TikTok is a social media channel with a simple premise—users share short videos of themselves up to 15 seconds in length lip-syncing, dancing, pranking, or other comedic acts. TikTok users can add songs, effects, and filters before publishing it for the world to see.
You might be forgiven for having let social media’s latest craze sit on the periphery of your online radar. After all, short-form social video platforms have been around for several years now. From Vine to Instagram to Snapchat, recording snippets of users’ lives for the world to see has become just as much a part of the social media landscape as reading about your uncle’s political views on Facebook.
Yet, even by the established standards of social media juggernauts, TikTok is making the kind of waves that would send chills down even the most confident boardroom executives in the industry.
It’s got everyone asking, ‘What is TikTok?’
The TikTok community can respond to the creation in all the ways you’d expect—they can give it a ‘Heart’ (Like), comment, or share. TikTok creators whose posts manage to get some wind in their sails may be lucky enough to get featured on the ‘For you’ page—essentially the app’s homepage showing off some of the most popular recent clips, many of them garnering millions of Hearts.
TikTok’s ease of use has helped it become the foremost short-form video social media app in the world.
December 2018 saw the platform add 75 million new users worldwide, a 275% increase year-over-year. Last June, developer ByteDance claimed the app boasts 500 million active monthly users worldwide—for comparison, Twitter had 321 million in Q4 2018 and Instagram hit 1 billion in June 2018.
The app currently ranks number 3 on Apple’s U.S. App Store’s list of top free apps, behind Instagram and YouTube, and pulled in more downloads than any other app back in September 2018. It was also the fourth-most downloaded app overall (no. 1 on App Store and no. 4 on Google Play) of 2018, trailing only Facebook and its subsidiary apps Messenger and Whatsapp.
Owner of TikTok, Chinese company ByteDance doesn’t share regular updates of TikTok user statistics, but given its surging popularity since last summer, those numbers have likely increased further. Digiday quotes a source as claiming that the 500 million global active monthly users figure from last June has already swelled to 800 million as of the end of January 2019.
If true, it’s hard to see any other social media platform stemming the flow of TikTok, for this year at least.
Yes and no.
Musical.ly, another app developed in China, will be familiar to many for popularizing the lip-sync craze. Similar in style to TikTok, the Musical.ly app’s lip-sync function allowed users to share videos of themselves singing along to their favorite songs. Launched in 2014, it built up a user base of over 200 million before being acquired by ByteDance in a deal worth up to $1 billion in late 2017.
ByteDance merged the two platforms under the TikTok title in August 2018, consolidating both user bases into one and promptly shutting down Musical.ly in the process. Musical.ly users were shifted onto TikTok overnight as part of ByteDance’s broader strategy of tapping into the US market.
Many of the elements between the two platforms were near-identical—15-second videos, music, effects, filters— making the merger relatively painless.
How TikTok has become the foremost ‘new’ app on the planet will be the question on the lips of every commentator, analyst, and market competitor in the world. What marks it out from the rest? Why is it that every day, millions and millions of more young folk are downloading the app?
Vast TikTok Song Library
At a glance, TikTok doesn’t seem all that different from video-sharing apps that many are already familiar with, such as Snapchat or Facebook and Instagram’s Stories functions. What makes TikTok different is extended functionality, ease of use, and, crucially, its huge library of officially-licensed songs. It also features the ‘Duet’ function, whereby users can create a response to a video of their choice by performing in split-screen, side-by-side with the original.
TikTok Ease-Of Use
Shooting, editing, and publishing videos are simple and intuitive. Interacting with other users in the community is also easy, and its selection of songs leaves little to be desired. Put into words, it’d be the basic function of Snapchat—that is, recording and sharing video—with the social community dynamic of Instagram, and the music of Spotify—all rolled into one short-form upload.
In addition to this, TikTok is surprisingly addictive, even for a modern social media platform. Swiping from one post to the next is natural, and the brevity of each upload provides a fast-paced experience in a social media space which is more frequently trying to slow things down and focus on long-form content. Just as competitors are shifting towards relying on the longer attention spans of their users than they’ve come to expect, TikTok is doing the exact opposite, putting its faith in short, snackable, and perpetually replaceable content.
Herein lies its greatest strength—establishing a community large enough and given a barrier for entry low enough that just about anyone can start creating and publishing content.
If you’re old enough to remember the distant past of 2009, then you’ll be excused for immediately jumping to the conclusion that Kesha is somehow involved and that the platform was named in her honor.
