We know that TikTok is the world’s most popular social media platform, but the contention is that it has secured an unrivalled grasp on culture with e-commerce, news, politics, and even internet search in its sights.
That it is owned by a Chinese company only adds to the concern in some quarters about what its domination truly means.
“There can be no denying that TikTok has become a world-shaping force,” Drew Harwell from The Washington Post writes in an article detailing the extent to which the ByteDance-owned app has taken over the internet.
“In five years, the app, once written off as a silly dance-video fad, has become one of the most prominent, discussed, distrusted, technically sophisticated and geopolitically complicated juggernauts on the internet,” Harwell says.
TikTok’s website was visited last year more often than Google. No app has grown faster past a billion users, and more than 100 million of them are in the US. The average American viewer watches TikTok for 80 minutes a day — more than the time spent on Facebook and Instagram combined.
Harwell cites a survey from Pew Research Center, sharing that two-thirds of American teens use the app, and one in six say they watch it “almost constantly.” And according to a Qustodio report, it’s the most widely used app among children. While half of TikTok’s US audience is younger than 25, the app is winning adult convert too. Sara Lebow, an industry analyst for Insider Intelligence, expects its over-65 audience will increase this year by nearly 15%.
TikTok’s popularity is largely attributed to its ability “to turn entertainment into an endless game.”
“Every swipe could bring something better, but viewers don’t know when they’ll get it, so they keep swiping in anticipation of something they might never find,” Harwell comments. “It’s satisfying enough to keep people interested and so unsatisfying they don’t want to stop.”
Investment analysts at Bernstein Research shared that TikTok has replaced “the friction of deciding what to watch, [with a] sensory rush of bite-sized videos … delivering endorphin hit after hit.”
“And unlike YouTube and Instagram,” Harwell continues, “where creators are forced to compete with established influencers’ polished productions, even the simplest, silliest or most spontaneous TikToks can become massive hits.”
“While Facebook and other social networks rely on their users to define themselves by typing in their interests or following famous people, TikTok watches and learns, tapping into trends and desires their users might not identify”— Drew Harwell
Abbie Richards, a researcher who studies disinformation on TikTok, tells the Post that “we’re talking about a platform that’s shaping how a whole generation is learning to perceive the world.”
That’s a problem if you worry about the real use its Beijing-based tech parent is collecting. As the Harwell explains, the algorithm TikTok employs, gradually builds profiles of users’ tastes not from what they choose but how they behave.
He says that, “While Facebook and other social networks rely on their users to define themselves by typing in their interests or following famous people, TikTok watches and learns, tapping into trends and desires their users might not identify.”
The charge levelled at TikTok bosses is that they work in a country “skilled at using the web to spread propaganda, to surveil the public, gain influence and squash dissent.” That crisis of trust has led to an ongoing debate among US regulators: whether to more closely monitor the app or ban it outright.
The Post reports many users already are self-censoring, adopting a second language of code words — “unalive,” not dead; “procedure,” not abortion — in hopes of dodging the app’s censors and preserving their chances at online fame.
READ MORE: Internet ‘algospeak’ is changing our language in real time, from ‘nip nops’ to ‘le dollar bean’ (The Washington Post)
Drew Maxey, a high school literature teacher in St. Louis, tells the paper he worries about how students’ desire for viral attention have already shaped how some of them talk and behave. He’s even started changing his wording as well. On some book videos posted to the site, he won’t even say the word “death,” worried it might stunt his reach.
“Everything they need, they get from TikTok,” Maxey says. “Yet we’re training a whole generation of people not to say what they actually mean.”
Such concerns are amplified when you consider that TikTokers are increasingly using the app as a visual search tool. Harwell shares that 40% of Gen Z said they had opened TikTok or Instagram, not Google, when searching for nearby lunch spots. (One tweet in June, “I don’t Google anymore I TikTok,” has been “liked” 120,000 times.)
READ MORE: Google exec suggests Instagram and TikTok are eating into Google’s core products, Search and Maps (TechCrunch)
And as Americans’ trust in news organizations has fallen, TikTok’s role as a news source has climbed. One in three TikTok viewers in the United States said they regularly use it to learn about current events. In the UK, it’s the fastest-growing news source for adults. The Post’s own TikTok account has more than a million followers.
READ MORE: News consumption in the UK (Ofcom)
After cornering the market on entertainment, TikTok has begun offering its model of behavioral tracking and algorithmic suggestion to advertisers, “promising them a way to know which ads people find most compelling without having to ask,” Harwell writes.
The result: The company’s ad revenue tripled in 2022, to $12 billion, according to eMarketer, and is expected to eclipse YouTube at nearly $25 bn by 2025. In the US, the cost to advertisers for TikTok’s premium real estate — the first commercial break a viewer sees in their feed, known as a “TopView“ — has jumped to $3 million a day.
READ MORE: TikTok Reservation Topview (TikTok)
“You don’t tell TikTok what you want to see. It tells you. And the internet can’t get enough.”Drew Harwell
Harwell shares that influencers paid to promote goods in their videos now make more ad money on TikTok than Facebook: roughly $750 million.
While TikTok has grown, Facebook has reported losing users for the first time in its 18-year history. In response, Meta has reshaped its own algorithms in its rival’s image not only in developing short-video copycats — Meta’s Reels (also see YouTube’s Shorts) — but also in “swapping out networks of friends and families for feeds of strangers chasing viral glory,” Harwell explains.
“You don’t tell TikTok what you want to see. It tells you. And the internet can’t get enough.”
And all this may only be scratching the surface of TikTok’s potential. According to the Post, it has tested features for interactive minigames and job résumés. It started selling concert tickets. It built a live-streaming business used for meal-cooking showcases, lottery scratch-offs, tarot readings and apartment tours. And it tested a shopping feature that would let viewers buy products from QVC-style live streams in a few quick taps.
All of this power in the hands of a foreign power is scaring US politicians. Top branches of the government and military have banned it from government-issued phones.
“Members of Congress insist it could be a Trojan horse for a secret Chinese propaganda and surveillance machine. Even as the app has transformed into a public square for news and conversation, TikTok’s opaque systems of promotion and suppression fuel worries that China’s aggressive model of internet control could warp what appears there.”
Technology and societal trends are changing the internet. Concerns over data privacy, misinformation and content moderation are happening in tandem with excitement about Web3 and blockchain possibilities. Learn more about the tech and trends driving humanity’s digital future with these hand-curated articles from the NAB Amplify archives:
- The Social Media Trends That’ll Impact Your Business in 2023
- If Social Media Makes You Feel Some Type of Way, Then It’s Working
- Where We’re Headed Next With Social Media Marketing
- Social Media Is Making and Remaking Itself All the Time
- Is Recommendation Media the New Standard for Content Discovery?