It Is Everywhere: The Successful Story of TikTok

Source: Reuters, All rights reserved.

Within 4 years, TikTok has become the most popular music video application around the world. This critical analysis will examine how TikTok has changed our understanding of the internet through its technology, business model and marketing. Additionally, transformative effects on political, economic and social aspects of our lives will be analyzed.

The first section of this essay will introduce the operations of TikTok, then the second section will be drawn on the company’s historical background and development. In section three and four, its business model and obstacles in regulation will be explored. Finally, the last section will discuss political, economic and social effects of this transformation.

 

What is TikTok?

 

TikTok is a creative video-sharing service specializing in short-form videos and it is essentially a social networking platform that targets the youth. Users can create 3 to 60 seconds original videos and looping videos, or they can recreate influencer’s videos, using the same music and visual effects.

Two distinctive features separate TikTtok from other video platforms like YouTube and Vimeo, it is the length of videos and the easy editing tool. Short-form videos aim to create a fast and casual viewing experience for audiences who need the entertainment to dawdle. According to TikTok’s introduction on Google Play, they emphasize “simplicity” which they claim “All you have to do is watch and one scroll away.” Meanwhile, users can edit their videos within the app, using integrated editing tools. Such simple design and user-friendliness encourage users to deeply immerse in the influx of videos.

 

The Historical Background and Development

 

In September 2016, TikTok was first launched in China, known as Douyin. It is owned by ByteDance, an internet technology company which was found by Yiming Zhang in 2012. Douyin has a similar user interface with TikTok but the targeting groups are not just teenagers but diverse audiences of all ages. Shortly, Douyin expanded its empire to East Asia. Since then, Zhang decided to expand globally.

This innovative technology of lip-syncing music videos was not created by Douyin, before it was founded, there was a pioneer named Musical.ly. It was launched in 20014, by the time of June 2016, it had 90 million users. Later, ByteDance acquired Musical.ly in 2017, as a result, Douyin entered the international market using the loyal users Musical.ly accumulated.

Screenshot of Musical.ly from app store                           

 

Screenshot of TikTok from app store

The development of TikTok is rapid and astonishing. By the end of October 2020, TikTok surpassed 2 billion downloads times globally and the top three countries for downloads are India, China and the USA. Considering the popularity in America, TikTok was under increasing scrutiny by the U.S. government. In August 2020, former US President Donald Trump announced a prohibition to stop transactions relating to TikTok and WeChat. America is not the only country that deems TikTok as a national security threat, India claimed that analyzing user data threats national defense hence India blocked TikTok in the Indian app store even though there are 119 million active users in India.

Image of TOP 10 countries for TikTok download times. Source: Sensor Tower, All rights reserved.

To relieve concerns aroused by data collection, TikTok declared in a October 2018 statement that they collect and store data outside China and they will resist attempts by Chinese government to access U.S user’s data insistently. Despite the claim, the divide is still growing as the 2017 Cybersecurity Laws in China compels “organization to support the state intelligence work.” This invasive law is challenging TikTok since they said the data is not subject to Chinese law. So far, no evidence shows that TikTok is keeping its commitment.

This China-based company concerns people about data privacy owing to the centralization of state power. Along with political tensions, this competition stretches to the field of economics and culture as well.

 

TikTok’s Business Model

 

TikTok is a mainstay of ByteDance, the business model is reasonably well and the unique marketing strategies bring them considerable profits. Since the trend for video marketing is a priority, TikTok becomes an attractive marketing option for enterprises. It offers a fairly accessible way to integrate videos into advertised products. Generally, people do not prefer advertisements to suddenly appear during entertainment while TikTok uses an anti-marketing marketing strategy to reduce advertisements to be invasive.

Making users feel that the advertiser is a part of community is their major strategy. It is suitable to apply as the platform provides many opportunities for interactions, such as launching a branded hashtag challenge. For example, #pepsicanbalance is a challenge about creating videos with a bent and balanced Pepsi can and the result of this advertisement acquired a total view of 6.2 million. Advertisers are not primary content creators while users are encouraged to interact with branded content.

Video from TikTok For Business: TikTok Branded Hashtag Challenge Tutorial.

Screenshots of #pepsicanbalance on TikTok.

Screenshots of #pepsicanbalance on TikTok

Another technology that contributes to the success of TikTok’s business model, which is the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Algorithm. This new technology designed one of the best recommending engines in the industry and the core concept is “user-centric”. The “For You” page is constructed by analyzing click-through rate, reading time, likes and comments.

This AI technology is powerful and effective in targeting users’ preferences and programmers also realize that making users obsess with browsing videos is a key to be profitable. Stimulating users’ senses remind our brain to desire more exciting rewards, therefore, providing rich sensory experiences in visual and auditory areas constantly is their marketing strategy to keep us connected to social interactions (Labrecque, 2020).

