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The Family Guy TikTok Pipeline
Family Guy mixed with mobile game clips are absurd (and an attention black hole).
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Today, we’re talking about the explosion of Family Guy clips on TikTok (and how they are catering to shorter attention spans).
Also this week:
Apple is going after Google
Justin Bieber sells his catalog for $200m
And some dumb memes (including Instagram stuff)
PS. Bearly AI just released a highly-requested feature: automatic summaries for long-form texts like 5k+ word articles, PDFs and Twitter threads (I used all my creative juices to name the tool "Deep Summary”, and you can try it here).
Bo Burnham has one of the best insights on the business of social media.
During a conference panel in 2019, the musician comedian said:
"[Social media firms are] coming for every second of your life...And it's not because anyone is bad, it's not because anybody in this company has evil plans or is trying to do this, they're not even doing it consciously. Their entire model is growth. They’re coming for every second of your life. We used to colonize land. Then they realized [let’s go after] human attention. They are now trying to colonize every minute of your life."
TikTok — which launched in 2016 — was still an up-and-comer when Burnham made those comments. But the Chinese-owned app saw usage explode during the pandemic. And recent Sensor Tower data from Q2 2022 shows TikTok topping global average minutes spent per day for social platforms, almost as much as Facebook and Instagram combined.
TikTok: 95 minutes (it’s 80 minutes per day in the US, which is more than Instagram/Facebook combined)1
YouTube: 74 minutes
Instagram: 51 minutes
Facebook: 49 minutes
Twitter: 29 minutes
Snap: 21 minutes
In the 21st century, our attention is the most scarce asset. And these companies employ the world’s top engineers, designers, product marketers and UI/UX experts to get us to spend as much time as possible in their digital worlds.
I deleted TikTok from my phone about a year ago because it’s a massive time suck (and I'd 93.6% be addicted to it otherwise). TikTok’s algorithm and user interface are so effective at keeping people hooked that every social media company has tried to ape its format (e.g. Instagram Reels, YouTube Shorts, Snap Spotlight).
Since I’ve been off the app, a wild attention-hogging trend has taken off: it’s been dubbed the "Family Guy TikTok Pipeline" (also been called "Family Guy Overstimulation Videos" and "Family Guy ADHD Videos"). Some time last year, users started flooding TikTok with clips of Family Guy stitched together with muted footage from mobile video games — usually Subway Surfers — and sensory or DIY videos.
The stitching of Family Guy with other videos began as a way to dodge copyright takedowns. But the combination has morphed into a multi-sensory dopamine drip that colonizes attention.
On their own, each of these clips is purpose-built to grab and hold your attention. Combined, they form an apex unit of digital content that is perfectly constructed to deliver 30-60 seconds of passive entertainment.
To better understand what’s going on, let’s cover:
Why TikTok is so effective
The rise of Family Guy TikTok vids
What comes next
Why TikTok is so effective
Even if you don’t use TikTok, you have probably heard about the app’s very effective recommendation algorithm. The algo is unmatched in giving users exactly what they want to see.
The best text to understand TikTok’s algorithm comes from Eugene Wei, a tech veteran and widely-read industry commentator. It’s impossible to summarize Wei’s three-essay explainer on TikTok, but I’ll tease out two relevant points.
First, Wei writes that TikTok has an “algorithm-friendly design”, which allows the app to quickly figure out — and then recommend — the exact type of content a user likes. Here’s a summary I wrote for The Hustle:
TikTok’s actual machine learning (ML) recommendation algorithm is not out of the ordinary
However, the data inputs into TikTok’s algorithm are differentiated and — all things equal — better data inputs create better algorithms
To get the most valuable inputs possible for its algorithm, TikTok’s design is very unique: It is only one video at a time with a number of indicators as to whether or not the user likes it (length of viewing, re-watches, likes, comments, song choice, video subject, shares)
Typically, UX design is meant to be user-friendly. However, to improve its algorithm, TikTok has made its product a bit less user-friendly (users scrolling through multiple pieces of content like Twitter is a more frictionless experience than just a single-video view that TikTok affords)
Eugene calls the product decision to have a single-video an “algorithm-friendly” design
Compare this with a traditional social feed (Twitter, Facebook), both of which offer an endless scroll of content. The user inputs are less clear (“liking” something doesn’t transmit precise information)
With such clear signals — whether positive or negative — TikTok can quickly understand a user’s preference and serve up more similar content on the For Your Page (FYP) feed
The design creates a tight feedback loop and kicks off the flywheel that continually improves TikTok’s recommendations and data inputs
Compared to Twitter or Facebook, TikTok’s feedback loop is much tighter. And the result is a steady stream of content — in 30-60 second hits — that keeps users engaged. The speed and consistency of delivering these hits is probably contributing to shorter attention spans, too (TikTok is training your brain to get a faster payoff than any other social app).
