"The Oldie is an incredible magazine - perhaps the best magazine in the world right now" Graydon Carter, founder of Air Mail and former Editor of Vanity Fair

Subscribe to the Oldie and get a free cartoon book


TikTok is for sale – but what is it?

Blog | By Richard Godwin | Sep 21, 2020

TikTok is for sale – but what is it?

TikTok, a social media channel, began life in 2014 as Musical.ly, a “lip-syncing app” that allowed users to film 15-second videos to their favourite pop songs and share them with their friends.

Music remains central to its appeal, since every video demands a soundtrack. Old Town Road, a country pastiche by rapper Lil Nas X that spent 19 weeks on top of the American charts in 2019, began life as a TikTok meme.

But TikTok is also home to family dance routines, comedy skits, to-camera rants, pet-based pratfalls, pranks and mini-crazes. There are TikTok celebrities - a 15-year-old from Connecticut called Charli D’Amelio is the reigning queen with 60 million followers - but the emphasis is more on “Real People” (as the tagline has it). At the time of writing, seemingly every other user has filmed themselves doing a silly dance in a supermarket. In the future everyone will be famous for 15 seconds.

At the time of writing, TikTok has been downloaded 1.5 billion times and has an estimated 800 million monthly users, which puts it far ahead of Twitter and Snapchat and just behind Instagram as the world’s sixth most popular social media app. Those users skew towars the young. According to the Business of Apps, while only 9% of Americans use TikTok, 49% of American teenagers do. If you want to know what Generation Z are up to, here is where you look.

Only this can be disorienting. TikTok is fast and frenetic. While Twitter centres on words and Instagram centres on pictures, TikTok centres on short videos, usually 15-seconds long, presented in a smartphone-friendly portrait format. While the currency of Twitter is outrage and the currency of Instagram is envy, on TikTok it’s silliness. In this respect, at least, it marks a welcome change from the fraught interactions of other social media platforms.

TikTok even pulled off a political masterstroke on June 20, disrupting a Donald Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The event played to a two-thirds empty stadium. Trump had boasted that one million people would show up. In fact, 19,000 did. A master of Twitter he may be, but Trump had been undone by teenagers using TikTok.

The teenagers, who had formed an online community based on their shared love of Korean pop music, flooded the event organisers with fake ticket requests, inflating expectations and maximising humiliation.

Did I mention that TikTok is Chinese-invented and owned? Oh and it boasts some of the most sophisticated artificial intelligence software on the planet? And it has already faced record fines in the US for breaches of child privacy laws? And it has censored material relating to China’s human rights record?

Well, never mind, here is a video of a labrador eating cereal.