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What is TikTok? - Richard Godwin

Blog | By Richard Godwin | Jun 02, 2022


TikTok, a social-media channel, began life in 2014 as Musical.ly, a ‘lip-synching app’ that allowed users to film 15-second videos to their favourite pop songs and share them with their friends. By Richard Godwin

Music remains central to its appeal, since every video demands a soundtrack. Old Town Road, a country pastiche by rapper Lil Nas X which spent 19 weeks at the 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 and pet-based pratfalls. 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). It seems every other user has filmed themselves doing a silly dance in a supermarket.

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 towards the young. According to the Business of Apps website, although only nine per cent of Americans use TikTok, 49 per cent of American teenagers do. If you want to know what Generation Z are up to, here is where to look.

But this can be disorienting. TikTok is fast and frenetic. Whereas Twitter centres on words, and Instagram on pictures, TikTok centres on short videos, usually 15 seconds long, presented in a smartphone-friendly portrait format. Although 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 febrile interactions of other social-media platforms.

TikTok even managed to pull off a political masterstroke on 20th June, disrupting a Donald Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The event played to a two-thirds-empty stadium. Trump had boasted that a million people would show up. In fact, 19,000 did. A master of Twitter he might 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. And – surprise, surprise – in August, Trump set about trying to ban TikTok.

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

Well, never mind – here’s a video of a Labrador eating cereal.