TikTok: Behind the #1 app in the world

What is TikTok? and what is the technology behind it's success?

Image by Angelica Elvy of TikTok homepage
By Angelica Elvy 

What is TikTok? and what is the technology behind its success?

TikTok is currently the fastest growing social networking site in the world. The social media video app has harnessed its power as a platform for creative expression and social sharing, gaining an active user base of over 500 million. A critical analysis of TikTok will provide an understanding of the internet ecology of the app as well as an explanation of how TikTok is transforming the social networking sphere by capitalising on the attention economy.

This essay will start by giving a contextual overview of the app and its recent development as well as an outline of ownership structures. Following this, an analysis of TikTok’s internet ecology will take place. Lastly, this essay will highlight key concepts that allow TikTok’s to exploit the attention economy and the transformative effect of the app on the SNS industry.

What is Tik Tok?

TikTok (called Douyin in China) is a short-form video-based social networking app which encourages users to create up to 15-second videos usually backed by music or other sound clips. A social networking site (SNS) is commonly defined as “a website designed primarily for individual users to develop their own personal user-generated content around their existing offline social networks” (Chandler & Munday, 2016).  On TikTok, users are encouraged to express their creativity through the production of video content and creation of their own sounds, challenges and dances. TikTok states that their mission is to “to inspire creativity and bring joy”.

Video compilation of TikTok’s  by Succulent on YouTube Standard YouTube License

Where did it come from?

Although TikTok has seemingly gained popularity in a short space of time, there is a history behind the current form of the platform. The app was initially called Musical.ly and was started in 2014 following a similar concept to the current “make your own music video” style that features on TikTok today. Musical.ly was developed by original creators Luyu Yang and Alex Zhu and remained in the top 40 in the app store charts for over 12 months. In November 2017 the app was acquired by Chinese start-up Bytedance and was rebranded as “TikTok” which features a new interface but follows the same short-form video style. Bytedance has a portfolio of different app’s and is led by CEO Zhang Yiming.

In the two years since Musical.ly’s rebrand to TikTok, the platform has reached more than 1 billion downloads and entered over 150 markets worldwide.


Google trends graph demonstrating the growth of TikTok in terms of the popularity of search queries in Google

Politically, the app has received recent criticism in regards to regulation because the majority of the platform’s users are minor’s and young people in general. In March 2019, The Financial Times reported that the app was collecting information from children without parental consent. In the same month the US Federal Trade Commission fined TikTok $5.7 million for the app’s violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). In the same year, India briefly enforced the removal of the TikTok app from the Google and Apple app stores following a debate that the app was spreading false information, pornography and was exposing young people to sexual predators (Goel, 2019).

Culturally, there have been conflicts in regards to the regulation of the app due to the Beijing headquarters desiring a more hard-line removal approach and western offices expressing concerns about user censorship (Harwell & Romm, 2019). 

Issues regarding regulation are important to consider for the fast-growing platform. However, regulatory concerns affect all social networking sites, and TikTok’s recent controversies have been heightened to create a moral panic due to its fast growth and predominately young user base.

Behind the app

Ownership Structures

In terms of ownership structures, TikTok is a part of Beijing based start-up Bytedance, a company that has built a collection of various apps all powered by big data and artificial intelligence. In 2018 Bytedance’s investors valued the company at $75 billion, making it the most valuable start-up in the world (Ramil et al, 2019).

The ownership structure of TikTok’s parent company is complicated as it is a variable interest entity with layers of holding companies. Investopedia defines a variable interest entity as “a legal business structure in which an investor has a controlling interest despite not having a majority of voting rights” (2019). This structure is essential for TikTok as it allows offshore companies to conduct business with the platform domestically allowing for overseas investment. This economic structure is unique due to Chinese laws currently limiting foreign investment in several industries, including telecommunications (Yuan, 2000).

Business Model

The business model of TikTok is innovative as it focuses on capitalising on big data to tailor content to users and encourage viral videos. Davenport considers Big Data as “the ability of the society to harness information in novel ways to produce useful insights of goods and services of significant value” (2014, p.1). Big data is an essential component of TikTok’s business model as it has encouraged the growth in its user base. The app makes money from the platform itself and its user base in many ways. TikTok encourages in-app purchases in the form of coins that can be used to tip your favourite creators by buying emoji’s or virtual diamonds. The app also hosts ads and sales of other virtual goods. TikTok’s business model has been effective and gross user spend to date is over $50 million. The app is also a growing platform for brands who can operate on the platform to access its abundant user base.


Screenshot from TikTok showing the pricing structure of coin purchases.


The Internet Ecology of Tik Tok

McFedries outlines the concept of internet ecology as “the relationships and interactions between people and the online environment, in particular the web” (2003, p.68). As a creativity-based social networking site TikTok has connections with a number of technology-based entities as well as other industry players and internet users.


  • Although no other app specifically rivals TikTok’s success with its current concept, there are competitors in the creativity-based social networking category. Key competitors include Instagram and YouTube as well as Facebook’s app Lasso which is the closest competitor to TikTok in terms of the short creativity based video format aimed at a young audience. There are also up and coming apps like Quibi and Squad. Indirectly TikTok competes with other social networking sites including FacebookTwitter and Snapchat, although these platforms focus more on social networking rather than the creativity aspect.


