WhatsApp is the most downloaded app in the world. And the second? If you guessed Twitter or Instagram or even one of the many messaging, news, or banking apps, you’d be wrong. The second most downloaded app in the world is TikTok.
Anyone with a tween or teen has probably heard of TikTok. It’s the social media platform many young people are using to express themselves these days. TikTok allows users to create comedy, lip syncing, or talent video clips, usually between 5-15 seconds, with music and special effects.
The fascinating thing about TikTok is that it’s a social platform that has nothing to do with one’s social network. It uses machine learning or “large-scale AI models” to track user behavior and, in turn, produces videos that hold your attention. You can think of TikTok like one big meme. It’s fun. Sometimes it almost seems like the last happy place on the Internet.
TikTok was first introduced in 2017. It is estimated to have been downloaded more than one billion times – in fact, in the last quarter alone, it was downloaded 177 million times – and to have about 500 million regular users. The app is free and has gained quite a following. Companies such as Chipotle are partnering with TikTok influencers – or “creators” – to drive interest in their products.
But there are concerns. Last month, a bi-partisan group in Congress requested that regulators and intelligence agencies investigate TikTok’s ties to China. They’re concerned that Chinese-owned platforms such as TikTok can be used to spy on U.S. citizens or influence political campaigns.
TikTok is owned by a Beijing-based company called Bytedance, and while TikTok is not available in China, Bytedance has an alternative Chinese version called Douyin. Launched in 2016, Douyin is more sophisticated than TikTok. Users can purchase products featured in Douyin videos, or stay at a hotel after watching a video that was shot there, or take virtual tours of stores and restaurants and get coupons for them – all by tapping the video three times. TikTok, in contrast, has focused less on e-commerce and more on expanding its global user base.
Unlike the majority of other social media platforms on the market, TikTok does not permit paid political advertising. The company claims political advertising just isn’t a fit for TikTok’s lighthearted content and takes away from TikTok being “a fun place to spend time.”
But a platform of this size will never truly be politics-free and it has been used by political figures in the past. For example, Jagmeet Singh, leader of the NDP party in Canada, created a lip-syncing TikTok video before the Canadian federal election that went viral.
And, despite TikTok’s claim there is no political influence from China, the hashtag #hongkong yields few, if any, videos of the Hong Kong protests. When the hashtag #protest is pulled up, users can see videos of protests from around the world – except Hong Kong. TikTok also has many videos on hot legislative issues such as gun violence.
TikTok has hit back against allegations by U.S. lawmakers by saying that it “does not remove content” based on Beijing’s preferences and that U.S. user data is stored in the United States with a backup in Singapore. Lawmakers, however, are still determined that the company be investigated.
The fun, lighthearted “meme-culture” has been working well for TikTok. But will it continue? Can a company thrive on just silly, short, entertaining clips? Or will TikTok – like Douyin in China – start enticing users to produce more grown-up content, like micro-blogs and lifestyle videos and introduce e-commerce features to ensure it stays competitive? Only time will tell.