On the Rise: TikTok

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are back once again with another installment of “Everybody’s a Creator.” This week we are tackling an up and coming group of influencers, that some are arguing are the next powerhouse social media celebrities. This group is interesting because as much as I hope to educate you in this blog, I had to first educate myself. Even as a self-declared social media qween, I am too old to be fully versed in the world of TikTok. And trust me when I say this isn’t your Ke$ha’s Tik Tok (literally every article made this joke, I apologize for the lack of originality).

Let’s start with what is TikTok, and back track from there. TikTok is defined as “a media app for creating and sharing short videos.” However, the TikTok we have today is actually a combination of two nearly identical apps. Muscial.ly, the predecessor, was originally launched in 2014 by Alex Zhu and Luyu Yang, two Chinese entrepreneurs. In late 2017 the company was acquired for a measly $1 billion. The purchaser was a company called ByteDance, ByteDance is a Beijing-based tech company, who owned the original TikTok. In August of last year, TikTok officially absorbed Musical.ly, and all the accounts and videos were automatically moved to the TikTok platform. Why combine the two? Well other than the fact that they are nearly carbon copies of each other, the apps served different demographic communities. Musical.ly had a monthly following of 100 million active users, primarily based in the Americas and Europe. While pre-Musical.ly TikTok had 500 million monthly active users in Asia. An interesting detail, worth noting is that a standalone version of TikTok still exists in China, with 300 million users. It is called Douyin and this is due to the country’s restrictive internet rules.

But this still begs the question what is TikTok, who uses it, and what do they use it for? TikTok has a wide range of content. But the most popular style of content is lip-synching. The videos are a maximum of 15 seconds. There are various futures and edits that can be done to the videos. There is a massive database of songs, effects, and sound bites. There are Snapchat-esque filters. Users can also upload their own songs, which then are available to other users to take and lip-sync. This collaborative nature, and the playing off of one users to another, is at the heart of the app. Due to this it was natural to add a “duet” feature. This makes it so you can reply to someone’s video, and then it will create a “split-screen diptych,” and the videos play together to create the final product. This allows for an infinite string of reactions, which honestly is kind of the point of the app.

This video shows an inside look at how people use the app to create their content.

Now I want to get into a little bit more of the generally weird culture of TikTok, but first you need to understand the magnitude of this strange video app. The most up to date statistics are from 2018. The app has over 500 million global monthly active users, with 6 million US downloads in the month of November alone. For comparison, Facebook has 2.27 billion monthly active users and Instagram has 1 billion; however, Twitter and Snapchat have only 336 and 186 million respectively. In September, it “surpassed Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat in monthly installs in the App Store.” This led to ByteDance, passing Uber as the world’s most valuable startup. It is currently valued at more than $75 billion.

With its user base in perspective, lets talk about how this app is being used. As I mentioned above, the bread and butter of this app is lip-synching. Let’s digest that for a second. Half a billion people are downloading, and using, an app to make 15 second videos of them singing along to a song. The weirder part, they are watching other people do it. The weirdest part, some people are better than others, and are finding fame off of this app. But, I am getting a head of myself. Though it no longer exists, we can’t forget about Vine, and it did not die from lack of fans. Those videos were only 6 seconds. So TikTok is offering more than double the content. But why do I want to watch someone lip-synch? I guess I should be fair and explain that it is not all lip-synching. There’s also sketch comedy. However, as we learned from Vine and Instagram, not everyone is funny, and skit comedy is hard. So to avoid actual effort, TikTokers lip-synch scenes from movies, TV, and other people’s standup (including other TikTokers). And yes this is as weird as it sounds. There are also dancing videos and magic tricks. Honestly picture Vines, but with much less originality and heavy editing. Editing. It’s all about the editing. I’m not sure why, but most of the videos have a lot of effects, from speeding things up and slowing them down, to auto-tuning and sound editing. I guess this is where some originality comes into play. Additionally, a lot of the videos are based on “challenges.” Think “In My Feelings” challenge, based on the Drake song. Basically, some how a certain song, activity, or style of video becomes popularized, and everyone on the channel tries to recreate it.

