What is TikTok?

TikTok is a new social media platform where users can create, watch and share video content that is 15 seconds in length. Currently, it is the most popular social media app globally and after launching in 2018 was downloaded more than a billion times making it the fastest growing social media app. Although their number of users is smaller than Facebook, Instagram and What’s App, TikTok has surpassed Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat in monthly installs from the App Store. Like most teen driven platforms, short-lived trends and challenges rapidly emerge for users to recreate, some of these include pre-choreographed dance challenges to songs like “Laxed” by Jawsh 685 x Banana Conkarah, “Savage” by Megan the Stallion and “Blinding Lights” by the Weeknd, content trends like Calling Teachers by Their First Names, Today I Kissed My Best Friend and Famous Relative Check, as well as other meme-like content including cringe videos and duets. After launching to the international market, the app was compared heavily to Vine, Snapchat and Dubsmash especially given its nature of being a viral video sharing platform amongst teenagers. It was also compared to these apps because of the negative aspects that come along with platforms such as these including privacy concerns and online creepers. 

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How did it get here?

In 2016, the Beijing-based tech startup company ByteDance launched an app called “Douyin”, a 15 second video sharing platform, to the Chinese market. After a raging success with Douyin, ByteDance became the world’s most valuable startup company. In 2017, ByteDance acquired the lip-synching app Musical.ly for approximately 1 billion dollars which was absorbed into Douyin and rebranded for international markets as TikTok. Following the merging with Musical.ly, TikTok made its international debut in 2018 and currently has over 27 million users in the United States alone. It has been speculated that there are minimal differences between Douyin and TikTok, however, the major difference between the two apps concern privacy and data collection laws in China versus the rest of the world.

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Why is it so successful?

TikTok currently has over 1.65 billion users who are mostly located throughout India, China, the United States and the United Kingdom. So how is TikTok so successful considering its predecessors couldn’t even get close to this level of popularity? The answer is TikTok’s questionably renowned curation algorithm. Little is known about how it works, which has caused major privacy and security concerns, especially in the United States, due to the potential connection and collection of data from the Chinese Communist Party. What we do know is that the curated videos in the “For You” section are very intricately selected through artificial intelligence (AI) keeping track of each individual user’s actions, views, locations and even keystrokes in order to deliver the perfect feed, ultimately explaining why TikTok can become so addictive! It was only last year that branded content and advertisements were allowed on the platform. Now the NFL, Uniqlo and Chipotle all have a presence on the platform, with many more brands to come. Brand partnerships have also occurred between commercial entities and TikTok influencers, some of whom have a following of over 30 million users. According to Vox, TikTok has been termed the “hugely lucrative Wild West.”

Controversies

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Privacy Concerns

In 2019, the United States Federal Trade Commission fined the company 5.7 million dollars for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act for illegally collecting online data of users under the age of 13. Concerns over TikTok’s privacy policy and illegal data collection has even pushed American government agencies to ban use of the app on government issued devices and/or members’ personal use because of cybersecurity concerns. These agencies include: The Navy, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Department of Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Sexualization of Underaged Teens

TikTok has an age restriction where users must be over the age of 13 to be using the platform, however, there are very simple ways to bypass that. The underlying culture of the content posted on TikTok can often lean towards and mimic “thirst trap culture” (meaning to entice the audience sexually through methods like shirtless photos, wearing revealing clothing, and/or using poses/actions suggesting the obvious). Although this can be very uncomfortable for older audiences to witness, TikTok has an even darker underbelly given many internationally documented cases of online creepers soliciting information and sexually exploitative photos of young users through the app. 

Final Thoughts

TikTok is taking the world by storm and is currently one of the best platforms to reach teenage audiences. However, the concerns outlined in the article and many others that will appear as time goes on could be a massive deterrent for heavy business presence on the platform. Moral of the story when considering having your brand’s presence on a new social media platform, take into account the controversies and concerns that come with it. This will help in figuring out your next move.

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Sources:

Louise Matsakis. TikTok Finally Explains How the ‘For You’ Algorithm Works. WIRED. Published: 18 June 2020. https://www.wired.com/story/tiktok-finally-explains-for-you-algorithm-works/

Katie Sehl. Everything Brands Need to Know About TikTok in 2020. Hootsuite Blog. Published: 2 March 2020. https://blog.hootsuite.com/what-is-tiktok/

Rebecca Jennings. TikTok, explained. VOX Media. Published: 19 June 2020. https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/12/10/18129126/tiktok-app-musically-meme-cringe

Mary Meisenzahl. US government agencies are banning TikTok, the social media app teens are obsessed with, over cybersecurity fears — here’s the full list. Business Insider. Published: 25 February 2020. https://www.businessinsider.com/us-government-agencies-have-banned-tiktok-app-2020-2