The Development and Rise of TikTok

TikTok Application
"TikTok" by Solen Feyissa is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


In just four years of existence, TikTok has become an indispensable tool of social interaction and internet culture for Generation Z. This critical analysis on TikTok will examine the app’s transformative effects on the music industry, marketing, and social media culture.

The essay will begin with a brief introduction to TikTok’s operations. The second section will explore the app’s historical background and geopolitical complications. The third section will delve into the strategies behind TikTok’s meteoric rise and its place in the social media industry. Finally, the essay will analyze TikTok’s profound effects on the cultural, political, and social lives of Generation Z.



TikTok Application
Image showing TikTok’s logo, Image: “TikTok” by Solen Feyissa is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0            


What is TikTok?

Tik Tok is a recreational playground manifested in electronic media. It consists of short-form mobile videos ranging from 3 to 60 seconds that loops when finished. The app includes powerful and convenient editing capabilities that allow users to add various types of effects and music to their videos (Bresnick, 2019).

It also has “duets” (to create a duet video with another user) and “reacts” (to comment on someone else’s video with a video)(ibid). In 2019, TikTok launched a new feature where content creators can live stream their videos and connect with their followers through comments (Jaffar, 2020). 

One of the most distinctive features of TikTok videos is its length; while traditional videos normally range from 0.5 to 2.5 hours, TikTok videos are light and easy to digest (Chen, 2019). TikToks of lip-syncs, comedy routines, math lessons, and more have proven a massive hit with today’s youth; it has created a new generation of celebrities based on talent, relatability, and looks.

These celebrity content creators are able to monetize their accounts through virtual “gifts” and in-app currency called TikTok coins (Bresnick, 2019). Today, the app is available in over 155 countries in 39 languages and has approximately 800 million monthly active users, a majority of which are 13 to 18-year-olds (Figliola, 2020).

The Historical Background of TikTok: From China to the Global Stage

In September 2016, TikTok was launched by ByteDance Ltd., a privately held company headquartered in Beijing, China– as Douyin (Irfan, 2020). Douyin quickly found success in its home market; recent research shows evidence that China has 150 million daily active users on Douyin (ibid).

Despite this, Zhang Yiming, stated that “China is home to only one-fifth of Internet users globally. If we don’t expand on a global scale, we are bound to lose to peers eyeing the four-fifths. So, going global is a must.” (Guillen, 2020).

Douyin entered the international market as TikTok in late 2017, after acquiring the app (Lin, 2020). was a similar short video service that already had a strong international audience so TikTok quickly gained popularity as a result of the $1 billion mergers (ibid). TikTok quickly became a staple app for mobile users in the United States, where it has approximately 49 million monthly active users, India, Turkey, and more (Bresnick, 2019).

“China is home to only one-fifth of Internet users globally. If we don’t expand on a global scale, we are bound to lose to peers eyeing the four-fifths. So, going global is a must.” – Zhang Yiming

Picture showing the merging of Douyin and
Picture showing the merging of Douyin and                                                                        Source: Pina Schipani

ByteDance’s ownership of TikTok subjects the app to Chinese laws that require companies operating in China to turn over user data when asked by the national government (Figliola, 2020).

According to its privacy policy, TikTok collects a range of user information, including internet address, keystroke patterns, location data, and search history. TikTok states that they collect less personal data than Facebook and Google, which track user activity across devices (Figliola, 2020).

TikTok has also claimed that although they store all content created by U.S. users, they will not share this data with the Chinese government (ibid). TikTok states that “The key personnel responsible for TikTok […] are all Americans based in the United States” (TikTok, 2019). Despite this statement, TikTok’s website says that collected information can be shared with its parent company in China (TikTok, 2019).

Privacy concerns led US President Donald Trump to issue an Executive Order on August 14, 2020, Regarding the Acquisition of by ByteDance Ltd (Leskin, 2020). The order requires Bytedance to divest from “any tangible or intangible assets or property, wherever located, used to enable or support ByteDance’s operation of the TikTok application in the United States” (Figliola, 2020). The order required these actions within 90 days to give ByteDance time to find a U.S. entity buyer (ibid). As a result of the Executive Order, a number of bidders including Oracle, Microsoft, and Walmart, emerged as potential bidders of TikTok.

On September 14, 2020, Oracle announced that it had reached an agreement with ByteDance to “serve as the company’s trusted technology provider” in the United States (Figliola, 2020). On September 19, 2020, Oracle announced that Walmart would join its bid for TikTok. Oracle will acquire 12.5% while Walmart will have a 7.5% stake of a  new company: TikTok Global (ibid).

Moreover, Oracle will serve as TikTok’s secure cloud technology provider and Walmart will be a commercial partner by entering into commercial agreements to provide payments, fulfilment, and e-commerce (Zhong, 2020). According to announcements made by the companies, 40% of ByteDance is owned by U.S. investors; this indicates that TikTok Global would be under majority U.S. ownership (Figliolia, 2020). 

TikTok’s Success Story

In September 2018, TikTok exceeded Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat in monthly installs in the App store (Jaffar, 2019). In November 2018, the app graded third in the world in terms of both Google Play and Apple store downloads (ibid). With more than one billion downloads in 150 markets, TikTok has emerged to rival established companies such as Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, and more, in the short span of two years (Bresnick, 2019). 

