TikTok is not even five years old and is part of a Chinese group called Bytedance that operates a short video app in China called Douyin for the Chinese market and TikTok for the rest of the world. It is based on another Chinese short video app that it acquired in 2017 called Musical.ly which had a sizable US user base. It took off in October 2018 thanks to the combination of impressive creation tools and creators that sparked a slew of video challenges.
For older generations that struggle to take a decent digital picture, the idea of creating a video albeit only 15 seconds long might seem impossible, but TikTok makes creating an impressive video relatively easy.
There is a rule of thumb of the web that holds that despite everyone having the ability to create content the most popular stuff remains the creation of a small minority amplified by a dedicated following. The 90-9-1 rule holds that only 1% actively create content, 9% copy, edit, react or share content and 90% watch.
With TikTok the ease to create good quality videos allows those with fair skills to get quite a following, music and dance content gets some of the most attention.
For comparison, older generations may have created silly songs or intricate hand-clapping routines as a way to entertain themselves and showcase a potential talent. Similarily a school might see a certain toy become the rage only to fade in popularity as quickly.
Likewise, TikTok is an effectively a digital version of the same thing, although rather than having your creativity restricted to your school, most of the planet is now your schoolyard.
A great opportunity and a potential cause for concern
The nature of the content is what makes it so appealing to younger audiences. It does not require the polish that a successful YouTube video now requires, nor the wit or subject knowledge that would make you popular on Twitter. You don’t need the great locations and lifestyle to become an Instagram star and you don’t get the over commercial post bombardment of Facebook.
Being able to market your brand to an impressionable teenage audience is high on the list of target markets for many companies.
Some deals have already been struck with either creators or brands themselves looking to create or call for content to be created that showcases their brand.
Music is a big part of the app, despite it not paying royalties for all the work being used. It also allows you to upload your own audio files with a request not to use copyrighted works.
That does not mean it has no value for artists. The 15-second nature is just long enough to get a song hook buried in your head compelling you to search out the full version elsewhere where there are royalties to be earned.
New artists with limited means to promote their tracks might get a hit on TikTok which turns it into a hit everywhere.
When Old Town Road was released, it may not have become the most successful #1 Billboard hit, had it not first being cleverly promoted on TikTok as a dance challenge by Lil Nas X himself. Once a great bit of content gets shared enough on TikTok it will typically also pop up on Twitter and YouTube. Once there, news outlets might pick up on it as the viral numbers grow.
In South Africa, the popularity of tracks like Dames by Biggy got a lift from TikTok mimics and more recently the release of Sho Madjozi’s John Cena got a further boost with the JohnCenaChallenge on TikTok. The original video was released in mid-August, the dance challenge appeared towards the end of August and spread across Facebook and then YouTube and finally TikTok.
John Cena had also been made aware of it by then and posted an image of Sho Madjozi to his 12 million followers on Instagram. By the time it was featured on Ellen de Generes show when she had John Cena as a guest promoting his movie and mentioned the song and the challenge it was the end of September and started a new wave of interest in the dance and the song.
It peaked with Sho Madjozi’s appearance on the Kelly Clarkson show that saw the two finally meet. From the original Facebook post by Sho Madjozi when the track was first released in August with the goal that he would hear it, to meeting him, the video travelled around the world in 80 days thanks to the internet and a dance challenge.
The coverage by traditional media when it goes mainstream either creates a new star or attracts the kind of coverage that suggests the youth are doomed.
Not all are as wholesome as the John Cena challenge.
Considering the billion-plus users it would appear that most are safe, but even 1% of a billion if exposed to danger is a big number and so it is a real worry to consider how best to keep kids who use the app safe.
The first potential threat is other users who may bully or approach users under false pretences. Issues with inappropriate contact have been reported, parents should discuss the kinds of comments and message they receive and use the app's resources for parents.
Earlier this year the app was fined for knowingly allowing children under 13 to use the app in the US and to store data about them and their online activity which is illegal in the US. They have since changed the app to not allow those under 13 to post, comment or be direct messaged on the platform.
Powerful tools come with big responsibility both for the makers, the users and in this case their parents. TikTok is not the only app like this and there will be more, creating requirements for keeping users safe is important but TikTok has some concerned it goes too far. TikTok is subject to Chinese regulation which for some goes beyond keeping people safe to outright censorship. It has a list of topics that are prohibited for the Chinese version and may block some videos for the same reason on TikTok. US politicians are also calling for it to be investigated to determine what user information is being made available to Chinese authorities. TikTok says they do when required to do so - “We may also share your information with law enforcement agencies, public authorities or government bodies as required by law.”
The company has a multi-billion valuation but operates at a loss. There is growing revenue from brands looking to advertise on the platform using the creators as influencers, but followers can also send tips to their favourite creators for which TikTok gets a share.
There have not been too many major new social apps created after 2010 so this is a big deal, but the jury is still out if it will be the incredible killer app for young savvy internet users or a big mistake to not only immortalise kids cringe-worthy videos but expose them to danger and risk having their privacy compromised.