Unsurprisingly, a lot of TikTok videos end up on other social media apps (especially the TikTok clones like YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels). This phenomenon points to another advantage for TikTok: its powerful video editing tool.
The TikTok app gives users a mini-Hollywood studio in their pockets. Moreover, TikTok’s social video editing features — such as Duet (posting a side-by-side video) or Stitches (combining videos) — are particularly important in surfacing viral content, as Wei explains:
TikTok is a form of assisted evolution in which humans and machine learning algorithms accelerate memetic evolution. The FYP algorithm is TikTok's version of selection pressure, but it's aided by the feedback of test audiences for new TikToks.
Memes can start from almost anything on TikTok. It can be the lyrics of a song, or just the vibe of a track, or both. A user can post a question or a challenge. In a single session on TikTok, you'll find videos of all types, most being riffs on existing memes (the variation).
Regardless of the provenance, any video, once loaded into TikTok, is subject to the assisted evolutionary forces in the app. Software tools like the Duet or Stitch feature and all of TikTok's other video editing tools assist in mutation and inheritance, and each remix of a source video becomes a source video for others to remix, generating further variation. Meanwhile, the competition on the FYP feed is fierce, and the survivors of that extreme selection pressure are memes of uncommon fitness.
There are over 100m TikTok users in the US (and 1B+ globally). The app’s tools are so easy to use that a large portion of the user base joins the game (by one measure, 83% of accounts have posted a video).
Empowering creators doesn’t end with TikTok. The company’s parent Bytedance also owns CapCut, a video editing tool that uploads directly to TikTok and was the 5th most-downloaded app last year (per The Split newsletter, CapCut is “like Adobe Premiere or Final Cut Pro…if you've ever edited a video with TikTok's in-app editor, it's a similar style, but 10x better”).
The other social competitors don’t have the same quality of video editing tools. Nor do they have the same density of video creators and remixers. Even if they wanted to full-on copy TikTok, each of the other apps has too much baggage:
Twitter is primarily text-based
YouTube has a lucrative video platform that hosts content of all lengths (and prioritizes videos with longer watch times)
Instagram and Facebook are built on a follower graphs (TikTok is an interest graph)
TikTok’s design, creator tools and algorithm have outcompeted the other social apps for our attention. Within the app, clips of Family Guy stitched with mobile games and sensory videos have proven to be “memes of uncommon fitness” and outcompeted other content to get into the FYP feed.
The rise of Family Guy TikTok vids
One of my favorite Hollywood beefs is between the creators of South Park (Trey Parker, Matt Stone) and Family Guy (Seth MacFarlane).
The South Park guys hate Family Guy. Why? Well, it’s partly mimetic. Both are cartoon shows about American suburbanites and the South Park guys hate being compared to Family Guy. But the beef is also artistic. Parker and Stone think that Family Guy is a lazy show, relying on cutaways and one-off jokes rather than actual story or character development.
South Park famously skewered Family Guy’s random-one-off-jokes-with-no-connection-to-a-story in a 2006 episode titled Cartoon Wars I.
In the episode, the Cartman character says that Family Guy just makes “one random interchangeable joke after another” opposed to jokes that are “inherent to a story, deeply situational and emotional based on what’s relevant and has a point.”
Still, Family Guy has found major commercial success (and I really enjoyed the first few seasons but did tire of the cutaways). The show is on its 21st season and is currently experiencing a cultural revival on TikTok. And the one-off joke format is a big reason.
Think about it. There have been ~400 episodes of Family Guy. Let’s say each episode has 10 cutaway jokes. That’s 4,000 units of content that are about 30 seconds long and require zero context. That’s 4,000 units of content that activate our shared pop culture memories and tap into our most juvenile humor buttons. That’s 4,000 units of content that survived the hot house of the Family Guy’s writers room and are optimized to deliver viewers a quick dopamine hit of laughter.
According to Know Your Meme, the manipulation of Family Guy clips to garner views started on YouTube around 2016. A number of Family Guy compilation channels "gained attention in memes based on the oftentimes absurd nature of their copyright-avoidant tactics". These tactics included "random cuts mid-sentence, random zoom-ins and crops" as well as "adding contextless clips to interject the episode" (sound familiar?). Even with these copyright hacks, YouTube has still been able to take down many of these channels.
