TikTok: An Analysis

TikTok is a social networking platform focused on video-sharing. It hosts a variety of short videos, ranging from 15 seconds to three minutes, created by users from genres like dance, comedy, and education. TikTok has more than 100 million monthly active users in the US and over 800 million monthly active users worldwide. About half of its users are between the ages of 18 and 29. Companies have reportedly paid TikTokers up to $20,000 per branded post, with high-earning TikTok influencers drawing in estimates of up to $5 million annually. 

TikTok differs from other social media platforms in a couple of ways. Where visual social media such as Instagram tend to focus on images over text, TikTok privileges sounds over images. A feature on all TikTok posts is a round rotating button that clicks through to a page that pins to the top the original video that first debuted the audio clip, an option to use the sound in the user’s own video, and a list of all the posts that have ever used the same audio clip. The audio clips have been central to viral trends on TikTok and can be understood as an audio meme. Another difference that sets TikTok apart from other social media platforms is the use of transitions. Users often employ sophisticated and clever editing techniques to drive the visual narrative of their video. The most popular kinds of transitions are beauty/fashion transitions where users quickly switch outfits, makeup, or hair, and optical illusions where users engage in magic tricks. 

TikTok is the international derivative of Douyin (抖音), which was first launched in September 2016 by Beijing-based parent company ByteDance (字节跳动) for the Chinese domestic market. The app was then launched as TikTok in the international market in September 2017. The market already had a similar competing app, Musical.ly, that ByteDance bought and merged with TikTok in August 2018 to create a larger video community, with existing accounts and data consolidated into one app, keeping the title TikTok.

The global coronavirus pandemic was the driving force that made TikTok blow up. As schools and offices closed, forcing the world to be locked inside with their families, the app claimed a large share of attention. Not only could users be entertained by videos, but while quarantined and missing social relationships, TikTok creators served as a way for users to fill belonging needs. Over the summer of 2020, Donald Trump, then the current president of the United States, threatened a ban or forced sale of TikTok, citing privacy concerns. However, this did little, if anything, to slow the app’s growth. In the third quarter of 2020, Tiktok was downloaded nearly 200 million times worldwide, more than any other app, even Zoom. 

The app’s central feature is the For You page, a personalized content feed in the form of an endless scroll of videos. The For You page relies heavily on passive personalization; an algorithm learns what you like by analyzing your viewing patterns and rapidly adjusting the feed to suit your tastes. By watching TikTok videos, users are essentially training the algorithm in how to best entertain them. Because of the app’s algorithm, celebrities and influencers weren’t the only ones getting the views. Instead, anyone could go viral. 

Maybe because of the interface and the relatable way that individuals are portrayed in any TikTok, users feel very comfortable to be themselves and to share compelling, creative bite-sized videos with others. It’s arguably easier to edit content on TikTok than on other apps like Snapchat and Instagram. The filters and functionality to modify and improve videos are easy and fun to use. There’s always something original to explore because it’s a mirror, and frequently the beginning, of current social trends. As a bonus, new music is constantly being featured and released.

However, accounts on TikTok are automatically set to public when first created. For users concerned about privacy, they might not realize they need to physically change the settings to private in order to control who is able to see their TikToks and leave comments. In the past year, TikTok updated its settings so that users under 18 have their accounts automatically set to private after receiving criticism. With a private TikTok account, only approved followers can view videos, meaning the entire community of TikTok creators won’t be able to view your child’s videos unless the “private account” setting is toggled off. Parents frequently complain about their children being exposed to music with inappropriate lyrics and dances with sexually suggestive movements. TikTok does require users to be 13 and older to use the app, and also offers the ability to filter out mature content through Restricted Mode. As an extra precaution, parents can enable family pairing to link their child’s account to theirs in order to keep children from changing the security settings. Of course, children will always find a way to get around the rules.

Like my previous analyses, data mining can occur on the app, bringing up a whole host of privacy concerns. As with any other social media platform, TikTok should be used at the user’s risk. Remember: be careful of what you post. Nothing is truly deleted on the internet. Through my blogs, I’ve noticed a pattern of precautions to take on all technology; to effectively protect yourself, however, it’s necessary to understand the ins and outs of everything you use.

Until next week,

Jordan Price

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