Well, think again—apparently a decade (yes, really, a decade) is a long enough time to not worry about using famous songs without confusing your core audience. Unfortunately, no Kesha collab here.
TikTok was first launched in 2016 as Douyin in China, where the original name still persists. Developed by a small team of eight people in only 200 days, it racked up 100 million users in China within its first year, with 1 billion videos being watched every day. ByteDance introduced TikTok to international markets (including the U.S.) a year later in 2017, seeking to expand its platform into other lucrative markets.
TikTok doesn’t appear to be significantly different from its closest social media relative, Vine, which was acquired early on and operated by Twitter before its demise at the beginning of 2017. In spite of accruing a staggering 200 million monthly active users, Twitter ultimately couldn’t leverage Vine’s popularity and succumbed to an inconsistent vision and inability to persuade advertisers not to abandon the platform.
Could the same fate befall TikTok?
View this post on Instagram
Who wants chocolate x3 cupcakes??? ? My moist FLUFFY cupcakes have a silky buttercream covered in a decadent ganache ? I shot this video using @tiktok. It’s a cool short form content app that you can shoot and edit video on, with lots of fun effects. Anyone want win a free trip to NYC?? TikTok will be selecting the 7 creators with the best food videos to win an all-expenses paid foodcation to NYC Restaurant Week!! Just post your most mouthwatering food video on Tik Tok, use #SavorTheFlavor, #contest and tag me on it! Good Luck!! #ad ✨ No purchase necessary. Contest begins 11/9 at 9am PST and ends 11/20 at 12am PST. Open to residents of the US (excluding US territories) 18+ years old, or with parent/legal guardian permission. Each video counts as an entry, limit 10. Prizes: 7 winners total; each prize includes a 2 night trip to New York, including airfare, accommodations, and 4 meals. Total ARV: $10,000. Void where prohibited. See Official Rules in TikTok’s #SavorTheFlavor hashtag. ? #dessert #foodart #cupcake #buttercream #frosting #chocolatelover #cakelover #instacupcake #instacupcakes #cupcakestagram #cupcakesofinstagram #cupcaketoppers #piping #deathbychocolate #ilovechocolate #cakeporn #coffeelovers #cakedecorating #instasweet #chocolatecake #chocolatecupcakes #chocolatewasted #instacupcakes #cupcakestagram
This seems to be a lesson in history that ByteDance is painfully aware of. Barely six months after the merger, TikTok has been dipping its toes in the water, sending pitch decks to advertising agencies in Europe and quietly testing ads in both Europe and the U.S. to secure its future as a profitable entity, take advantage of its mushrooming user base, and not follow Vine’s example.
This is all the more pertinent considering the company has yet to turn a profit—its target revenue for 2018 was $7 billion, however, so they’re clearly not lacking for confidence.
Furthermore, after closing a funding round late last year, ByteDance secured $3 billion in investments and was rated as the most valuable private startup in the world at $75 billion—higher than Uber. If any burgeoning social media network is in a position to take advantage of its popularity with the public and investors, it’s TikTok.
TikTok officially requires its users to be over the age of 13. Anyone under the age of 18 must have the consent of a parent or guardian. Of course, this doesn’t translate to reality, wherein many parents know very little about how their children use their phones. The vast majority of users are teens, and many are younger.
Due to TikTok’s highly-engaged community and the open ability of users to post Duets, Reacts (another feature of TikTok), and comments, the platform has struggled with bullying between users. This is especially concerning given that its user base is significantly younger than many other social media networks with similar issues, such as Facebook and Twitter.
Even more concerning for ByteDance are frequent cases of sexual harassment, often involving underage girls as the targets of ‘creeping’—an issue that Musical.ly had been dealing with in the U.S. long before the merger with TikTok. There have been many cases in which girls have been contacted on the app by older men and asked to send suggestive photos of themselves. Several major publications have picked up on this disturbingly seedy underbelly of the app.
After consistent struggles and pointed criticism of this issue, it seems that this might be a persistent challenge for ByteDance to take on.
Though Musical.ly was massively popular before, TikTok has morphed into the social network in a short few months. Gen Zers (and Millennials) all over the world are using the app to make a crack at their 15 minutes, almost by accident transforming the platform into a meme machine, with users acting out popular TikTok memes and jokes to almost mind-numbingly high levels of repetitiveness.
Nevertheless, whether it’s gummy bears chorussing Adele’s ‘Someone Like You,’ putting makeup on potatoes, or yelling ‘hit or miss?’ in public, TikTok has become a goldmine of memes for Gen Z.
