TikTok: fun, fresh and frequently stealing your attention

With 500 million users, TikTok has the primary goal of controlling human attention and personalising each users' content feed on order to transform the user experience.

NexBridge Technologies, "TikTok-Logo", https://www.flickr.com/photos/, CC

Since its launch in 2016, the video sharing and social media application, TikTok, has had a significant transformative impact on the nature of users’ experience within and across the internet as a communication network. With over 500 million users, it is certain that the often institutional and multifaceted digital interactions that occur within the TikTok platform are a vital part of everyday society and the overall internet ecosystem. This TikTok analysis will:

  • Provide a historical overview of TikTok and assess its business model
  • Relate the TikTok algorithm to the notion of the attention economy
  • Explore the responsibility of TikTok to secure user privacy
  • Situate TikTok within its internet ecosystem

In doing so, an evaluation will be made on how the platform has played a key role in creating social, cultural and economic transformations.

Historical Overview & Business Model

Within a four year time period,  TikTok has monopolised the video sharing and social media market, and has subsequently become a prominent figure in the circulation of multimedia content across the internet. Ethan Bresnick defines TikTok as “a mobile video creation and sharing application”, whereby users have the ability to interact with content through liking, sharing, duetting and commenting on videos on their feed (Bresnick, 2020). Users can also share content across other social media platforms, including Messenger and Instagram, creating multiple avenues for content to be accessed (Bresnick, 2020).

A significant aspect of the TikTok algorithm and business model, is the ‘For You Page’, where videos from creators with a range of followers are personally curated for the particular user (Bresnick, 2020). From here, the TikTok algorithm learns the video preferences of that users, and then further personalises their feed in order to achieve maximum alignment with the video content (Tolentino, 2019).

The parent company of TikTok, ByteDance, is valued at more than $75 Billion and owns multiple global video sharing platforms, including Douyin and BaBe (Tolentino, 2012). In 2015, ByteDance purchased the social media application, Musical.ly, a platform where users could post short videos dancing or lip sinking to an audio track (Anderson). In 2018, ByteDance merged Musical.ly with TikTok, creating a multidimension social media and video sharing platform for users (Anderson). Currently, TikTok has 500 million users, with half of these accounts owned by 13-18 year olds (Bresnick, 2020). It is also the most downloaded Apple iOS video app (Bresnick, 2020).

Bresnick notes that TikTok is successful as it combines classical film techniques and user-friendly content through the visual and editing features that are free to use (Bresnick, 2020). In this regard, users have complete creative freedom over the content they can produce and post. TikTok is based on the notion of content freedom, which has allowed ByteDance to transform and personalise the user experience, and subsequently achieve exponential growth, as observed in source one.

SensorTower, “TikTok Quaterly First-Time Installs Since 2016”, Business of Apps (2020)

The Attention Economy

Important to the success of the TikTok platform, is the manner in which it controls the attention of users through creating a personalised digital reality. In relation to the digital age, Zeynup Tufeki defines the attention economy as the manipulation of human attention, as a key resource in gaining an increased revenue for businesses, and achieving maximum reach for social movements (Tufeki, 2013). Tufeki notes that as the internet is the main communicative platform for the mass media, gaining user attention is a constant competition for business, influencers and advertisers (Tufeki, 2013). Therefore, it can be denoted that internet platforms design their applications to maintain human attention.

The notion of the attention economy is particularly relevant to the business model of TikTok. In an article published by The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino explains that user attention on TikTok is controlled through the unique experience that is created for each individual through the ‘For You Page’ (Tolentino, 2019). As a user spends more time interacting with and responding to content on the application, the algorithm begins to learn what content will be most successful with that a particular user (Tolentino, 2019). In this regard, TikTok is able to tailor the content that the user receives, and it thus has significant control over the attention of the user (Tolentino, 2019). TikTok has additional features within the application that also enhance the user experience, including:

  • A continuous feed
  • TikTok trends and popular creators
  • No time displayed on the application
  • Loop features, that replays the video immediately after it has ended (Tolentino, 2019).

All of these features enhance the user experience and create control over their attention. The role of TikTok as a key player in the attention economy is highly problematic in relation to the transformative impact of human attention and internet platforms. As TikTok is a corporation with the key ambition of creating revenue, gaining control of human attention is not always positive.

TikTok Dancing Trends

Tufeki’s notion of the attention economy can be observed through a Buzzfeed article outlining the evidence of predatorial behaviour towards younger female users on TikTok (Buzzfeed). A popular trend among younger TikTok users is to dance and lip sync to songs, as observed below.

Charli D’amelio, “TikTok Video”, TikTok (2020)

Due to the TikTok algorithm, users who post and like this content will receive more videos similar to this as they continue to scroll on their feed (Broderick, 2020).The TikTok account, @bithoeji, run by 18 year-old Liz W, is an account dedicated to exposing predatorial content through highlighting the content of older men inappropriately duetting younger females dancing on the application (Broderick, 2020).

Accounts like Liz’s exist as users are disappointed with the ineffective and non-responsive nature of the reporting tool on TikTok (Broderick, 2020). Often, when a video from a predatorial account is reported, the video of the younger dancer is removed, rather than the account of the predator (Broderick, 2020). This is highly problematic in relation to the attention economy. As users can curate their content through the TikTok algorithm, predators are able to receive a tailored ‘For You Page’ of younger females dancing, which is especially problematic considering the demographic on the TikTok platform.

