By now, you’ve probably heard of the rapidly growing social media app called TikTok that is taking the United States and the world by storm. It’s hard to describe just how influential and far-reaching TikTok has become so quickly. In less than two years since it was released, it has been downloaded over 2 billion times. In just the last quarter, TikTok was downloaded 315 million times—the best quarter for any app, ever. However, many Americans don’t know exactly what it is or how it works. Here are five things you should know about this viral app and how it is changing the nature of social media.
TikTok is a platform for short videos often set to music.
TikTok was released worldwide on August 2, 2018, by ByteDance, a Beijing-based internet technology company founded in 2012. TikTok was created as the result of a merge with lip-syncing app Musical.ly. It’s often described as the first cousin of Vine, another popular app for short videos that was shut down in 2016. TikTok users can post short videos from 15-60 seconds with a massive library of music or sounds. These often take the form of lip syncing to clips of popular songs with a funny punchline, but users can also record their own sounds. These song clips have become so popular that some music labels are actually changing the names of their songs after release in order to make them easier to find and more accessible for TikTok users.
The main page on TikTok is the “For You” page, which is an algorithmically generated stream of content from the entire platform. The AI system selects videos that it feels will appeal to you based on a number of contributing factors. While there is also a tab to only see content from creators you’ve followed, the default page when you open the app is the “For You” page, or FYP. This format ensures that viral videos gain traction quickly and often helps to create trends that other users can easily participate in. TikTok videos can also be easily shared on other social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and especially Instagram, which has helped it grow significantly due to wider exposure.
TikTok’s user base is bigger than you would expect.
As of April 2020, TikTok has been downloaded over 2 billion times. That makes it the 7th most downloaded app of the last decade. The platform currently has around 800 million daily users, making it easily one of the top 5 most used apps available on mobile platforms. It’s more widely used than Twitter, LinkedIn, or Snapchat. TikTok is also one of the first and fastest growing social platforms specifically built in the smartphone era, meaning that it is mainly accessible via the mobile app rather than having an expansive desktop-based or mobile web user interface.
Of those 800 million users who are consistently engaged on the platform, 90% report using the app multiple times a day. The average user opens TikTok eight times per day and spends around 52 minutes per day on the app. One reason that users spend as much time on the platform is that the videos have an autoplay feature, and many videos are selected by the AI system based on your preference of content.
The top 50 TikTok creators have more followers than the populations of Mexico, Canada, the U.K, Australia, and the U.S. combined. Around 60% of daily users in the U.S. are between 16 and 24, according to TikTok statistics. And for 13-16 year olds, it’s more popular than Facebook. A recent report indicated that children now spend nearly the same amount of time on TikTok as Youtube in the U.S., U.K., and Spain. The platform has experienced incredible growth in the last few years, especially during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders around the world.
TikTok has provided a moment of levity in the midst of very difficult times, often through comical videos and popular music. Shira Ovide, a reporter at The New York Times, writes, “TikTok doesn’t necessarily show you the reality of the world. It’s about expression, but it’s not like anything we’re used to.” This shift in social media from delivering the news to allowing you to connect with other people, devoid of many of the controversies of the day, provides users a different online experience than much of what is on other platforms.
TikTok is considered a threat to national security by the U.S. government.
There is considerable controversy surrounding TikTok and its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, and has repeatedly come under fire for censoring videos that paint the CCP in a negative light. For example, videos referencing COVID-19 in China are always taken down, as are posts referencing Tiananmen Square, Taiwan, or the Hong Kong protests. Last November, TikTok suspended a U.S. college student for posting videos about the Chinese government’s treatment of Uighur Muslims.
As a result of these concerns, the U.S. government opened an investigation into whether TikTok is a national security risk. In a letter calling for an investigation, Sen. Marco Rubio stated, “The Chinese government’s nefarious efforts to censor information inside free societies around the world cannot be accepted and pose serious long-term challenges to the U.S. and our allies.” Numerous government agencies, including the TSA and Department of Homeland Security, have banned their employees from installing TikTok on their devices, and there is a growing concern about how much data the CCP has access to for regular citizens.
TikTok has a concerning record on privacy, censorship, and offensive content.
Because of the potentially dangerous public-private partnership between TikTok and the Chinese government, there is a growing concern over digital privacy and censorship. In 2019, the FTC fined TikTok a record $5.7 million for illegally collecting personal information from children under 13. Additionally, college student Misty Hong filed a class action lawsuit in December 2019 alleging that TikTok collected personal data from her account, including videos she did not post, and transferred that data to servers in China.
TikTok also has a controversial record on content moderation. It has been reported that its moderators have been instructed to remove videos posted by disabled, ugly, or poor users in order to keep more users engaged on the platform. While TikTok has pledged to hire independent firms to create new moderation policies, due to their control by the CCP, it seems that this unlikely will change.
With lax content moderation policies, a large percentage of videos on the platform are centered around sexual jokes, innuendo, and even sexually explicit content. While TikTok censors nudity, this policy is loosely enforced, especially as sexualized content proliferates the platform. TikTok also does not censor profanity in its user uploads, which might disturb some users, particularly parents of teenagers and older children.
Finally, TikTok likely has one of the largest percentages of sexual predators on any social platform, mainly due to the loose/nonexistent moderation and enforcement of platform rules. TikTok has repeatedly declined to suspend accounts of sexual predators, even after deleting the comments they posted.
As with any social media platform, users need to be aware of how the platform works and the potential dangers of using it, particularly for children and teenagers. TikTok is a unique social media platform and experience, unlike most of its predecessors. It is one of the first major internet companies from China to have a global impact and reach, with many U.S.-based technology companies trying to mimic its success and experience.
This unique and innovative platform has been harnessed to highlight social causes such as protests surrounding the horrific murder of African American Minneapolis man, George Floyd, right along side funny family dance videos, making it a distinct way for people to gather and express themselves online. As Shira Ovide from the Times noted, “it can be mindless fun, but it’s also a force to pay attention to.”
Note: This post was co-written with Jason Thacker and originally published at ERLC.com.