A few examples of popular challenges last year.

However, many people commend the app for how different it feels from other social medias platforms. In the age of perfectly edited Instagram photos, the genuine and silly nature of TikTok can feel refreshing. It’s just regular people posting lip-synching videos. Of course this in practice can be very “cringy,” and has led to whole categories of “cringewothy” content. This has become a goldmine for YouTube commentators, who make entire videos making fun of these awkward to watch TikTok videos.

YouTube commentator Cody Ko, and his take on TikTok.

The best part is that TikTok has its own “ecosystem” of stars. These individuals are supposedly better at making lip-synching videos and have amassed millions of fans. Some major names to know include:

  • 16-year-old German twins Lisa and Lena (32 million fans)
  • 18-year-old Baby Ariel (29 million fans)
  • 16-year-old Loren Gray (29 million fans)
  • 16-year-old Jacob Sartorius (19 million fans)

All of these creators have released their own (non-lip-synced) singles since finding fame and a following on TikTok’s predecessor, Musical.ly. Prior to releasing music, TikToker stars are able to make money through brand sponsorship, as well as, in-app gifts. Fans are able to give gifts, worth real money, of anywhere from 5 cents to $50 to their favorite creators through the app.

            However, the app is not without issues. With a user base that is incredibly young, anywhere from 13-24, and then antidotal reports of children even younger than 13 (which is against the rules) accessing the the app, there are many incidents of the platform being used for creepy and pedophilic purposes. There are hundreds of cases involving children as young as 9-year-old unintentionally exposing “their full names, phone numbers, and schools by including the information in public videos.” Additionally, “many of these accounts received creepy messages from adults asking young girls to ‘be their girlfriend’ or requesting their cellphone numbers.”

            TikTok is a weird phenomenon in my eyes, but the new generation loves it, and when it comes to the future of tech that means a lot. Will we one day see TikTok surpass Facebook and Instagram?







  1. Really great article and this fits right in with my presentation this week about why Vine failed. I think TikTok has a lot of parallels with Vine in that the main focus is creativity. These songs that people lip-sync already exist, yet there are infinite ways to capture that on video. I think TikTok has learned from Vine’s major mistake, which was not incorporating any way to monetize the app, so maybe it will last longer than Vine. I think this app is a great way for people to gain a big fanbase and launch their singing careers or social media presences, but I think that once TikTok users gain a big following, they will no longer use the app. Instagram and YouTube have transformed into such great platforms that allow for people to make money, so I am not sure that TikTok can compete with them in the long run. I also liked that you added the unfortunate downside of having a young age range for an app and I wonder how TikTok addresses this issue. Great post!!

  2. Good deep dive into TikTok. See, this is really why I have students do blogs, is that you guys get to keep me up to speed with the latest and greatest apps that I otherwise would never had heard of!

  3. Really interesting and informative post! I think that part of the genius behind TikTok’s virality is that it’s bite-sized output is intentionally designed to fit into the ecosystems of content on other social media platforms. In 2018, for example, marketing analytics companies placed the average video view duration on Facebook at 18.2 seconds, while the duration on Instagram was roughly 26 seconds. On Twitter, the average user watches only 5.9 seconds of a typical auto-play video on his or her feed. With these attention spans and engagement patterns in mind, native TikTok videos, because of their 15-second capped length, can be posted, re-posted, and shared on external social media sites with a high level of certainty that they will be viewed long enough to communicate the basic content and concept of TikTok. In combination with the YouTube compilation videos that you mention and the sharing of TikTok videos by existing influencers, TikTok’s content design allowed it to become part of a social media feedback loop across platforms without any true difficulty or disruption.

