

Barney And if you're a teenager today, being a TikTok influencer can become a viable career path. And indeed many teenagers in China, especially those from more rural or disadvantaged communities, see that as a way out, because they see TikTok, you know the playing field is sort of equal. Everyone gets the same access to TikTok, but all of a sudden, they see these examples that are being held up, you know to a farmer in China who has millions of followers, and they make millions of dollars just you know being a, what they call 'key opinion leader' on the platform. It becomes something that youngsters, especially from disadvantaged and rural communities, they can aspire to. So instead of saying 'oh, I'd like to become an astronaut, or a you know, Nobel Prize winning scientist when I grow up', some of them just say 'I want to be a TikTok or social media influencer' in China.

Kai So is it wrong that I find that a little bit, ah depressing?

Barney It's a sign of the times, Kai.

Kai We're getting old, on The Future, This Week.

Sandra So just to prove that we're not getting old and to thank Barney for joining us on The Future, This Week, I think we should film some weird shit for TikTok. 15 seconds.

Kai We can do 15 seconds.

Barney Can we?

Kai Thanks a lot Barney, this was a really interesting view into a different world.

Sandra And that's all we have time for today.

Kai See you soon.

Sandra On the Future.

Kai Next week.

Sandra This week?

Kai Yes, but next week.

Sandra On The Future, This Week. Next week. Thanks for listening.

Kai Thanks for listening.

Outro This was The Future, This Week made possible by the Sydney Business Insights team and members of the Digital Disruption Research Group. And every week right here with us, our sound editor Megan Wedge who makes us sound good, and keeps us honest. Our theme music is composed and played live on a set of garden hoses by Linsey Pollak. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud or wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us online on Flipboard, Twitter or If you have any news that you want us to discuss, please send them to

Related content