TikTok is a big deal. With around 800 million monthly users, it is one of the most socially important and ever-present social media applications used by young people. The TikTok influencer has become a powerful public figure. The most popular influencers command huge followings, start trends, and earn millions of dollars in sponsorship, marketing, and video monetization fees. They are magnetic personalities whose endorsement has vast influence. Their success is based on their ability to represent idealistic concepts held dear by young people and a similar ability to keep their fingers on the cultural pulse.
With so many users drawn to TikTok influencers, a marketing industry based around their online ‘clout’ has sprung up that is not dissimilar from an earlier industry niche that developed around famous YouTube vloggers. For marketing executives, the world of TikTok can be a confusing and daunting place in which to do business. White papers have emerged that purport to offer marketing executives tips on breaking into this emerging market. The Open Influence TikTok Influencer Guide is one such white paper and offers some useful statistics and trend projections that can help demystify this vast new plain of influence.
TikTok users have not limited their efforts to ‘influencing’. Young users have taken to giving fun history lessons, organizing political events (including the famous ruination of a Donald Trump Rally), expounding experimental art and fashion movements, and spreading complex post-ironic memes.
In fact, TikTok is the tip of an iceberg – the wholesale shift in communicative methods used by young people. Young people who have grown up in the age of the internet and smartphones are adept at communicating through the creation and spread of memetic trends – dance, music, image manipulation, and fashion all have changeable meanings that can be interpreted and regurgitated by young people. Gen Z people have attached themselves to TikTok as a venue for this new form of interconnected communication. But just how did TikTok become such a force?
TikTok did not just spring out of thin air to become a significant mode of communication. The groundwork that lead to its rise can be traced back to early social media websites such as Bebo and Myspace. On these websites, the development of memetic cultural expressions was encouraged by the feedback loop generated by instantaneous communication. Early influencers like Jeffrey Starr – who gained traction on Myspace in the mid-2000’s – cleverly manipulated the memetic use of aesthetics to create personal brands that then spread across platforms.
A few years later, Snapchat and Vine’s rise bought instantaneous memetic snowballing closer to what we see on TikTok. Vine was especially significant. Like TikTok, it allowed users to upload short-format clips for consumption by a global audience. Stars began to emerge on the app, singing, performing comedy skits, and generating fashion trends. Vine was sold for around 30 million dollars to Twitter in 2012, which then shut the service down in 2016. The effect it had on communications culture was long-lasting. The success of Vine showed that young people were eager to experiment with video editing and musical content creation in new ways. The algorithms that dictated which Vine videos received attention were far less sophisticated than those used by TikTok, but they were effective in pushing videos that conformed to emerging trends. This created an atmosphere where people were increasingly encouraged to innovate on existing memetic trends in order to chase popularity.
Snapchat is significant because it cemented the role of temporality in short-form video consumption. Users accepted that their videos were not being laid into an archival memory for constant consumption but were rather temporary expressions that would disappear as soon as they were consumed.
These applications and social media platforms represent a shift in communications culture that would eventually lead to the rise of TikTok. Young people were becoming adept at creating short-form videos and memes that expressed abstracted intentions and opinions. Communication over the internet was no longer as straightforward as it had been. Instead, Gen Z uses symbolism and memetic creativity as modes of expression relatively exclusive to their generation.
Musical.ly And Douyin
TikTok has its roots in two short-form video creation tools originating in the People’s Republic of China.
Musical.ly was an app launched in Shanghai in 2014 that had a strong worldwide userbase. It was a short-form video creation app that was focused on two trends – lip-syncing and dance trends. Users were able to slow down and speed up licensed music so as to create kinetic and entrancing lip-syncing videos. This was later to become one of the most popular features on TikTok, spawning thousands of memes and launching the careers of influencers. It also created some extreme changes in the music industry – producers started seeking to create songs that would gel with dance trends and lip-syncing. Songs such as Doja Cat’s ‘Moo’ would later rise to prominence in this way.
Douyin was launched by the vast Chinese tech giant Bytedance in 2016. It had similar features to Musical.ly and quickly developed a userbase of over 100 million people – mostly in China and South Asian countries. Bytedance had vast resources and could see that Musical.ly had far more potential due to its foothold in Western markets. They bought Musical.ly in 2018, folded the company up, and launched TikTok in order to consolidate a hold on this emerging and exploding new market.
With the purchase of Musical.ly complete, Bytedance launched TikTok in 2018, inheriting a massive userbase from the company they had just bought. Many of the features that had made Musical.ly such a huge international success were incorporated into the new app, including the endless scroll featured videos tab and the highly versatile video editing tools.
It was, of course, a massive success. The company had consolidated Eastern and Western short-form video creators, and after the demise of Vine, they had the market entirely cornered. Young people looking to make a name for themselves creating short-form videos would have to go through TikTok, which would, in turn, allow for far more detailed analysis of big data by Bytedance and inform their long term business strategy.
Bytedance is now valued as the world’s most valuable startup, being worth over 75 million dollars. Its flagship product is TikTok, which has surpassed all other social media applications in terms of monthly installs.
The Power of the Algorithm
The runaway success of TikTok is partially due to its powerful algorithm. This algorithm is far more aggressive and pervasive than similar social media algorithms. It identifies user trends of all varieties and uses them to create a personalized list of videos to suggest to people who have installed the app. It builds up vast reserves of data on which videos are popular with certain demographics and at certain times, and it creates an illusory feeling of fame amongst first time users by promoting their initial videos.
This aggressive use of algorithmic personalization has drawn many critics, but it is also the root of the continued success of the app. Young people are not ignorant of the algorithm’s power. Instead, they often seek to exploit it, including things in their videos that seek favor with their mathematical overlord in a way not dissimilar to how companies use search engine optimization to improve their chances of being seen on Google. Successful TikTok users are familiar with viral marketing techniques and have a good understanding of subtle self-promotion techniques. If you are approaching a TikTok influencer with a marketing deal, don’t be surprised if they have a startlingly complete preexisting knowledge of how internet marketing works from the inside.
The rise of TikTok has not been free of controversy. It has faced bans in the United States and India over the apps use of data. Like many apps, TikTok harvests user data, including preferences, web use, location, and keystroke rhythms. It has been accused of something other apps have not – using this harvested data to further the aims of the Chinese government. All governments build data pictures of their subjects, but TikTok has been accused of acting as a pawn of the data collection policies of the People’s Republic of China.
TikTok regularly hides posts made about Chinese politics, including mentions of the Tiananmen Square massacre or the mass detention of Uyghurs. This is especially worrying because TikTok is naturally a great place for young people to politically organize, and the manipulation of this organization by state actors is dangerous. It is a bad precedent to set going into the new decade. Around the world, the freedom that has been fostered by the development of the internet is being curbed by powerful state actors that have successfully utilized social media as a coercive and controlling tool.
Regardless of this, young people have still managed to effectively organize over TikTok using subtle communicative memetics – dances, music, aesthetics. The adaptive methods of communication developed by young TikTok users make any true control of their actions very unlikely.