  • TikTok also has vital relationships with its users as the app revolves around tailoring content to those using the product. Currently, the majority of TikTok users are between the ages of 16-24 with their target audience being people under the age of 18. Brands are beginning to use the platform for engagement opportunities. TikTok provides a platform for advertising opportunities, content creation and influencer marketing campaigns.


  • TikTok’s  parent company Bytedance directly controls the appThis means that TikTok has indirect relationships with the portfolio of other platforms that Bytedance owns as well as the company’s investors and shareholders. 

 Regulatory bodies

  • Regulatory bodies are also concerned with the platform as it is on its way to becoming a key player in the online media space and governments, independent entities and Bytedance are concerned with keeping TikTok a safe space for it’s users.

 Other Industries

  • The Music Industry can be included in TikTok’s internet ecology as TikTok encourages the sharing of music, and the app has become a powerful tool for promoting growth. For example, the song ‘Old Town Road’ can credit much of it’s success to the #YeeHaw challenge on TikTok that caused the song to go viral.


The following diagram outlines TikTok’s Internet Ecology:


Is Tik Tok a new breed of SNS?

Although TikTok is dubbed a “social networking site” the platform is transforming the SNS industry through placing more importance on creativity and entertainment than social networking. Zulli argues that “attention is one of the most valuable resources in modern-day capitalism”, TikTok capitalizes on this and provides personalized content optimized to hold a user’s attention (2018, p.139). The platform also uses transformative technology, including Artificial Intelligence and advanced recommendation algorithms to give users the best experience possible.

Culturally TikTok is an app that is considered as light-hearted entertainment rather than an opportunity for users to build their social networks. Users are encouraged to dance, sing and partake in the community that revolves around entertainment. This strategy gives TikTok an edge over competitors like Facebook and has led it to obtain a fun and playful image.


Photo of girls making a TikTok video. Taken by Angelica Elvy


The Attention Economy

Celis Bueno argues that “the vast volume of information made available by the Internet turns attention into an ‘intrinsically scarce’— and therefore valuable— resource” (2017, p.3). TikTok is designed to captivate audiences and hold attention. The app only allows users to create videos up to 15 seconds, appealing to those who prefer short forms of entertainment and those with a shorter attention span. This length of video ensures viewers to concentrate from start to finish, whereas videos on platforms like YouTube can be a maximum of 12 hours long. The app also provides a “For You” page which feeds users personalized content through tracking their behaviour (Tolentio, 2019). This aspect of the app exploits the attention economy as individuals are more likely to pay attention to content that they enjoy.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is used by most social networking sites with Facebook and Google often recognised for their achievements with this kind of technology. AI can be defined as “the theory and development of computer systems having the capability of performing repetitive tasks that require human intelligence” (M2 Presswire, 2018). TikTok uses artificial intelligence to personalise content and perfect recommendation engines. All Bytedance apps are designed around AI and big data. The amount of data available through social media apps like TikTok provides mass amounts of opportunity for organisations (Comuzzi & Patel, 2016). TikTok does not rely on suggestions but rather analyses what users are clicking on, watching and paying attention to. The artificial intelligence used by TikTok is so advanced that it can monitor what kind of music, comedy, people and dances you like. Although the transformative nature of big data and artificial intelligence is often called into question due to privacy concerns TikTok demonstrates the true potential of this technology for entertainment purposes. 

Advanced Algorithm’s

TikTok’s advanced algorithms are not only beneficial for users but regulators and content moderators as well. TikTok relies on data to create it’s algorithms, relying partly on user engagement adapting to each user’s interests. TikTok’s algorithm differs from other SNS sites like YouTube and Facebook by analysing the user’s preferences and sending the content directly to them rather than providing recommendation’s (Fannin, 2019). TikTok has faced controversy over its ineffective regulation of inappropriate content. Although this is a concern for users and society in general, all social networking platforms face this complex issue, and TikTok has published numerous press releases outlining their intentions to invest in technology to enhance moderation and safety. A vital component of this is their algorithm which helps to distinguish between sounds, faces and speech and has the potential to monitor and filter out inappropriate content. 


Final thoughts 



Graphic demonstrating TikTok’s strengths. Created by Angelica Elvy on Canva

TikTok’s popularity with a younger user base often leads people to think that the app is less sophisticated than other social networking sites like Facebook and Instagram. However, there is a reason that the platform is the fastest growing SNS in the world. TikTok is proving to be a new breed of SNS that uses personalisation backed by sophisticated technology to focus on encouraging creativity-based social networking. This essay argues that TikTok is an innovative player in the SNS industry as its primary focus is on user creativity rather than social networking.

TikTok’s success is also due to the fact that it is backed by transformative technology, including significant investments into Artificial Intelligence, advanced algorithms and effective use of big data.

The app has capitalised on the attention economy like no other SNS on the market by figuring out user preferences and delivering content straight to their home page based on this. Users are almost guaranteed to be entertained from the moment they open their TikTok app.



Word Count: 2,095



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