For a great many of us, the prospect of a world without Instagram or Facebook is simply inconceivable. It is easier to imagine a reality in which oxygen is no longer free than to picture one in which likes and Stories are nonexistent. But the surging popularity of a new Chinese app called TikTok may be signalling the twilight of the Facebook app dynasty (including Instagram and Messenger) and the rise of a new ruler of the social media realm. In 2018, TikTok’s download rates surpassed those of Instagram and Facebook, and have continued to rise in the past few months throughout the U.S., Europe, and Southeast Asia.
TikTok is one of the most recent creations by ByteDance—a Beijing based tech company that produces machine learning-enabled content platforms. TikTok’s first incarnation emerged in 2016 in the form of Douyin—a media app for sharing and creating videos exclusively for the Chinese market. In 2017, ByteDance merged the Chinese app Musical.ly (which was highly popular in the West) with Douyin to create TikTok, an app that resembles Snapchat but centres exclusively around enhanced micro-video content. The merge with Musical.ly proved to be seamless, as the majority of the former app’s users and influencers quickly adapted to TikTok.
Initially, TikTok did not pose a significant threat to social media behemoths such as Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Snapchat. But the tide is rapidly turning.
Ensnared in myriad scandals, the public’s trust in Facebook has been steadily plunging, and along with it its stock value. Last year, the company lost $120 billion after warnings that its revenue growth will plummet. But sizzling scandals and stock-market undulations are not the only soft-spots of Facebook, as its primary flaw seems to be its inability to appeal to the youth. With its flagship app gradually becoming a virtual nursing home—where grandmas and millennials vent their scorn and stalk old lovers who may not even be alive at this point—and Instagram failing to penetrate the Gen Z market, the Facebook ‘family’ appears to be in the early stages of its downfall. For a moment, Snapchat seemed to be the next ‘it’ app, but that hope never materialised.
This is where TikTok beats them all. The youth, which appears to be increasingly interested in the app’s features and responds favourably to its user interface is migrating to the platform en masse.
Unlike other social media apps, TikTok’s function is fairly limited, as all it enables users to do is create 15-second videos and share them with their network. Yet ByteDance managed to tap right into the core of youth’s fascination with micro-video content that’s light and entertaining, by offering a wide variety of effects and editing options (something that’s lacking from Facebook and Instagram stories). And so TikTok serves Gen Z and soon Alpha precisely what they’re after—content that is live, short, potentially-viral, and, well… silly.
The app’s popularity has been exploding over the past year. In 2018, TikTok was the fourth most downloaded non-game app, with 663 million new downloads, surpassing Instagram which gained 444 new downloads. In the App store alone, TikTok’s download rates exceeded those of Facebook, Messenger, and WhatsApp. Should the numbers remain steady, TikTok can be expected to surpass Facebook and Instagram in overall popularity worldwide (let us not forget that it also dominates the Southeast Asian market, something that Western apps are unable to do due to censorship barriers).
The conquering of the social media landscape by TikTok could have several ramifications. Firstly, it would most likely alter the way in which the future generation communicates, with words and pictures replaced by short, heavily edited memes.
It would also generate significant changes in the market, which currently relies heavily on the models of existing social media platforms, such as Instagram. In a TikTok-dominated world, influences, businesses, and corporations will have to find a new way to promote their products, capture the attention of buyers, and adapt to new metrics indicating popularity and profitability.
Finally, what would be the consequences of having a Chinese company owning all our social-media data? This question may be too vague to answer with certainty, but China’s policies regarding censorship, surveillance, and curtailing of freedom of speech sure make this prospect unsettling (to put it mildly).
On a more personal level, a TikTok takeover gives us a chance to reexamine our interaction with social media. Before replicating our virtual lives onto yet another platform we, the veterans of the social media revolution, must ask ourselves: where are we going with this? Do these platforms contribute to or impede our personal and spiritual growth? What toll have they been taking on our mental wellbeing? Can our thoughts and feelings and aspirations be effectively expressed in a 15-second video? And what would be the consequences for doing so?
The rise of TikTok gives us a golden opportunity to question. To prioritise. To reconsider the value of life beyond the screen.
Raise your hand if you’ve been followed on Instagram by an obscure refrigerator manufacturing company? How about ‘entrepreneurs’ with under 10 followers or a car sales executive from Belgium? While the specifics vary by the millions, Instagram is thriving with an illicit market of fake followers, powered by companies that are making huge turnovers while injecting the gram with fake accounts, bots and algorithms. While it may by now seem like this fraudulent layer of the platform is business as usual, Instagram has recently taken extreme measures to curtail such cultures on its platform as it not only tries to tackle the spread of misinformation but also to protect advertisers from endorsing illegitimate influencers.
Just last month Instagram announced that it will be removing millions of fake accounts and sending out a warning message to any profiles currently using services that provide fake followers, likes and comments. In an interview with TechCrunch’s Josh Constine, an Instagram spokesperson said that people who continue to use services that inflate the platform “may see their Instagram experience impacted”, with measures that include “limit[ed] access to certain features, for example”.
This reignited mission to seriously crack down on fake followers and the comments and the likes and the strange DMs that come with bot operated accounts comes at a moment when Instagram and its parent company Facebook are under extreme pressure to regulate the authenticity of accounts and misinformation surrounding them. Facebook has claimed that fake accounts are often the foundation of political campaigns that aim to divide communities and spur hate speech and has closed down 754 million fake accounts in the past quarter alone.
But beyond the obvious manipulation of public opinion with the use of fake accounts, the hyper-inflated landscape of Instagram is a big issue for brands and public figures who use services from companies that provide fake followers and engagement such as Archie, InstarocketProX, Boostio and the ever popular Devumi. Granted, we all love a bit of hype, and paying for public engagement, press and endorsement isn’t something PR companies haven’t been doing for decades. But when followers mean direct credibility and earning potential through brand advertisement, making sure these followers are legit is a matter of protecting against illicit investment.
Back in January, the New York Times reported on numerous celebrities and politicians who have bought fake followers to boost their online clout through this social media underground market. The report exposed several politicians who had purchased followers from Devumi, including “Randy Bryce, an ironworker seeking to unseat Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin,” and “Louise Linton, the wife of the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, bought followers when she was trying to gain traction as an actress.”
There is however, a less obvious and more fundamental agenda behind Instagram’s recent mission to crack down on this culture. Beyond protecting companies who advertise through influencers with fake followers or even users from being susceptible to fake news is Instagram’s inherent necessity to protect its own legitimacy. In order to maintain its top player position in the social media world, it’s crucial that the company maintains trust in its platform; because with every new refrigerator follower popping up on a users’ notification or DM request from a suspicious looking model, our trust in the content and the community of the platform is being chipped away, making the real users become seriously disengaged. Besides, a slightly less inflated gram doesn’t sound so bad.