TikTok: Behind the rising star of social media

Picture of TikTok’s logo. Image: Flora Olivia, Flickr, All rights reserved

Over a short period of time, TikTok has risen up to the first tier of social media platforms for its unique innovation in video-based content sharing. Drawing on theoretical concepts, this web essay will critically analyse TikTok and its transformative impacts on social media industry and the society.

The first section of this essay will conduct an overview of TikTok as a creative social media, as well as its historical development. The business model of TikTok will be introduced in section three, followed by section four that examines the eco system where TikTok is situated. Eventually, an exploration into cutting-edge internet transformations carried out by TikTok will be provided.

An overview of TikTok and its historical development

TikTok is a smartphone application (app) allowing the creation and circulation of video clips limited to fifteen seconds (Figliola, 2020). Similar to other peer-to-peer, decentralized social media platforms, user-generated content is the backbone of TikTok (Omar and Wang, 2020). Furthermore, John (2018) noted that social media is a crucial part in the sharing economy, which refers to the sharing of goods and ideas. Indicated by the below graph, TikTok has formed a user community that share their thoughts via videos.

Illustration of the four phases in sharing. Image: MasterCard, All rights reserved

According to Fannin’s article on Harvard Business Review, TikTok is founded and owned by Chinese private corporation ByteDance Ltd. The company was established in 2012 by Yiming Zhang, whom had a passion in artificial intelligence (AI). After their successful product named Today’s Headlines, an AI-fed news app, ByteDance launched Douyin in 2016, in mainland China. Later in 2017 TikTok was introduced as the overseas version of Douyin, in the hopes of expanding the company’s business to a global market.

In 2018 TikTok experienced the first wave of rapid user growth as the company acquired Musical.ly, a video-sharing app that served as a teen karaoke platform. Fannin emphasizes the combination of TikTok’s AI-fed video streams and the pre-existing Western affection for Musical.ly to be the kick-start of TikTok’s prosperity. However, TikTok did not became a replica of Musical.ly but rather, inherited the music-driven trait from Musical.ly to foster an overwhelmingly creative user community.

Unique TikTok creations were further refined as singing duet, cringe videos and most importantly, the challenges. Challenges often tasked the participants to complete identical performances with the same back ground music. For example, the currently most-viewed challenge, #savagechallenge, requires users to perform a set of dance moves along with the song Savage. The below video of popular dance challenges clearly suggests that TikTok relies on its energetic user community, whom showcase their creativity through the re-use of music pieces.

Video of TikTok’s most popular genre – dance challenges. Source: Best TikTok Compilations, YouTube, Standard YouTube License

At present time, TikTok has become the fastest-growing social media platform globally. It enjoys approximately 800 million monthly active users and is available in over 155 countries (Figliola, 2020). Nevertheless, criticisms toward TikTok constantly emerge, many of which relate to the concern of relationship between Chinese government and TikTok. For instance, U.S. government announced their intended ban on TikTok, stating that U.S. citizens’ data was under the control of Chinese government. In India, where its citizens consist of one third of all TikTok users, TikTok has already been banned nationally.

TikTok’s business model

TikTok grosses an annual revenue of $17 billion primarily in a rather uniform business model like other social media platforms. That is, to generate profit from advertising, supported by the aggregation of user data collection (Jarrett, 2014). TikTok offers five advertising programs, including brand takeovers, in-feed video, branded lenses, a “top-view” video and most importantly, a branded hashtag challenge (Liffreing, 2020). For successful campaigns like the cosmetic corporation NYX’s #ButterGlossPop Challenge, millions of user-generated videos can be triggered, resulting in a significant rise in brand awareness.

Screenshot of TikTok’s advertise slogan. Image: TikTok, All rights reserved

Nevertheless, TikTok carries out a transformative upgrade on advertising-funded platforms as it claims that advertising can be redefined as a trend or a connection, according to its website shown above. In other words, TikTok users’ participation and interaction with branded hashtag challenges is central to the business’s value co-creation system. Therefore, advertising on TikTok can be taken on a very much Marxist approach, that is, to view users as the exploited labour for ads dissemination (Martin, 2019). As Liffreing (2020) noted, while some influencers are paid to be initiators of an advertising campaign, it is the massive user group that actually share the content spontaneously to realize TikTok’s monetary harvest.

Additionally, TikTok profits from its in-app currency system named TikTok Coin. In live stream TikTok videos, users can purchase coins and then tip content creators to express appreciation. Creators are able to withdraw an equivalent amount of cash later.

A brief on TikTok’s ecology

An internet ecology illustrates a system of connected entities communicating and influencing each other via information technology, according to Looi (2001). TikTok is a leading figure in the creative social media industry. However, behind TikTok’s success is the fierce international competition. The diagram below lists some direct competitors who introduce near identical products include Likee, Byte, Triller and Dubsmash. Nevertheless, judging from the vast popularity gap, none of these platforms are considered as a threatening challenger to TikTok. In the broader market of social media, while tech giants like Facebook, YouTube and Instagram offer video-sharing services, their specialities vary notably from TikTok, and hence, seize a different target market.

Statistical graph of TikTok’s competitors. Image: John Koetsier, Apptopia, All rights reserved.