This case study clearly showcases the transformative nature of TikTok. Unlike Vine, or any other video sharing platforms, the TikTok feed is entirely manufactured based on what the algorithm thinks users will engage with (Tolentino, 2019). Therefore, in commodifying human attention, TikTok has created an addicting platform where personally tailored content is readily and always available to the 500 million users.

Liz W, ‘TikTok Video’, TikTok (2020)

User Privacy and Regulations

Kari Karppinen outlines that “digital rights” are an increasing difficulty with the development of the internet. (Karppinen, 2017). This is an issue as the internet is a global structure, with both international and national competing companies (Karppinen, 2017). As the TikTok business model is based on increasing revenue and improving its economic position, human rights and the content that is produced are a key factors in how TikTok tranforms the social and cultural sphere. Karppinen outline two levels of “digital rights” that are applicable to the TikTok algorithm and platform (Karppinen, 2017).

  1. As new technology is generated, there is a higher need for human rights to be developed, and personal content to be protected (Karppinen, 2017). This is known as, “the right to be forgotten” (Karppinen, 2017). This is an issue due to the sharing nature of TikTok, as videos and audio can be copied, duetted and shared across multiple platforms, making personal content largely accessible.
  2. Karppinen highlights the difficult denotation between freedom of speech and freedom from hatred online (Karppinen, 2017). This means that it is difficult for technology to monitor the difference between personal opinion and hate speech, especially on a rapidly spreading platform like TikTok.

TikTok Security Flaws

An article published in The New York Times revealed the findings of research published by Israeli cybersecurity company, Check Point conducted in August 2020 (Bergman, 2020). The report exposed significant vulnerabilities in the data security algorithms of TikTok, and the potential for hackers to retrieve personal data (Bergman, 2020). The report exposed the vulnerable messaging system on TikTok, which was vulnerable to hackers posing as TikTok and sending broadcast messages to all users (Bergman, 2020). They also found that hackers could plant links, which if clicked on by users, would grant the hacker control over the users’ entire account (Bergman, 2020).

Internet Ecosystems

  1. K. Looi defines an internet ecosystem as the diverse range of “mechanisms” that contribute to the algorithm, content and audience of one particular internet avenue or platform (Looi, 2001). These mechanisms include:
  • Producers
  • Moderators
  • Technology designers
  • Competitors
  • Regulators
  • Technology suppliers
  • Platform owners

Each of these aspects makes up the entirety of the platform’s ecosystem, and as one develops another one often does as well (Looi, 2001). Looi identifies human learning as a key aspect of all internet ecosystems, as “online communities” create an augmented reality for the user (looi, 2001). This is subsequently, transformed into their everyday life and interactions.

Similarly, TikTok in a part of an internet ecosystem, whereby each mechanism interacts to create the contemporary experience for the everyday user. TikTok’s internet ecosystem can be observed below.

Emily Heimann, “TikTok Ecosystem”, (2020)

As shown above, TikTok’s ecosystem comprises of the users of the application, government regulators and competing application, among other aspects. Each element an important aspect in how TikTok creates, designs and monitors its own content, as well as the user generated videos.


As an internet platform, TikTok is significantly socially, politically, culturally and economically transformative for users, producers and future applications that may be developed. The article has explored:

  • The recent history of TikTok and noted that its exponential growth has prohibited growth in regulatory practices.
  • How the commodification of human attention has transformed the TikTok ‘For You Page’ and created a personally tailored experience for users
  •  How data privacy and regulation have been overlooked by the owners of TikTok
  • Situated TikTok within its internet ecosystem

It is certain that the exponential growth of TikTok has enabled its international success, and thus, its subsequent advantage as a key media player. As individuals continue to transition to a digital world, it is up to TikTok to be responsible with the authority it possesses over human attention and user data.

Reference List

Anderson, K.E. (2020), Getting acquainted with social networks and apps: it is time to talk about TikTok. Library Hi Tech News, 37(4), 7-12. https://doi.org/10.1108/LHTN-01-2020-0001

Bergman, R. Frenkel, S. Zhong, R. (2020, January). Major TikTok Security Flaws Found. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/08/technology/tiktok-security-flaws.html?auth=login-google

Broderick, Ryan. (2020, June). TikTok Has a Predator Problem. A Network of Young Women if Fighting Back. Buzzfeed. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/ryanhatesthis/tiktok-has-a-predator-problem-young-women-are-fighting-back

Iqbal, M. (2020). TikTok Revenue and Usage Statistics (2020). Retrieved from the Business of Apps website: https://www.businessofapps.com/data/tik-tok-statistics/#:~:text=Sensor%20Tower%20stats%20reveals%20TikTok,million%20downloads%20recorded%20in%202018.&text=Up%20until%20the%20end%20of,44%25%20of%20the%20total%20downloads.

Karppinen, Kari. (2017). Human rights and the digital. In H. Tumber & S. Waisbord, Routledge Companion to Media and Human Rights (1-12).

Konig, R., & Rasch, M. (2014). A database of intention. In Society of the query reader: Reflections on web search (16–29). Institute of networked cultures.

Looi, C.K. (2001). Enhancing learning ecology on the Internet. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning (17), 13-20.

Tolentino, Jia. (2019, September). How TikTok Holds Our Attention. The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/09/30/how-tiktok-holds-our-attention

Tufekci, Zeynep (2013). “Not This One”: Social Movements, the Attention Economy, and Microcelebrity Networked Activism. American Behavioral Scientist, 57(7), 849-870.Doi: 10.1177/0002764213479369