The Power of TikTok
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this is how a generation communicates.
By Daniel Malloy
Ignore TikTok at your peril. The ubiquitous app built on short video clips seems frivolous at first, with its lip-synching, dance challenges and goofball celebrities. But this is how a rising generation communicates across the globe. And the app — thanks to its obscenely valuable Chinese parent company — now is at the heart of geopolitical strife between the world’s biggest powers. Today’s Sunday magazine explores TikTok’s rise, its addictive joys, its challenges and what will replace it if it crumbles. The clock’s ticking. Read on.
Power and Controversy
What Is it? TikTok is the uncut heroin of social media apps: It gives you instant mind-numbing pleasure and keeps you hooked with an endless scroll of short videos (up to a minute long), typically set to music, always quirky, often hilarious. Unlike Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, TikTok doesn’t rely on followings or thrive on news and controversy. It just uses sophisticated, artificial intelligence-driven technology to deliver videos it thinks you want. And its algorithms are much more democratic than other apps, making it much easier for unknowns to go viral. It’s also incredibly easy to make videos yourself, importing sound from YouTube or elsewhere, and to interact with hashtags for challenges.
Origin Story. Developed in an astounding 200 days by engineers at ByteDance, the app was technically born in September 2016 as A.me, rebranded a couple of months later as Douyin before it took over China’s biggest cities. But TikTok really shares its DNA with Vine and Musical.ly, another Chinese-born app that ByteDance acquired in 2017 for $1 billion. A year later, Musical.ly was completely absorbed by TikTok, with all accounts carrying over.
Global Domination. TikTok was the most downloaded app in the world this year, hitting 2 billion total downloads. ByteDance, the world’s most valuable startup, is now valued at more than $100 billion on the back of TikTok (still called Douyin in China) as well as a fleet of other Chinese social media apps. The pandemic has sent its numbers soaring, with tweens and teens getting their parents on the TikTok train and everyone looking for a bit of frivolity amid the heaviest year ever.
The Backlash. TikTok has largely been a haven from politics, unlike the screaming on other platforms, but politics has found it nonetheless. India banned TikTok last month, and the U.S. is considering doing the same, citing national security concerns. A group of American investors is reportedly considering taking a majority stake in TikTok to head off a ban.
Future Charli D’Amelios
With 74 million followers, Charli is the TikTok queen, but there are plenty out there chasing her title. Here are some accounts to follow now before everyone else does.
Boman Martinez-Reid, @bomanizer. TikTok finally has its own reality star. Martinez-Reid, 22, a Canadian arts school graduate, has garnered more than 1.3 million followers on the platform since his first video in December — by raising the bar for comedy. His content plays off of the ridiculousness of reality TV. Read and watch more on OZY.
Darrion Nguyen, @lab_shenanigans What do you do with a degree in biochemistry and theater from the University of Texas at Austin? Make TikToks, naturally. Nguyen, 25, a first-year Ph.D. student at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, has more than 460,000 followers, often personifying biological processes with audio from memes circulating around TikTok. That includes a dramatic recreation of soap fighting the coronavirus. Read and watch more on OZY.
Janine Kreft, @kreftscouch. The Chicago clinical therapist dishes out advice (since she can’t advise strangers, you can’t call it “therapy”) via quick videos that have made her a viral star. Her TikTok tutelage lets her, in troubled times like now, disseminate tools to a community of mostly high school and college-age kids — at last check, more than 354,000 followers and 6.3 million likes — hungry for them. Read more on OZY.
Tina Turtle, @tinaqueen_158. She first gained popularity on the platform by displaying her flirty, playful antics with her co-workers but since has expanded into music challenges, dances and showing off outfits. She has no one specific lane — just a carefree Black girl showing her Black girl magic.
Jay Versace, @tharealversace. Modern-day civil rights leaders ply their trade as much on social media as in the streets. In the online regions where wit, fearlessness and brevity garner the greatest rewards, it takes a talent like 22-year-old Versace to break through. Read more on OZY.
Trends to Watch
What’s Popular? Forget gossip mags, celebrity fashion on TikTok is now all the rage — which this summer means straw hats and tie-dye. But the beauty of the platform lies in the weird, which is why “Alt TikTok” is taking off, a world largely populated by LGBT users and reliant on a sublimely strange sensibility that includes anthropomorphic brands. And don’t forget the neverending drama among the teens with the platform’s biggest followings, leading to a showdown this month dubbed the “TikTokalypse.”
