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Research reveals the real cost of TikTok superstar economy

Author ADM+S Centre
Date 23 February 2024

TikTok has made a game out of human connection — and it’s making millions.  But how much are streamers actually making? And at what cost to TikTok fans?

In a joint investigation Prof Patrik Wikstrom from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society (ADM+S) and ABC News set up a system to monitor the gifts received by a sample of 84 top Australian and New Zealand-based streamers.

On TikTok a gift looks like little icons or emojis, but each one is a micro-transaction involving real cash.

The investigation revealed that fans donated a combined total of $1.9 million in gifts to streamers and in one transaction observed TikTok took 60 per cent of the initial value. 

“I would say that TikTok is probably the one that has been playing its cards closest to the chest,” says Prof Wikstrom. “So, we have to be creative and find other ways of studying the platform.”

Researchers found that up to 80 per cent of gifts were received during live “battles” and the cut from these battles are based on streamers rankings.  

In a battle, streamers compete against another streamer to see whose fans spend the most on gifts in five minutes.

“The Internet is a superstar economy,” explains Prof Wikstrom, “which means that those on top earn lots more than those [further down].”

Top streamers made almost $64,000 in the month, while number 20 made $12,600. By rank 50, the streamer made only $3,500.

This phenomenon leaves streamers who are popular but not at the pinnacle, with a much smaller slice of the money.

The gamification and monetisation of relationships on TikTok is also having a concerning impact on fans. 

This experiment found the top spender gave away $50,000 in the month. 

But far more surprising was what the sixth highest spender — with $27,000 in recorded spending — revealed when he shared his full TikTok purchase history.

He actually spent $30,000 in a single night. And over $300,000 in the month.

About this research

  • Professor Patrik Wikstrom, with financial support from QUT’s Digital Media Research Centre, ran the data collection project across 84 streamers from November 18, 2023 to December 18, 2023.
  • The software used to collect the data was written by ABC News, using the TikTok-Live-Connector library written by zerody.

Visit the ABC Story Lab interactive TikTok Superstar Economy Livestreaming Gifts