The average TikTok user—of which there are one billion worldwide, more than 100 million in the United States, and 23 million in the UK—spends an hour and 25 minutes on the app every day, according to data shared by TikTok in an private presentation to business clients in late January 2022. The average TikTok user opens the app to watch videos 17 times a day.
Longer videos will likely further increase TikTok’s market share, says Gahan. For one, it will compete with YouTube’s longer videos, which make up the lion’s share of content on the site. “Longer form content allows TikTok to more directly take on YouTube,” he says. “Given YouTube is the second largest search engine, even capturing a fraction of their viewership could have massive positive ramifications for TikTok.”
The decision is largely driven by the potential for more advertising revenue, reckons Meg Jing Zeng, a TikTok researcher at the University of Zurich. “The increase in traffic itself brings more profit, but longer videos themselves can be more lucrative,” she says. “For instance, it allows TikTok to work with institutional partners, including commercial institutional partners, to produce content with product placement.” While the company doesn’t share its advertising income, reports out of China claim the company earned $4 billion in ad revenue in 2021.
Beyond that, longer videos could help age up TikTok’s user base, who are more accustomed to YouTube-length videos, rather than ones wrapped up within 15 or 60 seconds. “For mature TikTokers, who are more used to watching longer content on YouTube and less interested in participating in dance challenges or recreating memes, long videos could be suitable products to keep them entertained,” says Zeng. In the UK, 56 percent of TikTok users are still aged 16 to 24, according to internal 2022 TikTok data obtained by WIRED, though that proportion has decreased over time.
Yet extending video length comes with plenty of risks. It sacrifices one key factor that has allowed TikTok to differentiate itself from competitive apps: Its algorithmic advantage. By peppering users with different, shorter videos, TikTok can gain more insights about a user’s interest than fewer, longer ones. “You get more pieces of data on how people are interacting with more pieces of content,” says Hank Green, a veteran content creator and founder of VidCon. “That enables the algorithm to make better decisions.” Three-minute videos, if watched to completion, offer 12 times less data than 15-second videos on TikTok, Green points out. ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, may well have taken that calculation into consideration, and could believe its algorithm is already well-trained enough on user behavior by now to not need as much data constantly feeding it.
Extending video length also removes opportunities to serve adverts between shorter videos—a risk for the app’s monetization goals. “I don’t even know how a mid-roll ad would work on TikTok,” says Green. “I think a user would be pretty angry about one, honestly.”
While some users may dislike longer videos, Marion Thain at King’s College London, whose research found that half of us think our attention span is shorter than it actually is, doesn’t think they will be a deal breaker. “Our study shows that people certainly feel stressed by the distractions of new technologies but, perhaps more surprisingly, it also reveals that a significant proportion think that multi-tasking can enhance their lives,” she says.