Why are YouTube and TikTok So Different? It’s All About Set, Setting and Product Design

VidCon 2022 was the first time we saw TikTok and YouTube creators – and their communities – gather together. The differences were stark.

Many of the recaps from VidCon 2022 focused on how YouTube creators have strong communities and name recognition, while TikTok creators had less name recognition and fan excitement.

Hank Green called it the swipe problem. D.J. Cossman disagreed, saying “There is more community tucked away in TikTok than there has been online in a long, long time.”

But numbers and eyeballs don’t lie. There was much more fan excitement around Mr. Beast, Dream SMP and other YouTuber and Twitch creators than around the sessions and meet-and-greets featuring TikTok creators – despite the top two global TikTokers attending.

Despite all the debate, it’s clear that YouTube and Twitch are just different from TikTok (and the other two top short-form copycats Reels and Shorts). Why? It’s all about product design, set and setting. Let’s explore each.

PRODUCT DESIGN: TikTok – by its own admission – is about the content graph, not the creator graph. The product is optimized to feed you more videos about the THINGS you are interested in, not the PEOPLE you are interested in. Classic YouTube and Twitch are focused on the CREATORS you have subscribed to rather than the topics that interest you.

Compare the landing pages for TT vs. YT. YouTube mostly shows you a scroll of the creators you like, inviting you to click and watch. TikTok immediately starts blasting you with a single video it thinks you’ll like, practically screaming at you to swipe away if you don’t want to watch. YouTube has a “Subscriptions” button at the bottom of the screen to drive you even closer to the creators you follow, while TikTok has “Friends”. Sure, you can go to the “Following” section of TikTok, but it’s still a continuous stream of autoplay videos, not a “select what or who you want to watch” feed.

SET: Because of product decisions – and YouTube’s roots as a web-based service, the set and setting for each is very different. When you watch TikTok, your mindset is mainly focused on consuming short bursts of entertainment. You’re bored, you’re waiting for a bus, you’ve got 20 minutes between classes. Time for TikTok to entertain you!

With YouTube and Twitch it’s different. Your mind set could be focused on entertainment, but you also might want to learn something, fix a problem or see what your favorite creators are up to. YouTube more likely fills the “entertain me” hours in your day, after work school when you want to wind down.

In those moments you’re also more likely to want to check in with creators that you follow rather than just peruse an endlessly playing scrolling list of content. Twitch is similar. You hang out with creators streaming gameplay, Q and As or other long-form experiences WITH others just like you.

In short, TikTok is more likely to fill the gaps BETWEEN the things happening in your life, while YouTube and Twitch are the things that actually happen in your life. You look forward to spending an hour with Mr. Beast, Mark Rober, Odd1sOut and/or Jaiden Animations. You can’t wait to watch their latest videos. With TikTok you’re just looking for a quick jolt of fun.

SETTING: Where you consume YouTube and Twitch is often very different than where you consume TikTok. TikTok is great on the go, waiting for stuff to happen, in transit. Its product design leads you to a cavalcade, an accordion of fun. TikTok is great if you just have two minutes to spare – or 22 minutes. But you’ll more likely to watch it out and about rather than on the couch.

YouTube and Twitch are more deliberate. You sit on the couch and watch, or at your desk, or in bed. The setting is more of an “I want to relax with my favorite creators” or hang out with other fans like me rather than dipping into something fun just to make the extra minutes go by.

I’m obviously painting with a broad brush here. Each platform can and is used in a variety of overlapping set/setting frames. But the product design of each service overweights certain viewer modalities and underweight others. This is why YouTube and Twitch convert better and drive more revenue for creators and brands. Your mindset and setting are more focused on retention and consumption than just wasting a few minutes being entertained by a rapidly changing pastiche of shock and awe.

But that doesn’t mean things won’t change. I’m excited to test TIkTok on TV, to see how they morphed the product for a different setting (couch) and a different mind-set (entertain me for a good long while). TikTok’s move to 10-minute videos also alters the potential, but without product changes, I doubt 10 minute videos will find success on mobile. Brendan Gahan writes about another possible solution for TikTok – embracing live video.

For YouTube, the more they lean into shorts, the more the service will change from a creator-centric and community-oriented experience to one focused on pure content-focused entertainment.

It’s entirely possible that soon YouTube and TikTok will be indistinguishable from each other (and Facebook/Instagram, Twitch, etc) as each moves to embrace the other without losing their origin story. But for now, creators and marketers should lean into the strengths of each platform. Build awareness on TikTok, Shorts and Reels – and then convert that awareness into subscribers on YouTube and Twitch.

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