Since the beginning, Zhang had the goal of running a borderless company– a company that challenged the borders drawn around traditional digital content(Fannin, 2019). One of the reasons it succeeded in an openly competitive international market is because of Zhang’s dual versions of TikTok; one under the regulations of China’s Great Firewall and one for the rest of the world (Lin, 2020). This dual version strategy could be a new model for other digital content companies aiming for global reach.

Behind TikTok’s enormous success is also its user-centric design that relies on Artificial Intelligence (AI) Technology (Yu, 2019). In August 2012, five months after founding ByteDance, Zhang launched his first mobile app, Toutiao, an AI-powered daily curated feed of news content personalized to users (ibid). Additionally, Zhang added his product lineup to Douyin in 2016 and later Tiktok in 2017 (Fannin, 2019). Unlike conventional consumer algorithms (recommendation lists) used by YouTube and Netflix, TikTok interprets each user’s interaction with the content to directly display a personalized content feed on the “For You” Page (ibid).

TikTok’s business model is similar to other media apps in that it contains two components: users and advertisers (Tidy & Galer, 2020). Users don’t pay for downloading the app but TikTok is able to create revenue from the data of their users and from advertising (Ponomarenko, 2019). It’s the first short video app to use big data analysis and its unique characteristics give Gen Z a free, visible place to be themselves while allowing brands to inspire their fans in authentic, entertaining ways.


Picture showing TikTok downloads by Quarter
Picture showing TikTok downloads by Quarter
Source: Sensor Tower Store Intelligence


TikTok Diagram

Figure showing TikTok's internet ecology
Figure showing TikTok’s internet ecology
Created by: Louise Nathanael Kesuma                                                                                     

Rewriting the World

Benefits of TikTok

The rise of rapidly-growing platforms like TikTok capture the zeitgeist of Generation Z culture. TikTok has proven to be socially influential enough to create the “fear of missing out” (FOMO) effect, a way to describe how social media can make non-users feel like they are missing an experience (Taulli, 2020).

TikTok creates a virtual community of friends who share inside jokes, new trends, and catchy songs. Unlike on most social networks, TikTok encourages users to jump from audience to audience, and trend to trend; stimulation is constant (Fannin, 2019).

This makes TikTok a positive space for publicity, new opportunities, moral entertainment, and learning new things. For instance, TikTok has also proven to be vital for the LGBTQ community (Jaffar, 2019). Teenagers have come out on TikTok because its casual nature relieves some of the paralyzing fear. 

TikTok’s Drawbacks

Unfortunately, TikTok has also been associated with cyberbullying, addiction, cancel culture, and more (Irfan, 2020). The overuse of TikTok has led to conflicts for users of all genders and ages (e.g., inferiority complex, beauty complex) (Palupi, 2020).

According to the social interaction theory, people’s social behaviours are the result of social belongingness and pressure people adopt behaviors from their surroundings (Qiyang, 2019). Social interaction in TikTok has led it to become a home for “cancel culture”— which is a term for withdrawing support of public figures or companies after they have done something offensive or objectionable (Palupi, 2020). Considering the app mainly deals with famous 15-18 year olds, the act of “cancelling” can be destructive (ibid). These kids are still growing in terms of mental health and they feel the wrath of their mistakes from millions of people.

TikTok and the Music Industry

Furthermore, TikTok has been a gamechanger for the music industry. Many artists have found success in their music through TikTok dance challenges. The platform has become a staging ground for hits like Lil Nax X’s “Old Town Road” and Doja Cat’s “Say So” (Garcia-Navarro,2020). In December 2019, TikTok user Haley Sharpe (@yodelinghaley) posted a self-choreographed short video to the song and soon, it was performed by famous TikTokers like Charli D’amelio, Addison Rae, and even Doja Cat herself. A short compilation of dances to “Say So” can be seen here.

Tiktok is not only changing how people are consuming music, but also how artists are making music. According to BillBoard charts, songs have decreased in length by 20 seconds from 2013 to 2018 (Garcia-Navarro, 2020). Artists are now making shorter music with loopable beats for the sake of going viral. For instance, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” is only 1:53 on Spotify. Right now TikTok is at the forefront of the music industry, influencing the latest trends.

Video: Doja Cat – Say So Tik Tok Compilation

Video: Lil Nas X – Old Town Road Tik Tok Compilation

Marketing on TikTok

TikTok is also revolutionary in the world of marketing; the opportunity in adding TikTok to the media mix is its unparalleled ability to reach huge audiences on a new canvas, through a new breed of creative and authentic brand communications (Ponomarenko, 2020). While many social media platforms can deliver a big audience, TikTok can deliver a big audience with a bigger engagement.

Users are engaging with content more than virtually anywhere else online. Some innovative formats that TikTok offers include business privilege status (V symbol), the hashtag challenge, and top view (Ponomarenko, 2020).

Brands can also use platform codes and influencers to endorse or promote their products. Brands as diverse as Converse, Fashionnova, Balenciaga, and Mercedes-Benz, are using TikTok to produce significant spikes in brand awareness and affinity (ibid). 


Picture showing marketing formats offered by TikTok
Picture showing marketing formats offered by TikTok
Source: Arjay Durgapal


TikTok is a global phenomenon that has changed how Generation Z teenagers engage with one another. It has reached unprecedented success as it offers a free, fast form of entertainment and numerous opportunities for brands and artists. Directly or indirectly, TikTok has affected society because it changed the way that other social media works, marketing, the music industry, and even the idea of beauty, comedy, and talent. Whether you like it or not, TikTok simply cannot be ignored.


















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