There is no doubt that TikTok is exploding. Rapidly. What began as an infatuation among teenagers in China and across Southeast Asia has spread like wildfire throughout the US over the past year and a half. According to SensorTower, the app, which is owned by the Chinese tech conglomerate ByteDance, has been downloaded over 1.4 billion times across the world. ‘What’s this whole Tik Tok craze about?’ remains a frequent question among millennials, often to be followed by ‘should I download it?’. Even as the basic facts about TikTok become more widely known, the lingering debate is whether or not to join the circus. What’s the point? Surprisingly, teachers across the US are beginning to see the value of the platform and are incorporating it into the school system with open arms.
The vast majority of TikTok’s popularity is among gen Zers, between 12 to 20 year-olds to be exact. Adults, for the most part, still gape at this 15-second musical skit phenomenon with a fusion of wonder, admiration, bewilderment, and dread. The upbeat, trendy, and, let’s face it—frequently mindless character of TikTok skits attracts people mostly in their teens, looking to goof around, be silly, be noticed, and have a good time.
A recent piece by The New York Times reveals that in high schools across the US, the cultural and mental chasm between young TikTokers and adults is gradually closing, with the proliferation of TikTok clubs and the incorporation of the app into the curriculum. High schools have, for quite some time, been a breeding ground for TikTok, with students shooting skits in hallways, classrooms, and even school buses—making fun of the universal teenage experience and responding to challenges set by their peers from across the world.
Teachers saw this new platform as an educational and recreational opportunity, and supported the creation of after-school TikTok clubs, in which kids meet to discuss current trends on the app and make videos themselves. Students are accompanied by adult advisers who supervise their activities, and often contests are being held to select the club’s best TikTok. Some teachers reportedly utilised this trend as a way to immerse kids with various fields of study. A high school teacher from San Jose, California, for instance, had her students make TikTok skits about Newton’s Law for extra credit. Other teachers hail the app as a platform encouraging creativity and genuine self-expression. “I think you just have to engage students in whatever they’re interested in,” Ms Gordon, the principal of West Orange High School in Florida, told The New York Times. “On other media you’re hiding your flaws,” Mr Callahan, the adviser of the school’s TikTok club said, “here you’re showing them off.”
But for all its creative and artistic acclaim, TikTok comes with a slew of challenges, some of which are pointed out by high school teachers witnessing the extravaganza first-hand. A Spanish teacher from a South Carolina high school, for example, pointed out that TikTok isn’t immune to the plagues of bullying that fester in other social media apps.
It’s also been noted that TikTok’s format can potentially exacerbate its users’ need for attention at the expense of uninhibited self-expression. With TikTok trends rising and falling in the blink of an eye, it can be easy for users to get caught up in the race to stay relevant and go viral.
Another major issue, which isn’t exclusive to TikTok but is being perpetuated and expanded through it, is the commercialisation of an increasing amount of content on social media. As the popularity of TikTok surges among young people, countless brands flock to the new platform in search for potential promoters for their products. This fact alone punctures holes in the theory that TikTok is the long-awaited social media app where people could simply be themselves and create content for the sake of creating. How authentic can this content ultimately be if more and more of it is generated with the aim of selling us stuff? We clamour for climate justice and demand to save the future of our children, yet prime our youths to become an army of brand ambassadors—elevating consumerism culture to new heights.
Yes, TikTok is happening, y’all. It is spreading and growing, and will undoubtedly alter the way social media functions—placing viral trends and the consumption of random content ahead of the cosy friends-centred feed.
So, dear millennial, as a relic of a different era, who did not grow up TikToking, you have the incredible privilege of deciding how you wish to interact with this app, if at all. Sure, you can try to cash out on it and poach salespeople for your brand, but must brace yourself for the psychological and environmental consequences that feeding into this system will have. You can also kick back and decide to enjoy some uplifting entertainment—assuming you get the joke. Perhaps it’s even OK to give this one a pass and let the kids go nuts. Whatever the choice is—be sure it is you who make it.
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.