The Economist explains
DUBBED “the last sunny corner of the internet”, TikTok is a social-media platform from China that is currently downloaded more often than Facebook or its sister services, Instagram and WhatsApp. Its parent company, ByteDance, is the world’s most valuable unlisted technology startup, recently valued at between $90bn and $100bn. TikTok has more than 100m users in the West as well as in China. But its worldwide impact and its Chinese provenance leave some Western governments feeling queasy.
Why is the app so successful? On opening it, users are presented with an endless stream of videos no longer than one minute each. They can indicate their interests, and with an upward swipe can skip a video they don’t fancy. Each time they do so, the app’s algorithm adapts what is served up next. TikTok has taken this sort of automated content-recommendation system further than any other technology company, making the app especially engaging. Like other social media it allows people to follow their favourite creators, like their posts, comment and share content to other apps. But with TikTok they can also “duet” with other users, a process that allows two videos to be placed side by side: perhaps two friends dancing, or an original video (one person working out, say) and a reaction video (another applauding the athlete). This, together with the app’s many “challenges” (a video’s creator challenges viewers to do the same workout, dance etc) can make interactions much more collaborative than other social apps.
During the coronavirus lockdown TikTok has been widely used by young users trapped at home. Videos marked #coronavirus have been viewed more than 64bn times. About 4.1m users have performed dance routines to “Bored in the House” by Curtis Roach, a hip-hop artist. In Britain thousands film the chorus of applause in their neighbourhood every Thursday evening, and videos with #thankyouNHS—an ode to the National Health Service—have been viewed 421.8m times. TikTok has struggled to contain the spread of misinformation, but has made efforts to deal with it. In February the World Health Organisation started publishing videos on the app, and now every TikTok video tagged with #covid19 comes with a warning: “Learn the facts about COVID-19”. This provides a link to a collection of videos by verified accounts including the NHS, the Red Cross and the World Economic Forum.
The app was supercharged by the decision of its parent company, ByteDance, to buy musical.ly, from its Chinese founders in 2017. Musical.ly was a video platform mostly used by lip-syncing teens, who would pretend to sing pop tunes or perform comedy sketches. It was already popular with millennials in America and Europe, and had more than 200m users worldwide. ByteDance merged it with TikTok, badged the result as TikTok, and spent heavily on advertising on other millennial-friendly platforms, such as Instagram and Snapchat. (It is reckoned to have spent some $1bn on advertising in 2018.) It placed advertisements in places like Piccadilly Circus in London and Times Square in New York. And this year it ran two ads—costing an estimated $300,000-400,000 each—during the live-stream of the Super Bowl, America’s biggest sporting event.
The strategy is working. Celebrities and newspapers have TikTok accounts, and fashion brands are advertising on it. Seven in ten users are reckoned to be under 25. TikTok makes money from ad and from commissions on tips, which users offer through the pseudo-currency of TikTok’s “coins” to their favourite creators. In China, where TikTok is known as Douyin, the app also makes money from e-commerce. TikTok may do so in the future.
TikTok is the first Chinese app to go truly global—and this is what bothers the West. American politicians fear that China’s government may be keeping track of the many millions of Americans who have signed up to the app. Western governments also have concerns about censorship. This issue came into focus last autumn when very few videos about the protests in Hong Kong were published on the app. In November 2019 the American government opened a review of ByteDance’s purchase of musical.ly two years earlier. ByteDance has insisted that it does not share user data with China and that data about non-Chinese users are held on non-Chinese servers. It has denied removing videos of the Hong Kong protests and said that China is not allowed to dictate what American users see.
Mounting pressure—from governments and users alike—may have led to TikTok’s decision to launch a “Transparency Centre” in Los Angeles. The firm claims that the centre, which is due to open in May, will allow outside experts to examine and verify TikTok’s content moderation. Perhaps its work will pacify disgruntled governments; perhaps Chinese apps with global clout will always be viewed with distrust in the West. But for now, all eyes remain glued to the screen.