The Family Guy clips trend eventually migrated to TikTok and really took off last year. And the addition of mobile video games (namely, Subway Surfers) was actually borrowed from another TikTok trend: people reading "Reddit stories" — which themselves are usually memes of "uncommon fitness" —with a split screen of attention-grabbing mobile games.
What started as a copyright dodge, turned into an overstimulation monster. Think about it: mobile video games are also perfectly optimized to grab people’s attention in the hot house of app usage (mobile games are very competitive and make up 70% of the App Store’s revenue). And, as shown in the clip to start this article, users are layering on even more engagement bait like cooking shows, soothing ASMR clips and sensory/DIY videos (the kinetic sand video from the Family Guy video I posted up top has 80m+ views on YouTube).
Family Guy, mobile gameplay and frickin’ kinetic sand are all memes of uncommon fitness. Add them together and you have a way to capture ever-shortening attention spans! Instead of scrolling past the Family Guy content, users are hooked by one or two or three of the videos (engagement, check). They watch the entire Family Guy clip to catch the punchline (watch time, check). TikTok’s algo feeds them more clips and repeat.
It’s perfect for TikTok.
Further, the Family Guy TikTok Pipeline latches on to a user’s feed quickly. The YouTube channel Savantics ran an experiment and created a burner account to see how long it would take the For You Page to start recommending Family Guy. After watching one video — without leaving a like or comment — the burner account’s FYP was flooded with Family Guy within 30 minutes. Many users are aware that they are stuck in The Family Guy Pipeline and leave hilarious comments on the vids, and this social element only drive more engagement.
When an attention hack works on the internet, it gets ruthlessly exploited. In researching the trend, Savantics found a bunch of bot-looking accounts pumping out stitched Family Guy vids. And the views are impressive relative to other cultural hits: the #FamilyGuy hashtag on TikTok has 63B views vs. #NFL (69B) vs. #MrBeast (23B) vs. #Minions (19B) vs. South Park (13B) vs. #TheSimpsons (8B).
While not all 63B of those Family Guy views are stitched videos, the pipeline is very real. A Twitter search of “Family Guy TikTok” uncovers many afflicted souls.
What comes next
Look, I know that people like to be mindlessly entertained and TikTok is far from the first digital distraction.
The average American watches something like 4 hours of TV a day. Further, everyone one of your readers has done a regrettable Netflix binge. And even as we’re watching TV, people are “second-screening” their phone every 15 minutes (whether to check a social notification, watch Ja highlights on YouTube, write work emails, order UberEats, swipe on Tinder or shop on Amazon).
I also know that I’m quasi-addicted addicted to Twitter.
But as we discussed, TikTok is the apex predator in the attention game. It's been called “digital fentanyl” for a reason (if Walter White was a coder instead of a chemist, he’d be hooking his users with something that looks a lot like TikTok).
Now, let’s address the elephant in the room and why we should care about TikTok’s ace ability to farm attention: the app operates under the umbrella of the Chinese government. In a widely read piece titled “TikTok is a Chinese Superweapon”, Gurwinder calls the app a weapon of mass distraction that could threaten Western societies by dumbing down their citizenry:
In order to develop and maintain mental faculties like memory and attention span, one needs to practice using them. TikTok, more than any other app, is designed to give you what you want while requiring you to do as little as possible.
If it’s the passive nature of online content consumption that causes atrophy of mental faculties [like attention and memory], then TikTok, as the most passively used platform, will naturally cause the most atrophy. Indeed many habitual TikTokers can already be found complaining on websites like Reddit about their loss of mental ability, a phenomenon that’s come to be known as “TikTok brain.” If the signs are becoming apparent already, imagine what TikTok addiction will have done to young developing brains a decade from now.
Meanwhile, the app’s design and algorithm is so potent at milking attention that the Chinese government has clamped down on the service within its borders:
The first indication that the Chinese Communist Party is aware of TikTok’s malign influence on kids is that it’s forbidden access of the app to Chinese kids. The American tech ethicist Tristan Harris pointed out that the Chinese version of TikTok, Douyin, is a “spinach” version where kids don’t see twerkers and toilet-lickers but science experiments and educational videos. Furthermore, Douyin is only accessible to kids for 40 minutes per day, and it cannot be accessed between 10pm and 6am.
I’ve long been in the camp that TikTok should be banned in North America (it would have been unfathomable in the 20th century for the USSR — America’s geopolitical rival — to control one of the major TV networks).
