When TikTok first came to the US, people rolled their eyes. Most people over the age of 25 wrote the app off as a weird, cringey tween fad, assuming it would eventually go the way of Vine or YikYak.
But since TikTok’s arrival here, the platform has exploded, transforming itself from a spectacle of dancing teenagers into a tech powerhouse and a cultural juggernaut. Certainly, TikTok has come to define Gen-Z, but people of all ages embraced it during the pandemic, a year primed for spending hours scrolling distracting, goofy content. Just three years after launching in the US, TikTok became the most downloaded app in the world in 2020, unseating Facebook Messenger. Earlier this year, the app’s owner ByteDance ranked as the world’s most valuable startup, with a valuation estimated to be between $100 billion and $250 billion.
It’s not just the pace of TikTok’s growth that’s remarkable, it’s also the depth of its influence. TikTok is no longer an app to learn about just to impress your younger sibling. Memes, trends, subcultures, brands and celebrities hit first on TikTok, which feels like it has sped up the pace of the internet’s daily happenings themselves. Meanwhile, ByteDance has become one of the most important companies in the world, as TikTok rewrites the rules of the creator economy, entertainment, viral marketing and e-commerce.
There’s no question TikTok is far more than a fad. But its future is far from certain. The same fountains of data that power TikTok’s addictive algorithm have made it a national security concern to governments around the world, threatening its longevity and delaying growth.
From Musical.ly to Douyin to TikTok
The story of TikTok begins in 2012, when Zhang Yiming, a 29-year-old engineer founded ByteDance — the company that would go on to develop TikTok — in Beijing. You can see the app’s DNA in the company’s first two products: a news aggregator Toutiao that curates headlines according to users' tastes based on data, and a video and meme-sharing app called Neihan Duanzi.
Separately, in 2014, designer Alex Zhu launched Musical.ly — the first true incarnation of what TikTok is today — on which users could create and share 15-second lip-syncs. Zhu told Forbes that his inspiration for Musical.ly was watching teenagers on their phones on the Caltrain from San Francisco to Mountain view: “50 percent were listening to music and the other 50 percent were taking photos and videos with their speaker on top to add music… it made me think, “Can we combine these three very powerful elements into one app and build a social network for music videos?”
Funding poured in as Musical.ly — propelled by early TikTok celebrities like Baby Ariel, Loren Gray and Jacob Sartorius — took off with American teenagers and hit number one on the App Store in 2015. A year later, ByteDance released a Musical.ly copycat called Douyin both in China and overseas. Eventually, as Musical.ly struggled to find a US buyer, ByteDance bought it for between $800 million to $1 billion, revamping it with the powerful algorithm it developed for Toutiao and incorporating it as the international sister app of Douyin. Finally, in August of 2018, Musical.ly devotees logged into their app to find that they were now users of something called TikTok.
Before TikTok, there had never been a social media platform designed for and marketed to people younger than roughly 15. So, while at first glance TikTok’s function doesn’t seem so different from other video-based platforms like Snapchat and YouTube, given these apps are aimed at people in their later teens and 20s, TikTok had little competition when it came to grabbing the attention of middle schoolers. They staked out their audience with their colorful marketing, array of easy-to-use features, and the tween influencers who became the face of the app. TikTok spent 2017 and 2018 advertising aggressively to teenagers on other social media platforms, siphoning their users. As of 2020, 70% of all teenagers in the US are using TikTok.
Make Social Media Fun Again
The tone around TikTok began to switch from contempt to curiosity in late 2018, as it began to surpass Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat in monthly installs. The narrative coalesced that it was a charmingly random fountain of creativity and positivity, the antidote to Instagram’s superficiality and Twitter’s cynicism. In 2018, a New York Times article titled “A Chinese Video App Brings Fun Back to Social Media,” praised TikTok as “the only truly pleasant social network in existence,” and The Verge called it, “the joyful, spiritual successor to Vine.”