  4. csaitta4 · ·

    You’re so right, this is very reminiscent of Vine, a platform which i absolutely loved! Sticking to the 15 second maximum clips definitely increases the content potential of Vine while still keeping it short and sweet (within my attention span). I think finding a way to compensate creators on the platform outside of ads is a great way to incentivize users to create original an interesting content. I wonder how long TikTok will last without ads given that a huge part of other social media site’s business models include revenues from advertising. I wonder if ads were intended to be kept out from the beginning or if they will pop up soon

  5. cgriffith418 · ·

    Well I feel old, I had no idea this even existed…so glad you took the time to expose us to it! At the beginning of your article, TikTok sounded a lot like Vine, but it definitely does seem to have its own unique (weird?) value proposition, so maybe it will have more staying power than Vine. It’s also interesting that like Vine launched so many comedy “stars,” TikTok is apparently launching musicians. This seems strange to me since they get TikTok fame through lip-synching which basically has nothing to do with actual musical talent since its not original and doesn’t even showcase their actual voices; at least on Vine, Vine comedians were actually creating original comedic content. If the editing of the videos is such a driver of success, it seems like it would make more sense for those TikTok-ers to go to have successful careers in video editing. I guess it’s not all that different from Instagram influencers/models/etc becoming actresses and musicians, but I just don’t see how a musical career based on TikTok fame could be sustainable. I guess we’ll have to wait a little longer to see if any of these converted TikTok musicians actually become serious presences in the music world. Side questions — are there certain geographic areas where TikTok is more popular?

  6. I had previously dismissed TikTok as a fad like Vine and figured it would fall away in a few months. But reading your blog and watching the videos sent me down a huge TikTok rabbit hole. I can totally see myself as a kid having a blast with it! However, I do share your concerns with how young the userbase is, given the ability to ‘reward’ creators. But like any platform, people who use it should be smart about the information they are providing and how it can be used against them. It reminds me of the Del Harvey video we watched where she states that the main question she asks is “How can this go horribly wrong”?

  7. This is an absolutely bizarre phenomenon, and I really really realllllly hate it. Is this how people ~8 years older than us felt about Snapchat when it first came out and we were all obsessed with it? Everyone is commenting on the similarities to Vine, but this just seems like a weirder, less original, and longer version of Vine. I think there’s also a definite social perception among people my age that Tik Tok is a bizarre new world, but given their numbers (500m MAUs), it doesn’t seem like that is hindering their growth. I was blown away at your mention of ByteDance’s $75B valuation, and it seems like their Chinese media app (Toutiao) is carrying a lot of that weight. Perhaps a big chunk of that valuation is coming from the fact that ByteDance has been able to establish a successful presence in both China (Toutiao) and the US (TikTok), something that some of the biggest companies (Amazon, Uber, Tencent, Alibaba) have failed to do. Great, though-provoking post!

  8. huang91j · ·

    To be honest, I am sick and tired of seeing anything about TikTok – it’s the number one ad I see whenever I watch youtube videos. I don’t personally care for it because it doesn’t seem like an app that I’d like to use. You can definitely tell what the app’s target audience is because all of the TikTok videos I’ve seen have been of kids and teenagers lip-synching. It’s crazy to me that TikTok has almost as many users worldwide as Twitter and Snapchat combined, but I guess the app does offer quite a different and creative platform for the younger demographic to express themselves and/or become “famous.” However, I can’t see the app being as successful as facebook and instagram in the long run, but maybe it will last a little longer than Vine. The ability to make videos for longer than 6 seconds may be more appealing and it offers the flexibility that Vine was unable to in the past.Thanks for the interesting post!

  9. My youngest sister just turned 13 and she has been using TikTok for a few years at least. Granted, she wants to end up on Broadway as a career, but I still cannot wrap my head around why this is a popular app to use. Even for younger demographics. Vines are still quoted today and used similarly to how memes are used. I have yet to see a TikTok video used in any cultural reference. Maybe its because we are on the older end of their main demographic. Either way, it is crazy to think that TikTok has that many users in the first place.

  10. debhan10 · ·

    I was always familiar with this app, but never really knew what it was until reading your blog! It’s funny how much effort and preparation is put into a 15-second video. I think the reason why people are so enticed to watch other people’s videos is to see how creative they can get. With so many song challenges that arise on a regular basis, it’s the perfect opportunity to snatch. I can’t believe people actually get famous from this app, but then again, anyone can get famous from anything nowadays! Thanks for sharing, I was quite entertained by this.

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