TikTok: teens love it, and parents don’t understand it. Congress fears it. Brands want to make money off it. It is, perhaps, the most controversial (and beloved) social network ever. Downloads of the app are rapidly outstripping those of more established social networks, like Twitter and Facebook. TikTok even aired a commercial during the 2020 Super Bowl.
So, what is TikTok, and how does it work? Why are lawmakers desperately scared of it? And—perhaps most importantly—why should you care?
A Short Introduction to TikTok
At its core, TikTok is a video sharing application, not dissimilar from Vine, which Twitter discontinued in 2016. People can post videos and use an array of soundtracks and Snapchat-style filters, which can morph faces or create other intriguing visual effects.
People can follow other accounts and create a feed of new content from the creators they enjoy most. There’s also a “For You” feed that shows a random assortment of videos from others. This mechanism offers an endless thread of new stuff to watch and feeds into the highly addictive nature of TikTok. However, it’s also what makes TikTok such an enticing platform—it allows those with even the smallest followings to “go viral” and become online celebrities overnight.
Perhaps the biggest virtue of the “For You” feed is how it exposes someone to content from creators he or she otherwise wouldn’t typically follow. It punctures the filter bubble. For example, in 10 minutes, you might see content from those whose political views diverge wildly from your own, or other communities you might not ordinarily engage with, like the military or law enforcement.
To exemplify this point, within five minutes, I switched from watching someone demonstrate a new cosplay outfit to a U.S. airman confidently hanging from the cargo ramp of a C-130 Hercules transport plane.
The serendipitous nature of fame on TikTok is also attracting people from other platforms. When I interviewed rapper Shevin McCullough (who performs as Showtime Shevin), he described the platform as “fertile grounds” compared to YouTube. While YouTube is far more established, it’s harder for new creators to create a die-hard following on there.
Beyond that, TikTok has the standard features you’d expect from a social network, including direct messages and the ability to “like” videos.
TikTok Is for the Memers
Of course, we’ve only skimmed the surface of what makes TikTok special. When compared to pretty much any other social network, TikTok’s more optimized to create memes. People can repurpose audio footage from other videos and create a unique take on someone else’s idea.
What does that look like? Here’s a four-minute supercut of people making their own lip-synch videos to a brief snippet from The Living Tombstone’s No Mercy, about the perils of choosing a character in the popular multiplayer FPS, “Overwatch.”
There are also duets, which are precisely what they sound like. A person superimposes themselves next to someone else’s video and effectively creates a brand-new piece of content. If you’re curious what that’s like, here’s a short clip of people duetting a clip of someone lip-synching to Charlie Pugh’s song, Betty Boop.
How TikTokers Make Money
Unlike YouTube, monetization of content is still relatively underdeveloped on TikTok. For example, presently, there isn’t an option for creators to make money from rolling ads on their videos. This remains the biggest hurdle for TikTok when it comes to attracting big-name talent from other social networks.
One way creators can make money is via livestreams, during which they receive “tips” from viewers who have virtual gifts. This mechanism is somewhat convoluted. Basically, people on TikTok can exchange real-world currency for TikTok coins to top up their virtual “wallet.” They can use these virtual coins to tip creators with virtual gifts. Once received, these gifts are converted into a further virtual currency called Diamonds, which creators can withdraw in real-world cash. The exchange rate varies and is subject to change by TikTok itself.
There’s also influencer marketing. It’s not uncommon for brands—particularly those in the fashion and lifestyle spaces—to collaborate with popular creators and send them swag or cash in exchange for mentions. While livestreams are open to everyone on TikTok, only the biggest names will be solicited for an influencer marketing deal.
Why TikTok Is So Controversial
TikTok is owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance. It’s the result of an amalgamation between two existing apps: musical.ly and douyin. TikTok is unusual because it’s the only internationally-successful Chinese social network, with an appeal that extends far into the Western world.
This has caused some consternation within the halls of Congress, with many lawmakers dubbing it a “national security threat” and seeking testimony from TikTok’s leadership team. In the U.S. Senate, a bipartisan front has arisen against TikTok, with senators Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton calling for an intelligence probe into the app.
After all, the Beijing-based social network not only has access to the information of Americans who use the platform, but it could also censor the content Americans see on the network. For example, lawmakers are concerned TikTok might censor videos on topics the Chinese government finds sensitive, like the Hong Kong democracy protests or the plight of the Uighur ethnoreligious minority.
For what it’s worth, ByteDance rebuked the claims made by Congress. However, it did attract fire for removing a U.S. teenager’s popular video about the Uighur situation. The company later claimed this was a “moderation error” and unbanned the teen’s account.
These concerns are not unreasonable. As it is, China has its “Great Firewall,” which bans or censors most of the western internet from its users. And on top of that, the country’s government influenced the NBA’s actions over a single employee’s personal Tweet and pressured U.S. companies like Blizzard to suspend players for opinions they didn’t like.
What the Future Holds
TikTok is an intriguing video platform. It combines all the dopamine-triggering mechanisms that make for an addictive app. It’s also uniquely optimized for creating memes from otherwise innocuous content. It can produce viral stars out of nowhere and is, in essence, a fame factory. These factors alone explain its rapid growth and enduring popularity among Generation Z.
As it grows, it will no doubt continue to attract the attention of those in the halls of power, as they try to come to terms with the existence of a Chinese social network just as successful as anything from Silicon Valley.