Within TikTok, people spend most of their time on their “For You” page: a curated selection of the app’s content, powered by one of the world’s most sophisticated social media algorithms. This algorithm looks at what and who each user follows, likes, comments on, skips through and watches till the end, to determine their interests and preferences. Its precision is why scrolling on the app is so addictive. In some ways, TikTok is less a social network than a TV network of DIY programming, on which everyone has a channel curated just for them from the app’s endless variety of content.
Initially, the app was known for suburban white kids doing stilted dances and mouthing along to rap songs. Today, TikTok’s ecosystem of niche communities today is much weirder and more diverse than the app’s most visible creators like Charli and Dixie D’Amelio, Addison Rae, Bella Poarch and Chase Hudson, or members of “TikTok creator houses” like Hype House and Sway House. Today, TikTok hosts circles dedicated to food, activism, gaming, crafting, art, teachers, science, outdoors, cosplay, parenting, drag and LGBTQ culture, literature, astrology, theatre, and every other possible interest or identity. Some dances, audio clips and other video-making treds will migrate across the whole app, but most circles have their own vernacular ways of using the app.
TikTok topped the app store throughout 2019, but the app grew up and grew older during the pandemic. As people found themselves with nothing to do except scroll, they found TikTok to be a delightfully random and silly alternative to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. People jumped on feel-good distractions like Nathan Apodaca’s viral skateboarding-while-lip-syncing-Fleetwood-Mac, or dance challenges like “the Renegade.” Mainstream celebrities, and users of all walks of life began to join, with prodding from TikTok’s aggressive ad campaigns — the app has been spending almost $1 billion per year since 2018 to recruit new users. By September, the app’s weekly average users had risen 75% since the beginning of 2020. As of last year, TikTok had around 100 million monthly active users, up 800% from its 11 million users in 2018.
The pandemic grew TikTok’s users. It also aged them. As it turns out, TikTok’s two essential promises — a seemingly endless conveyor belt of mesmerizing entertainment, and the opportunity for anyone, with or without a blue check, friends or followers, to land in front of millions of eyes — are appealing to people of all ages. Though it's still seen as a teenage app, today, only around 32% of TikTok’s users are under the age of 19, while a full 60% are between 20 and 49, per Statista. TikTok has massively scaled up over the past year, to accommodate their new audience. ByteDance added nearly 20,000 employees in just the last two years, according to data from LinkedIn tracked by Thinknum.
Get Rich or Die Posting
Vine, to which TikTok is often compared for its whimsical, comedic content and charismatic creators, flamed out in 2017 after failing to provide a way for users (and its company) to cash in. In contrast, one of the things that has drawn and kept both creators and brands loyal to TikTok, is the app’s stunning capacity for monetizing virality.
TikTok has generated a previously unprecedented number of careers for micro influencers. In part, this has to do with TikTok’s algorithm and the nature of the For You page. While it’s nearly impossible for someone with 15 followers to go viral on Instagram or Twitter, ostensibly anyone can pop up on For You pages around the world if the algorithm matches their content to someone’s interests. It’s not just easier to go viral, your average viral videos goes more viral, according to Vox anything on the For You page is guaranteed 50,000 to a million likes, engagement numbers are rare on other apps.
More influencers going more viral means more brand opportunities than ever. Today, TikTok is a gigantic mall and an endless billboard in one — with their army of willing salespeople with built-in audiences and ability to match content to the most eager shoppers. Sometimes products and songs go viral organically — from Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” to Aerie leggings — but TikTok has actively positioned itself as an e-commerce and creator economy hub. TikTok actively assists brands in finding creators to work with via TikTok for Business platform, and in turn, assigns in-house consultants to advise top creators on which hashtags, features and songs are important to it and its advertisers. Sometimes, these relationships mean sharing data with advertising customers — for instance, Megan Thee Stallion picked “Savage,” which became one of 2020’s biggest dance trends after TikTok executives alerted them that it was the song from her new album users were saving most frequently.
Of course, TikTok takes a cut of it all. Meanwhile, the more money creators take home, the more innovative content flows into the app as users try to cash in. ByteDance is the biggest digital ad player in China and the company raked in around $34.3 billion in 2020, 111% year-over-year growth.