The New Scorseses. As a cover of Frédéric Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu sets the scene, a young man, his back to the camera, pounds away on a grand piano. A series of jump-cuts follows: to his emotionless face, then as he fixes a picture on a wall and finally as he appears to watch himself play. It’s just one example of professional artistry on display on TikTok, which now serves as a potential launch pad for the next generation of independent filmmakers with its combination of easy-to-use technology and rags-to-riches algorithm. Read more on OZY.
Challenge Me. TikTok runs on challenges, where users create videos on a similar theme. What’s hot right now? Pop star Jason Derulo, a kingpin of the platform, created a TikTok dance challenge to pair with his latest song. For self-improvement, there’s #75hard, in which you commit to a strict diet and exercise regimen (plus nonfiction reading!) for 75 consecutive days.
Going Pro. Last year, TikTok launched a “Pro” version, which gave users additional insight and analytics, to help you make money from the platform. Videos aren’t directly monetized (yet) like YouTube, but users can “tip” creators with digital coins while they do a livestream. And there’s always the influencer route, for people with big enough followings to cash in when they feature products.
Not All Candy. While TikTok is best known for being lighthearted, America’s racial reckoning has been impossible to ignore, and the platform has been used for social justice organizing. With music, of course. Childish Gambino, in many cases, has provided the soundtrack to the nation’s marches.
Trojan Horse? The growing pushback against TikTok has a lot to do with rising geopolitical tensions: Indian and Chinese soldiers have come to blows on their shared border, and the U.S. and China are shuttering each other’s consulates in a dispute over intellectual property. Political leaders say they’re concerned the app could pose a security threat from the Chinese government, given the troves of user data stored there and how active Chinese hackers have been in recent years. TikTok has tried to distance itself from Beijing in response, hiring an American CEO and yanking the app from Hong Kong after China imposed a strict new security law there.
The Real TikTok Challenge. While these moves hurt TikTok’s growth, they also represent a critical test for the West and its partners like India. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. is adopting — and pressing its allies to follow suit — a strategy traditionally employed by China: Ban the enemy’s tech products. If they can use the strategy to develop superior tech or force China into more transparency, it would be a victory. Read more on OZY.
Get Out the Vote. Neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden has a TikTok account. (The TikTokiest moment of the campaign thus far came when SNL’s Kate McKinnon did a TikTok challenge with Elizabeth Warren … after she dropped out of the race.) But a proposed ban could become a political football with both men seeking to look tough on China. Biden has not yet weighed in on banning the app, but this could end up being a flashpoint about who’s better at challenging Xi — or wooing Gen Z.
The Future Is African. Under pressure from multiple other governments, TikTok has quietly planted seeds that are shaping Africa as its latest bride. The world’s youngest continent, with countries dependent on China for investment, could be the safe space the app needs. Read more on OZY.
The Next TikTok
Creative Destruction. As governments and businesses crack down on the platform, it’s creating the possibility of TikTok’s sizable markets with proven users opening up — and similar apps, old and new, are now racing to position themselves as its replacement. Here are a few, and you can read more on OZY.
Triller. The New York-based, short-form video app launched in 2015, but hadn’t really gained traction in India … until now. Over the past month, it has become the country’s most-downloaded iOS app. In the U.S., it’s making a play for users by netting the exclusive streaming rights to Mike Tyson’s upcoming fight against Roy Jones Jr. on Sept. 12.
Chingari. Several apps have jumped into the breach in India since TikTok’s abrupt removal. But Chingari has risen to the top, witnessing nearly 100,000 downloads and 2 million views every hour and trending at the top spot on Google Play Store. “When an ex-TikToker comes to Chingari, he doesn’t have to spend time learning the database,” says Chingari co-founder Sumit Ghosh. “He feels at home.” Read more on OZY.
Reels. Mark Zuckerberg just had to sidle his way in here, didn’t he? This Instagram offshoot is launching in August, allowing users to shoot 15-second videos and share them as stories. Just like Instagram ripped off Snapchat, the Zuckerberg empire (Facebook owns Instagram and WhatsApp) always finds a way to adapt and grow. The question is whether 15-second videos can supplant minute-long TikToks.
- Daniel Malloy, OZY AuthorContact Daniel Malloy