Introduction: Since launching into international markets in 2017, TikTok has secured 500 million active users and, in October of 2018, was the most downloaded app in the App Store for five consecutive quarters . TikTok was created by ByteDance, a China based internet technology company, in 2017 as an internationalequivalent to a video-based application called Douyin. Since acquiring TikTok competitor Musical.ly in 2017, ByteDance has become the most valuable startup in the world with a value of $75 billion . Additionally, Sensor Tower reports that TikTok has been downloaded nearly one billion times on Android and iOS devices worldwide . Despite the indisputable success of TikTok so far, many smartphone users outside of the Gen Z demographic have never heard of the app. To better understand the success of TikTok, it’s important to look at the context in which it was created.
Brief History: TikTok arrived after a slew of social network application launches, particularly video-based apps. Most notably, Vine essentially piloted short-form video creation and sharing. After its launch in 2012, Vine developed a large pool of users but lack of retention and inability to successfully monetize caused parent company, Twitter, to close Vine in 2016. The application centered around a handful of ‘influencers’ who would pivot to YouTube or Instagram after gaining notoriety on Vine . Additionally, Vine was not able to seamlessly advertise without disrupting the user experience. Musical.ly was then launched by Alex Yu in Shanghai. Musical.ly leveraged similar short-form video technology but focused on singing and lip-syncing videos. Some analysts argue that Musical.ly’s focus on the inherently embarrassing activity of lip-syncing created a casual, accessible tone for the app . Likely due to the Musical.ly’s successful partnerships with companies like Coca-Cola and their high visibility in the U.S. market, ByteDance bought Musical.ly in 2017 and merged it into TikTok.
- Democratization of Content Creation: Many video-sharing platforms have minimal resources for users to curate content within the app aside from filters . This limited use-case puts considerable onus on the user to learn and create their content independently. TikTok took a different route by equipping users with internal video creation tools. With TikTok, users can film, add filters, cut/paste clips, overlay audio, leverage sophisticated AR, and more due to the company’s high research investment into “computer vision [and] virtual reality” . The app’s user-friendly interface means that nearly any user can make a wide variety of videos in an instant.
- Semblance of Authenticity: A common complaint against social media platforms is that users cannot be their most authentic selves. As mentioned earlier, TikTok and Musical.ly were created to share videos of singing, dancing, etc. which differs substantially from the micro-blog format of Twitter and photo-focused interface of Instagram. The differentiation is important. The New York Times columnist Kevin Roose ventured to name TikTok “the only truly pleasant social network in existence” because users can “let their guards down [and] act silly” . Moreover, the mood of TikTok allows companies to quickly engage with followers through short, light-hearted content. The video below from the Washington Post is a prime example.
Digital Innovation: ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, describes themselves first and foremost as a company leveraging artificial intelligence to enhance mobile user experiences . As soon as a new user logs in, a ByteDance patented algorithm begins curating and refining a For You page. The For You page “is constantly learning” as Bytedance’s algorithm ingests the text, content, faces, length, topic, etc. of every video a user interacts with . ByteDance’s investment in AI driven user engagement cannot be ignored as TikTok ranks number 1 in average session duration amongst social networking apps  AI capabilities have also enabled effective gamification of TikTok through worldwide challengers every day. Challengers are another opportunity for advertisers such as Jimmy Fallon, whose TikTok challenge amassed over 10 million views in a few days .
- Political interference: TikTok, and ownership of the data it generates, is based in China. Concerns regarding privacy and censorship have begun to arise.
- Child protection: 41% of TikTok users are between the ages of 16-24 but there are many users above and below this group . The platform must ensure that minor, particularly young girls, are not portrayed inappropriately. The FTC already fined them $5 million for collecting data of users below the age of 13.
- Bullying: TikTok, like nearly every social network, is vulnerable to bullying. As an app with a lot of parodies and “silly” humor, the risk of spreading inflammatory content is high.
- Briskman, J. (2019). Top Apps Worldwide for Q1 2019 by Downloads. [online] Sensortower.com. Available at: https://sensortower.com/blog/top-apps-worldwide-q1-2019-downloads [Accessed 17 Oct. 2019].
- The Verge. (2019). How the company behind TikTok became the world’s most valuable startup. [online] Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2018/11/30/18107732/bytedance-valuation-tiktok-china-startup [Accessed 17 Oct. 2019].
- Nytimes.com. (2019). How TikTok Is Rewriting the World. [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/10/style/what-is-tik-tok.html [Accessed 17 Oct. 2019].
- Nytimes.com. (2019). TikTok, a Chinese Video App, Brings Fun Back to Social Media. [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/03/technology/tiktok-a-chinese-video-app-brings-fun-back-to-social-media.html?smtyp=cur&smid=tw-nytimes [Accessed 17 Oct. 2019].
- Business Insider. (2019). TikTok was bigger than Instagram last year after passing the 1 billion download mark. [online] Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/tiktok-hit-1-billion-downloads-surpassing-instagram-in-2018-2019-2 [Accessed 17 Oct. 2019].
- TechCrunch. (2019). It’s time to pay serious attention to TikTok – TechCrunch. [online] Available at: https://techcrunch.com/2019/01/29/its-time-to-pay-serious-attention-to-tiktok/ [Accessed 17 Oct. 2019].