Music is an essential part of TikTok’s sensory stimulation. Users need songs to choreograph dances, perform skits even record their lives. To solve the great demand for music, TikTok signed a licensing agreement with Sony Music. This agreement also replied to some criticism for its lack of royalties towards artists whose songs have been used as background music. After the agreement, royalties are paid through posts. Each time a new post uses the song, the artist gets paid once. In fact, it is win-win cooperation. TikTok expands opportunities for creativity and makes careers for newer artists, for instance, TikTok drove hits from Sony artists— Dojia Cat, whose songs “Mooo!” and “Say So” are the newest dance trend. Another example is “Old Town Road”, first published on TikTok, later became Billboard Hot 100 No.1 and the producer Lil Nas X earned $14million in 2019.

TikTok Ecosystem 

                     

 

Transformative Effects of TikTok

 

Social media platforms are not only places for people to share their lives, but also for governments to be more active with the advance of the internet. In China, official departments like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, museums and state-owned enterprises create accounts on Douyin, aiming to change stereotypes of their rigid figures.

Feeney and Porumbescu (2020) argued that social media platforms could be used by governments to promote civic engagement. When participating in voting, protesting and townhall meeting offline, it can create barriers for citizens in lower socio-economic status as they need resources like time, money and information to attend political activities. Thus, social platforms like TikTok which can provide an online means of civic engagement (e.g the live broadcast of the diplomatic conference) help to overcome the costs of participation.

Despite that governments enfranchise more citizens through social media and ensure political decisions associate more closely with the public’s interests, challenges like structural biases are triggered (Feeney & Porumbescu, 2020). There are distinctive age and demographic differences across various platforms. 60% of TikTok users are aged between 16-24 while Facebook users are across all age groups. Consequently, there is a chance that governments may only be accountable for platform targeted users.

Social media can be used as a tool to connote messages from politics like political inclination while applying humor and parody to politics can be easier to strike a chord with the masses, so users may be inadvertently implanted with political information (Highfield, 2016). For example, @memepac on TikTok is run by teens who want to vote Trump out and they use comedy to sway youth votes. They make memes about the election in videos, since TikTok has a huge base of youth who love comedy, they have successfully influenced many teen votes against Trump.

Although TikTok does not allow paid political advertisements and it has not been defined as political space, it seems that non-paid posts from intentional groups can still be influential. Both campaigns are surprised by TikTok’s role in the 2020 election since they used to overlook its significance.

Memes made by @memepac, Shona Ghosh/Samantha Lee/Business Insider, some rights reserved.

The attraction of social media can be tremendous as it becomes our habits or even an indispensable part of our lives. Attractive social media is capable to cultivate users’ habits and once habitual use is formed, indicating the success of social media (Anderson & Wood, 2020). Initially, habits can be formed due to the rewards they gain from likes, followers and the joy of watching funny videos.

Each platform provides different rewards, judging from targeted users. Similar to Snapchat, TikTok fulfills a desire to pass time and to escape from older users (e.g parents) who are on Facebook and other traditional social media. Furthermore, the AI algorithm ensures users to obtain enough joy and stimulation from videos. While TikTok changes our habits, we are also brain-hacked by endless information flow. One of drawbacks of TikTok is the addiction and it can create obstacles in real-life communication, distancing us from family time.

The virtual community is the product of social media. In this cyberspace, electronic communication is a primary form of interaction for people to talk and find shared interests (Ridings, 2006). Users seek social and emotional support in the virtual community.

Youth is a major group on TikTok and teens often share some common adolescent confusion, hence, they feel a sense of belonging and companionship. In addition, TikTok is a place for minorities like LGBTQ groups. Feeney and Porumbescu (2020) stated that “social media becomes an alternative space for people that gives recognition to the otherwise marginalized.” Teens receive positive feedbacks from TikTok LGBTQ community and they deem that freedom and solace always come from the community.

Nevertheless, teens as enthusiastic users of TikTok are sometimes exposed to online violence. There will be different voices when users try to express views online, but some turn into cyberbullying which can damage adolescents’ self-esteem (Toma et al., 2020). Moreover, detrimental information like online dater, click baits and sexual connotations need to be restricted. TikTok has set a minimum age limit and family safety mode, however, this regulation method is defective as children are still able to access as long as they change the birth date.

 

Conclusion

TikTok as an innovative short-form video platform is very lucrative for its business model, unique AI algorithm and marketing strategies. The transformative effect on our lives, changing our social habits, supporting us within communities and its political influence proves TikTok is a force to be reckoned with.

 

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Floria Ren
About Floria Ren 3 Articles
USYD student, major in Digital Culture and Visual Arts.