TikTok, the short-form video platform whose confident tagline is ‘Make Your Day’, has recently become a crucial source of internet culture and social interaction – and not just for Gen Z.
A brief history: TikTok initially started as three separate apps. There was Musical.ly (launched in Shanghai, 2014) where creators could lip-sync and dance to various sounds up to fifteen seconds long. In 2016, Chinese tech giant ByteDance started Douyin, which gained 100 million users across China and Thailand within the space of a year. Realising the potential it could have on a global scale, ByteDance expanded, forming the alternative platform, TikTok. Success continued, and in 2018, ByteDance bought and merged with Musical.ly (bringing its strong business links and already established audience) to jumpstart TikTok’s global takeover.
I had heard of Musical.ly but wasn’t really interested in watching people mouth along to excerpts from the Vampire Diaries and like many others, I was dismissive of TikTok… until the beginning of lockdown last March. The app has experienced explosive growth in 2020, when most people started to have more time on their hands. As of February 2021, TikTok has been downloaded nearly 3 billion times and is available in over 150 countries. For those thinking it’s an app just for the young ones though, it seems the user-base is actually ageing up with more and more users over the age of fifty appearing (such as talented musician @FunkyGeezerShow).
Undoubtedly, the app’s success and popularity is due to its astonishingly powerful algorithm that learns what users like and customises content flow much faster than other social platforms. The app’s design is equally as effective, with tricks reminiscent of casino techniques that encourage visitors to stick around as long as possible. The full-screen display allows for easy scrolling through an endless flood of content, and with no scroll bar (to track progress) or ability to glance at the clock that usually exists at the top of your phone, it’s easy for hours to slip by unnoticed, resulting in endless binge-watching. I’ll admit, I’ve had to set a time limit for the app to make sure I go to sleep at a reasonable hour.
The appeal of TikTok likely lies in the capacity to go viral – the app easily lends itself to new trends, memes, and challenges. Like its predecessor, Vine, TikTok has created its own language of comedy and commentary, to the point that viral soundbites have entered casual lexicon. Unlike Vine, which ultimately failed due its lack of funding from ads, TikTok shows the occasional ad (disguised among the video reel) and encourages sponsored posts, making it all relatively bearable. The freedom to record videos longer than six seconds also helps.
It’s the LinkedIn for its creators, granting exposure to anyone willing to give it a go. Videos are easy to upload and edit with access to a huge database of sounds and filters, leading to a greater likelihood of making it onto the “For You” page. It’s so easy in fact that a whopping 83% of all TikTok users have posted a video. You can “go Live” or send messages, and “duet” or “stitch” your video with another creator to virtually collab with anyone you want. Large audiences feel within reach, and smaller ones are easy to find, even if you’re just messing around. TikTok has cunningly evolved from a platform for teens dancing at their phones to fostering a whole range of content you don’t even have to search for. Comedy skits, visual entertainment, current events/ political commentary, cultural news, recipes, life advice, mental health awareness, promotion of small businesses, talent (musicians, artists, dancers, directors, singers, makeup artists…), charity appeals – the list goes on.
Relatability is a popular theme; portrayals of daily life or inner thoughts can be funny, inspiring and encouraging. Joanne Molinaro, known as ‘@TheKoreanVegan’, is an example of a creator making striking content. Her exceptionally high quality videos honour her North Korean heritage, relating delicious recipes whilst telling refreshingly honest, and often anecdotal life stories. Her account has amassed millions of followers who come to learn about another culture and find comfort in her candid wisdom. Since she started the account in July 2020, she’s been featured on TV and in various publications; she’s currently writing a cookbook, and a memoir… oh, and did I mention she’s a lawyer too? We love to see it.
In support of its most successful users, TikTok established the Creator Fund Program in July 2020 along with the statement: ‘We want all creators to have the opportunity to earn money doing what they love and turn their passion into a livelihood.’ People have established careers out of nowhere through the fund (such as ‘Kombucha Girl’ aka comedian Brittani Broski, or superstar singer, Olivia Rodrigo). Top trending songs on TikTok usually leads to a top hit on Spotify – singer Doja Cat has seen huge success thanks to a viral dance trend featuring her song ‘Say So’. The fund has also given those who are struggling financially a chance to earn money through exposure to huge audiences. The basic principle is this: the more likes, the more money earned. A post by a young mother describing her circumstances, exacerbated by redundancy during the pandemic, acquired over 3 million likes within 24 hours. Being part of the Creator Fund, she was able to earn money and even start her own business thanks to viewers simply double-tapping the screen and giving into a worthy cause – for free.
However, that’s not to say there isn’t a darker side to the app. You will inevitably come across videos that are cringey and hard to watch – that comes with such a gamut of content. In contrast with the often supportive audience at the forefront of many comments, there’s always a few trolls lurking, spewing negative messages. There has also been criticism about the app’s lack of age restrictions – kids as young as seven have been discovered with accounts. Plus there was the threat to ban the app in the US altogether due to raised concerns about how much access and influence the Chinese government has on user data and content moderation.
In this era, many are accustomed to the instant gratification provided by social media, and the average attention span has been cut short; TikTok ingeniously caters to this modern tech taste. It has given Gen Z (and beyond) a much needed place to be themselves and have fun, whilst also allowing brands to inspire their fans in entertaining ways. TikTok is an enormous network of inside jokes, dance trends, reactions, reactions to reactions, and life lessons. As we endeavour to become more accepting of each other, TikTok provides access to a world that we are currently unable to explore physically. As the New York Times puts it, ‘TikTok is more machine than man. In this way, it’s from the future — or at least a future.’ The world continues to embrace the app’s progress. For the moment, it’s a temporary and fun escape from our current lives – something we all deserve.
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