Battling with parents, rivals and two governments
ByteDance came out of 2020 as one of the most powerful companies in the world. But the algorithm and carefully collected data that has made TikTok so lucrative is also its biggest liability.
Indeed, part of the reason that no one had made social media for 12-year-olds before, in part, because making an app for 12-year-olds is very tricky. The FTC had had its eye on TikTok since it was Musical.ly and in 2019, fined TikTok for $5.7 million for violating U.S. child protection laws, alleging it failed to protect the privacy of people under 13 by collecting kids’ email addresses, geolocation and IP addresses without their parents’ consent. In response, TikTok launched a restricted version of the app called “TikTok for Young Users,” that collects no data and on which users can only like and follow content rather than sharing videos publicly. The “age gate” puts TikTok technically in compliance with the law, but the app continues to face pressure to remove inappropriate content like dangerous challenges, which have resulted in deaths, and to improve its parental monitoring features.
Fretting parents became the least of TikTok problems going into 2019, as reports of the app censoring posts on behalf of China’s government caught the eye of congress, which was already concerned about the increasing influence of Chinese tech players like Tencent and Alibaba in the U.S. First The Guardian obtained documents revealing that TikTok was censoring content on behalf of the Chinese government, including mentions of crimes against Uyghurs, Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence. Then, the Washington Post reported on the strange absence of content about the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. TikTok denied that it acts on behalf of the Chinese government, telling Vox that its missing political content was because, “In TikTok’s early days it took a blunt approach to moderation in an attempt to keep the content on the platform light and fun.” Initially, TikTok was a Republican talking point, but a bipartisan effort led the US Committee on Foreign Investment to open an investigation into ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly.
As TikTok grew in 2020, it repeatedly denied sharing user data with China, published new information about how its algorithm works and spent millions lobbying in D.C. to try to get politicians on its side to no avail. In July, to the horror of teen influencers and delight of TikTok’s rivals like Triller, Facebook Reels and Snapchat Spotlight, Trump told reporters he planned to ban TikTok, issuing two executive orders kicking TikTok out of the country by mid-September unless it sold to a US company. Ostensibly, the administration’s fear was that if China had access to TikTok's data, it could be leveraged for espionage or blackmail. However, notably, Trump’s first mention of the TikTok ban came two weeks after K-pop fans banned together on TikTok to sabotage a Trump rally in Tulsa, registering for hundreds tickets so the stands ended up empty. TikTok had also been banned in India and Pakistan in previous months, costing the company as much as $6 billion.
A labyrinthian legal battle followed. TikTok, which estimated it would lose 50% of its audience if banned for even two months, as well as a group of creators immediately sued the U.S. Department of Commerce, claiming the ban is unconstitutional. Microsoft, Oracle and Walmart each began jockeying to become TikTok’s new owner. Deals with all three companies were made and shelved over the course of 2020, as the legal case grew more convoluted and deadline after deadline passed for the ban to take effect. TikTok executives began breathing easier after Biden pulled ahead in the election, and in December, a judge (who Trump had appointed himself) officially blocked the ban calling the crackdown “arbitrary and capricious.” In June, President Joe Biden withdrew the executive order and in turn ByteDance agreed to drop its lawsuit.
The Biden administration has put the threat of Chinese blackmail on the backburner as it doles out vaccines, however already this year TikTok paid out $92 million in a class action settlement over the sale of personal data to third party advertisers. In addition, China’s crackdown on its own tech companies presents a new impediment. Last year, China blocked the $300 billion IPO of Ant Financial, after its executives made disparaging comments about China’s state banks. In July, it looked like ByteDance might face the same fate as they delayed their own IPO plans until early 2022, after a warning by Chinese regulators about their data security.
TikTok might want to claim it’s a fun, silly app for dancing teens. But it’s been successful because of a capacity to gather and wield data that governments see as a threat and which presents real concerns about privacy. Just this week, congress has begun taking a closer look at the biometric data TikTok captures, and the news that China’s government has acquired a 1% stake in ByteDance’s Chinese subsidiary. More regulations and lawsuits from both China and the US are inevitable. While TikTok has proved resilient so far, how much these recurring challenges might slow the company down remains to be seen.