One of the most popular social media applications on the market today comes from a country famously known to censor global internet services — as well as collect private information en masse.
TikTok is everywhere. Presently, it has 800 million active users and has been downloaded 1.5 billion times. TikTok usage in America has been increasing exponentially, starting at 2.6 million in 2017 and rising to 14.3 million in 2018.
But what exactly is “TikTok” and why has it become so important?
From Vine to TikTok: A Quick History
Before TikTok there was Vine, a place where users could post short videos (often only a few seconds long). As brevity is a source of wit, Vine became a community solely focused around humorous interludes—quick bits of comedy, magic, and other types of entertainment. Since the barrier to entry was so low, it become incredibly popular. Everyone had time to watch a Vine.
Though Vine had 200 million users at its peak, it was shut down by its parent company Twitter, likely because it couldn’t be successfully monetized. This is the curse of many large social platforms: They cost a lot to run, but generally don’t bring a lot of money in. TikTok rose in its place. TikTok was just a quick lip-syncing app in 2012, but it continued to grow, and by 2018 had picked up much of Vine’s previous audience.
A large part of this had to do with its narrow focus. TikTok streams videos of 3 to 15 seconds long that are synced with music. This allowed people to play with the fairly restrictive format, while still having that format to fall back on.
The Monetization and Popularity of TikTok
Why did Vine fail and TikTok succeed? TikTok has an internal monetization system, through which users are able to purchase coins in-app and distribute them to others. Meanwhile, TikTok users monetize mostly through sponsorships; they acquire sponsorships if their content is popular enough. Today, there are “TikTok Houses” filled with teenagers and even younger children, pumping out TikTok videos to spread across the platform.
TikTok’s Chinese ownership has driven some issues relative to its user base, given that it is firm on censorship. This does reduce the amount of content that can be placed on the platform, but it also ensures that the platform remains child-friendly—something that has also driven its growth among children and teens. Since many celebrities are now using TikTok as well, monetization may start to come from other angles.
The Darker Side of TikTok
The prolific use of a China-owned product has given rise to some national security concerns. Because the company collects a large amount of data about its users, including potentially biometric information and their locations, TikTok could be driving a wealth of information to China. Chinese companies don’t provide the privacy protection that Western companies might, and it can be a very realistic concern that this information could be turned over to the Chinese government.
In fact, though the information used by Western users may be outside of China for now, the terms of service does reserve the right to share information with the Chinese government. It is illegal for it to refuse due to the Chinese Internet Security Law. Others have been concerned that TikTok could potentially be used as a recruitment tool.
TikTok is, on the surface, a fun, successful app that lets children and adults alike churn out brief bits of content. But there are some very real concerns relative to TikTok that need to be considered before people engage with it. All information shared on TikTok could eventually be in the hands of the Chinese government, including information shared privately with the app itself, such as personally identifiable information.