Due to the aforementioned music-driven trait, TikTok’s partner and supplier is identified as the music industry. Initially the music industry indicated its resistance rather than an acceptance towards TikTok, as thousands of music publishing agencies has threatened to sue TikTok for copyright infringement. However, as Suzor (2019) suggested, copyright restrictions may set a boundary to the internet’s creativity, hence a partnership between music industry and the technology companies can be a better solution. In fact, the pop culture magazine Rolling Stone has pointed out that TikTok is known to be the origin of many hit songs, resulted by the users’ participation in reusing and sharing the songs.

For example, this video explained how the hit song “Old Town Road” rose to fame from TikTok challenges, due to users’ spontaneous promotion. This interdependence between music industry and TikTok is believed to develop more strengthen partnership in the future. Presently, TikTok was reported to achieve an increasing amount of music licensing agreement with the industry, while more in-depth collaborations like TikTok’s promotion to Sony Music artists were settled.

Video of Old Town Road’s story of success. Source: Insider, YouTube, Standard YouTube License

The owner of TikTok is ByteDance Ltd., a Chinese private corporation specialised in AI technology. The platform also has a group of multinational shareholders, including firms from China, Japan and the U.S. TikTok also enjoys a highly diverse user group over the globe. It consists of viewers and creators of the videos, as well as the advertisers. Governments and the platform’s self-moderation system is the major regulatory bodies of TikTok.

TikTok’s Ecosystem


Author: Alice Yan. All rights reserved.

TikTok goes viral: Innovation, disruption, or both?

TikTok brings transformative challenges to not only the social media industry, but also the wider social and cultural context. Keywords of TikTok’s innovation include artificial intelligence (AI), the attention economy and the online activism.

Teenagers for online activism

Online activism refers to the utilization of internet to advocate political or social changes (Couldry, 2015). TikTok has the potential to offer a transformative approach to online activism, due to the platform’s low barrier to entry. As Hastings (2020) pointed out, TikTok encourages a casual, home-made filming style that requires little technical and financial investment. Since two third of TikTok users are under the age of 25 (Basch, Hillyer and Jaime, 2020), many of whom have a limited monetary affordance, TikTok has offered a quick start on video production.

Meanwhile, the younger generation is believed to favour social media as a forefront of online activism. A factsheet from Pew Research Centre reveals that approximately half of American teens regard social media platforms as a key stage for political involvements. On the other hand, the teenagers, or the digital native generation, are suggested to possess the utmost familiarity with the internet and are comfortable to express their opinions online (Coyer, 2020).

For instance, the #BLM hashtag on TikTok has gained nearly 5 billion views, with many content generated by teens. Below is a video of TikTok users from Gen Z and their calls on awareness in the #BLM issue. This indicates that teen users have the speciality to integrate social issues with internet subcultures like memes to promote online activism.

Video of Gen Z’s action in the #BLM protest. Source: Faith Schniepp, YouTube, Standard YouTube licence

An attention economy with everything provided

The term “attention economy” was coined by scholar Simon (1994) to examine human attention as a scarce resource consumed by information. Amongst the content-based social media platforms, TikTok who possesses over 800 million monthly active users is a rising star in the attention economy (Figliola, 2020). The below graph illustrated that TikTok has been placed 2nd place in terms of users’ average daily time spent on the platform.

Statistical graph of TikTok’s success in attention economy
Image: Zia Muhammad, All Rights Reserved

TikTok’s success is believed to be closely associated with ByteDance’s strength in AI development, as well as its sophisticated app design. In contrast to older platforms which only teach their AIs with users’ active responds (for example, the viewing, liking or sharing of posts), TikTok is able to seize passive and subtle reactions from users, including the times a video is replayed. Therefore, its content curation is more intelligent and comprehensive. On the other hand, TikTok does not weave AI-generated content suggestions into users’ daily feed, but rather constructs the entire main page (the “for you” page) on the basis of AI-powered algorithm (Haenlein, 2020).

However, the current concern over TikTok is that AI controls content visibility and results in an uneven allocation of user attention. According to Deuze (2011), modern digital media can isolate individuals more than unify them, because technologies are able to create a personal information space that only provides users with content of their interest, rather than the traditional mass communication. In terms of TikTok, users whom react positive to specific content are likely to fall into a snowball effect, where AI feeds more similar videos to them and gradually lead to a highly monotonous information space.

Furthermore, TikTok’ content suggestion can overshadow the call on action from social minorities. Kennedy (2020) revealed that most of the TikTok influencers create solely recreational videos and they are socially and economically privileged. Because influencers have a large follower group, their videos tend transmit to more audiences whether by AI or user sharing, eventually becoming the key tone of a platform. Thus, the voice of minorities is prohibited by the AI system.

Final thoughts

Overall, TikTok is an emerging innovation in the internet transformation. TikTok’s success suggests a promising future for the integration of technology and content creativity, also strengthens the interconnectivity of real-life issues and online activism. Moreover, TikTok as a global social media platform has revealed obstacles and challenges to the progression of internet public spheres, establishing inspiring precedents to other firms.


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Handan Yan
About Handan Yan 5 Articles
Hola! I'm Alice currently working towards a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Digital Culture&Marketing. If you wanna chat about social media, Netflix, traveling or the Chinese culture, feel free to contact me!