What is TikTok?
Tiktok is a social media platform where videos no more than 60 seconds long are shared to users (Stokel-Walker, 2020, p.31). It is powered by AI algorithms which contributes to the platform’s success because of the personalised user experience that is different for everyone (Stokel-Walker, 2020, p.31). This results in the “For You” page where personalised content grabs the user’s attention and incentivises them to easily imitate that content (Tolentino, 2019).
TikTok’s Historical Basis
Tiktok first came into conception when its parent company, ByteDance, introduced the video-sharing app, Douyin, for the Chinese market in 2016. A year later, TikTok was rolled out as an international equivalent (Fannin, 2019).
In 2017, ByteDance paid an estimated $900 million to acquire Musical.ly, a similar app sharing 15-second lip-sync or dancing videos. This revolutionary deal combined TikTok’s AI-fed streams and monetisation track record with Musical.ly’s product innovation and grasp of users’ needs and tastes in the West (Fannin, 2019). Consequently, TikTok merged with Musical.ly a year later (Cuofano, 2020).
Behind TikTok’s game-changing business model
ByteDance, an entrepreneurship company founded by Yuming Zhang (Cuofano, 2020) based in Beijing, China, owns TikTok. It’s attention-based model aligns with ByteDance’s positioning in the marketplace as a company that “deals in AI (artificial intelligence) development such as machine learning and original algorithms” (BeautyTech, cited in Collie & Wilson-Barnao, 2020, p.178).
Tiktok primarily uses advertising, clicks, likes and views to drive revenue more so than actual purchases (Sullivan & Reiner, 2020, p.40) which heightens the user experience because of the smart recognition technology that learns about each user’s interests and preferences through content interactions such as likes, dislikes, comments, etc, without user inputs about individual preferences or interests when using TikTok (Collie et. al., 2020, p.178). The more users interact with content, the more relevant and engaging the experience becomes and the more revenue is earned (Collie et. al., 2020, p.178)
With the growing popularity of TikTok, it has become the social media frontrunner. Partnership with Oracle has strengthened the sustainability of the app with Oracle serving as Byte Dance’s trusted technology provider in the United States and cloud hosting service provider (Figliola, 2020, p.7). Recently, TikTok has announced that they will partner with Shopify to integrate e-commerce features into the app.
Investors such as “Japanese tech conglomerate Softbank Group, top-notch venture capitalist firm Sequoia Capital China, US private equity investor KKR, Chinese Investment firm Hilhouse Capital and corporate venture unit SIG Asia” (Fannin, 2019) have also supported the company.
TikTok’s competition is quite fierce with similar social networking apps, Facebook, Instagram, Snap Inc, Twitter, Kuaishou & Quibi fighting for users due to TikTok’s recent explosive popularity (Craft, 2020). However, what makes TikTok unique is that there is only one direct competitor, Instagram’s Reels, that currently exists (Bruner, 2020) and this was an attempt to lure TikTok’s loyal following and capitalise on the potential ban of TikTok in numerous countries such as America (Leskin, 2019).
For regulatory measures, ByteDance employs different censorship expectations by having 2 different servers from which TikTok & Douyin operates from and employs localised approaches to content moderation and regulatory compliance (Verberg, cited in Collie et. al, 2020, p.175). This ensures the platform complies with government sensitivities according to where the user is from (Verberg, cited in Collie et. al., 2020, p.175).
Currently, this platform is used by Millennial and Generation Z content creators and consumers with the single largest demographic being teenage girls (Haenlein, Anadol, Farnsworth, Hugo, Hunichen & Welte, 2020, p.6).
How has TikTok transformed our digital interactions?
Tiktok has become the new online self-expression outlet among youth who openly share their silly, loud and weird lifestyle. It has challenged the norms from other popular social media platforms, which pressure users to produce curated content with filters or staged posts of photos and videos (Lim, 2020), by encouraging the use of mundane locations such as the bedroom or the home backyard (Kennedy, 2020, p.1071). The vulnerable space to goofiness and a sense of genuine fun (Lim, 2020) produced establishes a “culture that prefers more self-awareness of feeling-good authenticity to the public displays of wearing superficial social masks (Ostrovosky & Chen, 2020).” It has transformed former means of self-expression such as re-enacting our favourite music videos at home with our friends into a public, mediated reality. This is evident through TikTok’s digital stage where children perform virtually in front of their friends and others to showcase their musical talent, ideas and creative mastery of the platform. This provides them with a sense of intimacy, connection and attention because of the feedback systems in place (Collie et. al., 2020, p.174).
It has also played a large role in youth resocialisation in a pandemic society. Features such as Duet and Stitch, where users digitally interact with other creators, allowed individuals to remain connected with the outside world as more formerly conventional means of communication became increasingly impractical (Ostrovsky & Chen, 2020, p.730). A sense of belonging was formed due to the virtual community.