TikTok challenges, including the aforementioned ‘Haribo challenge’ and ‘Hit or Miss challenge,’ have also become an integral part of the platform’s lexicon, whereby users encourage each other to record themselves taking part in creative or funny challenges. Compilations of TikTok challenges garner millions of views on YouTube.
That’s not to say that TikTok is lacking in original content, however. Even a cursory scroll on the app will send you down a rabbit hole of everything between dancers, comedians, pranksters, artists, athletes, or just school kids gaining fans on the platform by showing off their creativity (or a mundane slice of life).
The ability for everyone and anyone to easily upload to TikTok has also had the effect of an entire subculture around the ‘cringe’ effect—essentially taking pleasure in mocking people who upload videos of themselves trying (and supposedly failing) to make good content.
As with many social media apps, once you open yourself up to the world, you also make yourself available to be criticized by just about anyone with a working smartphone. This has led to a plethora of cringe compilations on YouTube, collectively getting tens of millions of hits from fans reveling in other TikTok users’ embarrassment.
As you’d expect, TikTok shares many similar characteristics with Vine. Popular content is often creative and scripted, but although TikTok has creators with millions of followers, it seems for the moment that the entire platform isn’t beholden to its star performers. Vine, by comparison, had something of a crisis towards the end when its influencers began deserting the network for more lucrative endeavors.
Though it already has its megastars (most of whom were already popular on Musical.ly), TikTok appears to have a significantly larger pool of smaller creators, with many of them claiming to enjoy highly dedicated fan bases compared to other social media networks.
Such is the app’s ability to fill a gap in the market that existing social media networks are taking notice; Snap Inc. added it to its list of competitors, while Facebook was quicker out the gates, launching its own copycat app (Lasso) back in November 2018, though notably with little fanfare.
One of TikTok’s closest natural competitors on paper is, of course, fellow video-streaming site YouTube. However, at the moment, they are antidotes to each other as opposed to competing platforms. There is little love lost between both networks’ top creators and it seems as though TikTok is scratching an itch that Google is not interested in.
TikTok’s main threat may well come from beyond the digital grave, as Vine’s co-founder seeks to revive and release a competitor app this spring, called Byte. Whether what is fundamentally a resuscitated Vine will be able to compete with the current popularity of TikTok is up for debate, but there is certainly support for it—in just a couple months, Byte’s official Twitter account has over 80,000 followers.
As with any social media platform, a class of creators will emerge as the cream of the crop. Below are some of the top TikTok influencers, many of whom have partnered with brands in sponsored TikTok videos:
1. @lisaandlena – 32.4M fans
16-year-old twins from Germany known for their lip-syncing and comedy videos.
2. @lorengray – 30.1M fans
As a 16-year-old music artist, dancer, and actress who lip-syncs on TikTok, she has signed a record contract and released three singles.
3. @babyariel – 29.3M fans
Known for lip-syncing and singing, the 18-year-old actress and vocalist has also signed a record contract.
4. @kristenhancher – 21.5M fans
19-year-old Canadian vlogger who posts lifestyle TikTok videos but has shifted focus to her YouTube channel.
5. @jacobsartorius – 19.9M fans
Known for lip-syncing, the 16-year-old singer has signed a record contract and released an EP.
Several of TikTok’s biggest stars have found fame on the platform, almost exclusively through performance singing. Many of them are carryovers from Musical.ly and have gone on to sign recording contracts. Others are less refined musical artists and feature a variety of content from raw footage of pranks to edited and artful snippets of life. You can head over to our list of top 50 TikTok creators to explore more.
At present, the monetization options are limited; fans can support creators through in-app purchases (of which U.S. consumers are the biggest contributors), with $3.5 million reported to have been spent in October worldwide.
This is a small figure by modern influencer standards, so it’s no surprise that ByteDance has been marketing big-time and pushing for ads in the near future to keep its top talent around.
If they can successfully monetize the platform, keep creators on-board, and continue to protect TikTok’s current popularity from competitors, there’s no reason short-form video won’t be back for the long-haul.
As TikTok’s user base grows and users continue to experiment on the platform, more TikTok influencers from various niches will emerge. Already, we’ve observed some of the most-followed TikTok creators partnering with brands like Gymshark, or new movie promotions such as “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.”
We expect more brands from all corners of the marketing world to explore influencer partnership opportunities on TikTok. With sponsored content progressively leaking out into the TikTok realm, it will be interesting to see how TikTok continues to forge its path to total social media domination.