The Quad: Looking into why TikTok has become so popular, the kind of content it produces
TikTok is a social media platform where users can share videos and comment on each other’s posts. The app has about 500 million users and features content anywhere from lip-syncing videos to food tutorials. (Kanishka Mehra/Assistant Photo editor)
Feb. 20, 2020 8:57 p.m.
This post was updated Feb. 21 at 11:12 a.m.
Gen Z’ers across the globe are becoming engrossed in the world of untapped talent, peculiar humor and political innuendos – all in the span of 15-second videos.
TikTok, a video-sharing social network platform, launched in 2017 in the United States after taking over the accounts and data from its predecessor Musical.ly. The app originated in China and is now available in 155 countries.
Since then, the app has surpassed all the other major picture and video-sharing platforms in terms of number of downloads with about 500 million users worldwide, a majority of whom are between 16-24, according to data compiled by Oberlo.
The result is a digital world of endless possibilities. When it comes to content, videos range from teenagers acting carelessly to gynecologists attempting to provide tidbits of sexual education, to dogs being unable to curb their playtime excitement.
Abbey Brandt, a third-year psychology student, described how playtime on the grass by Janss Steps led to her golden retriever’s TikTok fame.
“Another dog ran up who wasn’t on a leash and Nala was waiting to play, and the dog ran up to her and completely ran into her so that she kind of did a 360 and flipped over,” Brandt said.
It has been one month since one of Brandt’s friends posted the video of Nala on TikTok and it now has half a million views, plus loads of comments expressing concern for the dog after her dramatic, yet harmless, tumble.
“I was surprised because it just kind of seems like a very small occurrence that people really enjoyed watching,” Brandt said. “It wasn’t supposed to be that deep.”
This seems to be the very nature of TikTok – most people are not posting anything they deem to be particularly groundbreaking. The hilarity and relatability that comes from the videos often stems from the mundanity of them.
One video with around 2 million views features a boy chopping a cucumber with a knife, slowly and then progressively faster to match the beat of a song that is playing. Another trending video features a woman using the hook of a hanger as a template to draw eyebrows on herself.
Some of the talent discovered on the app, on the other hand, is far from mundane. During its time as Musical.ly, the app saw the rise of many young performers including Jacob Sartorius and Lil Nas X, who were looking to share their musical talents with the world. Their videos ended up going viral and winning them fame from many young viewers.
It’s not just singers who were discovered on TikTok. Charli D’Amelio, a 15-year-old dancer, found fame on the platform through short clips of her dancing her own choreography to popular songs. Similarly, Kristen Hancher became famous through her lip-syncing videos and numerous changes in hair color.
TikTok fame has turned both girls into self-made social media influencers, leading to them seeking out others like them to live and collaborate with. Both Hancher and D’Amelio live in different Los Angeles mansions with teams of other social media stars.
It isn’t just teenagers using the app to entertain their fan bases. Some use the app in an attempt to influence the masses on more serious matters.
Professionals have tried to reach members of Generation Z by tapping into the laid-back TikTok culture. One doctor used the app to warn users of vaping risks. Another posted an instructional video about practicing safe sex. Given the fact that anyone can post on TikTok, any medical advice should be taken with a grain of salt.
The app has also been making its way into the political sphere, despite a lack of activity from politicians. Many young voters spend time on the app and use it as a platform to express their political beliefs.
Morten Bay, a research fellow at the Center for the Digital Future as well as an adjunct lecturer at Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC, remembers the first political post that drew his attention.
Bay described a girl holding up signs saying things such as “Flint water crisis” and “Amazon rainforest burns” with a track playing in the background that said, “I would totally do that but I don’t have any money.” The girl then held up a sign mentioning politicians’ failure to direct resources effectively.
“(Putting up visuals is) a new way of expressing creative political communication by recontextualizing a song that was written about something else,” Bay said.
Bay also said this kind of creative political communication is unique to TikTok. Other social media platforms – including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter – allow for animated gifs, emojis and words, but none are as versatile as TikTok.
“These people aren’t even (old) enough to vote, so I find it very interesting that this is becoming one way that Gen Z can create political expression,” Bay said. “They’ve kind of appropriated TikTok for this purpose.”
Many people, including Brandt, turned to TikTok after Vine, a previous video-sharing app with a similar feature, was bought out by Twitter in 2012. TikTok launched in 2017 in the U.S., and according to Bay, is already bigger than Vine was in terms of money. It is also the world’s most downloaded app, that’s not a gaming app, as of January, according to SensorTower.
It’s popularity may be widespread, but there are other factors to consider with this worldwide phenomenon. Many of the app’s users may be unaware, for example, that they are sharing videos and data on a platform owned by the Chinese company ByteDance.
Bay said this is problematic seeing as it’s a problem of both privacy and national security.
Politicians have been concerned about whether there could be a breach of American privacy if the Chinese government has access to the data of users living in the U.S. The details of a previous investigation into whether the app shares its data with the Chinese government are unknown, but officials are still weary about the precarious nature of balancing valuable information in foreign hands.
“You can argue that the problem is not with privacy, it’s with social media overall,” Bay said.
As people laugh along at clumsy dogs or bop to the latest TikTok-discovered artist, it’s important to keep the vastness of the world of electronic media in mind. Whether the app becomes a social snafu or a social success is in the hands of the young people who use it.