TikTok’s algorithmic processes that showcases similar content repeatedly to the user based on their content interactions has strengthened short-term online political activism. For example, environmental advocacy on TikTok through the use of creativity and humour to encourage environmental activism is quite effective in targeting most 13-18 year olds who are unlikely to always watch the news (Lim, 2020). The use of shared symbolic resources through hashtags (Collie et. al., 2020, p.175) also collates similar content together which revolutionises hashtag activism as a collectivity is formed and more resources are shared more effectively and quickly than ever before (Couldry, 2015, p.616).
However, this has jeopardised the hashtag activism’s legitimacy through TikTok as gaining attention for an average message becomes increasingly difficult as media outputs increase (Couldry, 2015, p.616). The democratising system where anyone can produce and distribute content increases the likelihood of factually inaccurate information to be propagated and ‘information silos’ to be developed (McIntyre, cited in Walsh, 2020, p.845). Also, TikTok’s short length videos fixate our attention upon the political need temporarily rather than a long term ‘interest-based political affiliation’ (Couldry, 2015, p.616).
The algorithmic culture, the “enfolding of human thought, conduct, organisation and expression into the logic of big data and large-scale competition” (Collie et. al., 2020, p.173), that coexists within TikTok has transformed vernacular culture and other dimensions of human experience such as play and creativity into a kind of immaterial and unpaid digital labour (Collie et. al., 2020, p.173). The seemingly democratised systems of cultural production and distribution allow anyone, even children, to produce, curate and share creative content. Consequently, professional creativity and everyday creative play have become ambiguous which enforces the digital closure TikTok creates that transforms creative play into a digital commodity driven by algorithms (Andrejevic, cited in Collie et. al., 2020, p.182).
Is TikTok caught in a political storm?
Over this past year, TikTok has been the centre of newsfeeds regarding its stay.
Data Transparency Issues
Data transparency issues have arisen leading to its potential ban especially in the United States. US lawmakers are concerned that data collected from TikTok may be exploited by the Chinese government (Crabb, 2020). Chinese apps have been known to steal more data than required to other companies for purposes that range from censorship to mass surveillance (Collie et. al., 2020, p.8).
According to Collie (2020, p.3), TikTok collects a range of user information, including location data, user’s browsing and search history and additional information can be collected based on user permission such as phone number and store payment information. Some critics described TikTok’s data mining approach as aggressive due to its ability to monitor in-app user behaviour which could aid the creation of extremely detailed user behavioural profiles that could potentially be shared with the Chinese government (Collie et. al., 2020, p.4).
In response to the potential ban of TikTok in America that is set to be effective from September 27, 2020, TikTok filed for an injunction in federal court to prevent the ban.
The target audience the app is aimed at has produced moral panic as young people’s privacy and safety is at risk (Stokel-Walker, 2020, p.14). This was evident when ByteDance was fined US$5.7 billion for breaching American privacy law through non-retrieval of parental consent before collecting users under 13’s personal information (Matsakis, cited in Collie et. al., 2020, p.176). Consequently, TikTok implemented measures including stronger age restrictions, enhanced screen-time management, a restricted mode and a video tutorial series on privacy settings and digital wellbeing to protect youth (Collie et. al., 2020, p.176).
In April 2019, TikTok was briefly banned from being downloaded in India for encouraging cultural degradation among youth. The ban was lifted a few weeks later when ByteDance lawyers successfully argued that its system moderates content regularly to ensure offensive, troublesome videos are screened (Fannin, 2019). However, their measures were not enough to prevent the ban of TikTok permanently in India this year due to limited transparency about data collection and storage and increasing concerns about youth’s exposure to culturally degrading content. This detrimentally impacted TikTok’s revenue and customer base as India accounts for about one-quarter of TikTok’s downloads because of their young, mobile-savvy population (Fannin, 2019). This also reinforces the pre-existing notion that social media causes moral failings because of the increased exposure to deviant activities (Walsh, 2020, p.844).
Furthermore, the controversy surrounding whether censorship occurs on TikTok has produced political and regulatory debate. News reports and former TikTok moderator have confirmed that TikTok moderators were instructed to censor videos that featured several political themes such as the Hong Kong protests, Tian An Men Square protests and Tibetan independence demands (Nicas et. al, cited in Collie et. al., 2020, p.176) despite ByteDance’s claims of non-interference from the Chinese government for content censorship (Tidy & Galer, 2020).
It has also been reported that TikTok censors “ugly” people, the poor and disabled people, suppressing platform-use equality.
Alternatively, TikTok has been perceived as not doing enough to moderate content. This year, a video of a man committing suicide surfaced onto TikTok’s For You pages, exposing users, including children, to disturbing content (Fernandez & Kaye, 2020). The online affordances make it difficult to moderate content quickly due to the persistence and replicability of the internet (Boyd, cited in Papacharissi, 2010, p.46).
Also, moderation requires difficult decision-making as standards are subjective and because one failure can incur enough public outrage to overshadow a million quiet successes (Gillespie, 2015, p.9).
Despite TikTok’s influential internet transformation, to ensure the longevity of its success and popularity it has to remain trustworthy towards the public by understanding how to combat the ongoing challenge of reasonably intervening at the right time and place.