Though all networks have reported an increase in user engagement, it’s the viral video app TikTok that has benefitted from lockdown the most, passing the two billion user mark. But its success poses new questions: how safe is the new kid on the block, and what’s the future of social media

In September 2018, TikTok celebrated hitting 500 million monthly users round the world. In less than 18 months, the Chinese-owned social network has quadrupled its user base, at a time when rivals Twitter and Facebook

struggle to hold onto audiences and see advertising revenues fall. Though the global pandemic has no doubt increased the app’s short-term popularity, TikTok’s climb to the top has been brewing for a number of years now. Though TikTok doesn’t bring anything new to the table – rivals Instagram and Snapchat have offered the majority of the app’s features for a number of years – the network’s algorithms are designed for binge-watching. Rather than following your friends and catching up with loved ones

TikTok is all about content consumption and instant gratification, hitting you with the latest viral videos from celebrities and micro-influencers as soon as you open the app. And for those creators, TikTok offers a unique suite of tools designed to make content creation a breeze, whether lip-syncing to a monologue or dancing to the Billboard Hot 100 number one.

Not only does TikTok lean on popular culture and encourage users to create their own videos inspired by reality TV shows, but it has created its own line of comedy, and you can access a databank of sounds, visual effects, soundbites, filters, and title sequences at the drop of a hat, without having to use third-party video editing software for a professional finish. If you want to “duet” with your favorite musician, you can respond to their video and have content delivered to your followers in seconds, creating a split-screen effect. This offers you endless possibilities to react to celebrity announcements, music videos, memes, and news stories.

TikTok didn’t find its success overnight, though. Known as Douyin in China, the app originally launched as musical.ly, which went down well with social media influencers but failed to connect with the general public. Following a rebrand, the company’s investors launched their first TV advertising campaign, which was followed by a controversial YouTube marketing strategy featuring user’s videos. After sponsorships and celebrity endorsements, the app’s now one of the most successful in Chinese history, allowing the country to grab a slice of the market in the West. TikTok and its parent company ByteDance are now reportedly worth an eye-watering $75 billion, and the influencers who help keep the platform populated with content can command fees of up to $1 million per product placement in their videos; truly impressive.

TACKLING PRIVACY CONCERNS

Although TikTok has exploded in popularity and given rival social networking sites a run for their money, some worry that the app is a danger to its predominantly young audience. CEO of Reddit Steve Huffman branded the service “fundamentally parasitic” in a recent interview, slamming the company for its practice of fingerprinting to track devices and sell advertising to consumers. According to Steve, TikTok uses audio and browser tracking to see what users are watching and sharing, designed to further refine its algorithms to make its content more addictive – and indeed to advertise.

Facebook, too, has raised concerns over the app’s safety, with its COO Sheryl Sandberg saying that she was “concerned” over the speed of the app’s growth when compared with Facebook’s, reminding the Byers Market podcast that TikTok is “a Chinese company” and that “if people are concerned about data, I think there’s a lot to be concerned about there”. Of course, Facebook itself has been involved in a whole host of data breaches and dodgy practices which have resulted in billion-dollar fines, so her comments should be taken with some skepticism. It’s true, too, that TikTok poses a genuine threat to Instagram, which up until now has been Facebook’s runaway hit and a huge driver of advertising revenue.

Aside from advertisement trackers and involvement from Chinese authorities, parents worry that TikTok does not do enough to protect users. 41% of TikTok users are aged between 16 and 24, but many in that age category are thought to be younger than sixteen, using fake information to gain access to the viral app, which has proven popular in schools around the world. Many parents have expressed their concerns about the inappropriate language used by rival content creators, who have to “push the boundaries” by partaking in increasingly dangerous and provocative challenges in order to stay relevant and drive their revenues. It’s similar to challenges faced by companies like YouTube, but Google has made significant progress in restricting inappropriate content, introducing the YouTube Kids app in response.

Another concern from parents is that TikTok is being used by predators who want to connect with children. Though the app has strict guidelines on sending inappropriate, explicit content, the truth is that there’s nothing stopping a predator from asking a child to make contact with them on other apps, like Kik or WhatsApp. This has lead to many senior figures and privacy experts condemning TikTok, saying it’s a “pedophile magnet and not safe for children.” 

The good news, however, is that TikTok has made some progress towards these challenges, releasing a number of features designed for parents. As part of the company’s commitment to providing users with the resources they need to have the best experience, they introduced a private account feature and earlier this year launched Family Pairing to protect youngsters. Back in February, Family Safety Mode was launched, which requires adults to create their own account and link it to their teen’s to control how long they can spend inside of the app and limit the types of content that they can consume.

CHANGING THE SOCIAL GAME

Though some predict that TikTok’s success will be short-lived, similar to Snapchat’s, others now believe that the app has the potential to become the new Instagram, where algorithmic recommendations have changed the way we consume content, constantly scrolling as we look for something new. And that’s what TikTok has fundamentally changed – though some prefer the latest news and others like hand-picked content, TikTok uses data to decide what you should see; whether that’s rival videos or content from friends, your behavior inside of TikTok determines your future newsfeed, meaning everyone has a truly unique experience.

The more you use the app, the more TikTok learns about you – which, of course, has its positives and negatives. The idea is that the app will build a complex, opaque model of your needs and tastes, and shows you more of it. The second you open the app, it begins making assumptions about you, and that takes the algorithmic concepts from Facebook and Twitter to a new level, where “filters” have previously helped to shape what our newsfeeds look like.

TikTok is also impacting the way we think about ourselves and our relationships with our online personas. Whilst Instagram is focused on looking good and using filters to shape our personalities, TikTok is real – it requires raw video footage, encouraging us to let our hair down and show the world how we really look and behave. That, too, has sparked viral trends and crazes like the TikTok Dance Challenge, where people show off their skills – or lack of! Though some may say that the TikTok model pushes the boundaries even further by inviting strangers into our homes, others would say that it’s a far healthier way to engage online. The introduction of live streams helps to breaks down those barriers even more, forcing us to show our real, authentic selves in a way we perhaps haven’t been encouraged to do in the past.

That change has made way for a whole new raft of influencers who found their fame inside of the app. Sky & Tami, who post videos dancing with their friends and playing pranks on each other, have amassed more than 14 million followers and almost a billion video likes, whilst Charli D’Amelio is the app’s biggest star. After she launched her channel in June 2019, the 16-year-old Connecticuter posts choreographed dances to viral songs like Dance Monkey and Hotline Bling, with her success leading to multi-million dollar deal with a premier talent agency and a spot in a Superbowl ad.

Though some Western consumers are naturally skeptical about the overnight success of a new social network fresh out of China, the truth is that it has a lot going for it. By stripping away a lot of what Silicone Valley social networks get wrong (endless picture-perfect filters, timelines tailored to advertisers rather than users) TikTok has built an impressive following in less than two years, and with Douyin in China proving to be a real challenger to apps like WeChat and Weibo, businesses and consumers alike should begin to take it seriously. So what are you waiting for!? Practice your dance moves and open TikTok: it’s time to go viral!