The best explanation for this move is from Ben Thompson back in 2020, during Trump’s sloppy attempt to ban TikTok. Here is a summary of his case:
In a leaked CCP party directive in 2013, Xi Jinping says China is in an “intense, ideological struggle” with the West and that the following Western ideas are a major threat to China’s way of governing (separation of powers, independent judiciaries, universal human rights, civil society, economic liberalism, freedom of the press and free flow of information on internet)
The CCP leans on companies domestic and foreign to abide by the party line. Here are a few examples: 1) ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming had to issues a public apology and adjust the algo for Bytedance’s news app (Toutiao) that was showing jokes that weren’t consistent with “socialist core values”; 2) the NBA had its relationship with numerous Chinese media firms suspended following Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of HK; 3) Hundreds of billions in tech and education market cap of public Chinese companies were wiped when the CCP reoriented emphasis of its economy from games/social media to hard tech
There is such a big audience on the platform and the algo has actually censored or suppressed content (Tiananmen Square, The Tank Man, Xianjiang)
In summary: the CCP is in an ideological struggle with the West and has the ability to influence 100m+ Americans. And has leaned on domestic and foreign companies to toe the Party line (not to mention the fact that >8000 major global internet services are banned on the Mainland).
The most-likely solution is a forced sale to a Western buyer, which is an improvement but also means this app will still be farming our attention. Also let’s be honest, if TikTok gets shut down, the users will just flood to YouTube Shorts or Instagram Reel (like they did when India banned TikTok).
If it isn’t banned, the app will only get better at the attention game. How? It won’t be long until generative AI tools for text, image and video can instantly create unique pieces of content tailored for one person. TikTok already has the best video creator tools and the best way to deliver individualized content. Layer on generative AI and there’s going to be a lot more than 4,000 Family Guy jokes to come after every second of your attention.
Until then, this TikTok user may have stumbled on the next apex unit of digital content.
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Links and Memes
Apple and Google used to be very buddy companies. To wit: former Google CEO Eric Schmidt was on Apple’s board from 2006-2009. But he resigned after Steve Jobs caught wind of Android and Google’s smartphone ambitions (in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, the Apple co-founder said “I'm going to destroy Android, because it's a stolen product. I'm willing to go thermonuclear war on this…I will spend every penny of Apple's $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong.")
Maps: Apple released a maps product in 2012. It was a botched launch but the product has been rebuilt from the ground up and some prefer it to Google Maps. Meanwhile, Apple just released Business Connect, a “feature that lets companies claim their digital location” like Google Maps with Yelp. Business Connect also integrates with iOS native features (eg. Pay, Business Chat)
Search: Apple’s search effort goes back to 2013, when it acquired Topsy Labs (a tool used to search Twitter). Google pays Apple ~$10B a year to be the default search engine on Safari, the native browser on 1.2B iPhones. An industry analyst says that while it would be costly for Apple to give up that revenue, it has a big opportunity: “If Apple could build something that was essentially as good as ‘Google classic’ — Google circa 2010 when it was a simple search engine less optimized for ads revenue — people might just prefer that.”
Digital Ads: Based on job postings and developments like its privacy changes for app tracking, Apple has signalled it “wants to build a novel ad network, one that would reshape how ads are delivered to iPhone users and keep third-party data brokers out of the loop.”
Podcasts Alert: I went on Howard Lindzon's Panic With Friends pod and we had a blast talking Twitter, Bearly AI and my embarrassing University party stories.
Other good links: Dan Runcie breaks down Justin Bieber selling his back catalog for $200m (Twitter). Andrew Huberman explains how to best handle your dopamine levels (I'm basically linking his article as a reminder to myself). The backstory on ChatGPT, which OpenAI didn't even want to release and the team was shocked at its success (Fortune).
…and here some wild tweets, including an amazing commentary on the one-year anniversary of Paris Hilton and Jimmy Fallon shilling Bored Ape NFTs:
Kim K posted some pics of herself at Harvard Business School and got roasted for it…which is kind of unfair since she’s probably richer than all the HBS students (700-800) combined rn:
A TikTok user took the Family Guy split screen into real life … and it’s gold:
Here’s someone wisely using the “Family Guys ADHD” method to make classic 80s films more palatable:
…while I think the format has potential applications specifically for The Godfather series:
Shoutout to @Soren_Iverson for creating an incredible new meme template: popular consumer apps but with a twist. Iverson has been posting his wild ideas every day including “iOS alarm but it wakes up everyone”, “Uber Eats but with a diet option” and these two gems below (the one one the right deletes your Google history if your Apple Watch detects your heart rate went to zero AKA you died).
Other users have aped Iverson:
And here’s my very personal version of the meme (my wife has probably watched 20+ Netflix series without me that we kind of agreed to watch together):