TikTok, a social media platform targeting young mobile phone users, was the second most downloaded app in the world in 2019 and number one in July 2020.
It has also become a geopolitical football. Owned by Chinese company ByteDance, TikTok was banned by India along with 58 other Chinese-owned apps in July in response to escalating border tensions between the two countries. The Trump administration issued an executive order prohibiting TikTok and the Chinese messaging platform WeChat from conducting transactions in the United States, before voiding it, making way in September for Oracle and Walmart companies to take control of TikTok’s US operations.
As a political scientist studying social media, I have looked at what makes TikTok unique and why young people have flocked to it. In short, the mobile-only app allows users to record themselves dancing or goofing around with a music clip or spoken word and then alter the videos using a wide range of effects. Despite its superficially frivolous nature, young people have been using the platform to send political messages, coordinate political action, and hang out in a largely adult-free online space.
How does it work
Each tiktok is a 3-60 second long video that repeats when it ends. Most of the screen is taken up by user uploaded video. The app offers a wide range of options to customize and combine these videos, including video taken with the user’s smartphone, photos uploaded from the web, emojis, and other text overlaid on the video, and special effects. The app’s library of video distortion filters and effects is like Instagram filters but for video.
The bottom of the screen contains information about “audio”: the sound file that accompanies the video. These can be uploaded by the user or chosen from a library containing snippets of songs by professional musicians and silly recordings of people speaking. The sounds have had a huge impact on the music industry: Old Town Road, one of the most popular songs of all time, first gained popularity as a TikTok audio with an associated dance.
When you open the app, you find a tiktok that starts playing. This is the “Page for you”, which plays tiktoks that the TikTok algorithm recommends for you. To go to the next tiktok, swipe up. To see the account that uploaded the current tiktok, swipe right.
What does it compare to
Comparing TikTok to other digital media platforms shows what makes it unique. Like YouTube, TikTok consists entirely of videos. Like Facebook and Twitter, the main way to consume tiktoks is to browse through a feed of short posts.
Like Netflix, the default way to find content is through the recommendation algorithm, not through building networks of “friends” or “followers.” And like Snapchat and Instagram, TikTok can only be played on mobile phones, favoring younger users who are more smartphone-savvy.
TikTok is the first social media platform to combine these features. The result is a unique way to transmit and consume information.
Diversity of information
The combination of video media and feed makes TikTok especially information-dense. A lot happens with every tiktok, and there is an endless stream of tiktoks.
Unlike text, video media operates on two parallel tracks, conveying explicit information (the kind found in speech or writing) and implicit information (social cues like TikToker’s clothing and hairstyle, or emotional affection music) at the same time.
The feed allows the social media consumer to scan multiple bite-sized chunks of content per minute, extracting information much more efficiently than a television broadcast. Combined, these trends make scrolling the “For You” page a dizzying experience, a significant advance in the density of information.
If you spend a few hours on TikTok you will see how this works. Other media are starting to feel “slow,” including previously attractive products like a YouTube video or Twitter feed. Younger people tend to love intensity (loud music, bright lights) and it’s no wonder they find TikTok appealing.
Different costs and benefits
TikTok also changes the costs and benefits of posting. On the cost side, because TikTok is designed for smartphones, it is easier for some people to use and more difficult for others. As a general rule of thumb, the more years of your life you spend using a technology, and the earlier in your life cycle those years are, the more proficient you will become at using that technology.
TikTok also encourages videos shot in the portrait orientation inherent in smartphones, so they can be created wherever the user goes, whenever they have a spare moment.
In terms of benefits, the importance of the recommendation algorithm on “friends” networks means that everyone is guaranteed to get at least some views, even on their first tiktok. On Twitter, let’s say, you can log in and Tweet dozens of times before getting “likes” due to the importance of “follower” networks in determining what people see.
The TikTok “For You” page varies between showing the user tiktoks and extremely popular tiktoks with only a handful of views, thus promoting greater equality than on traditional social networks. In general, TikTok offers an online platform for young people who feel unusually disconnected from the adult world, one in which they are sure to receive some attention.
Common sounds, unique movements
Finally, the sounds that users combine with their personalized videos represent a novel way to categorize and navigate a social media platform, a unique feature of TikTok. If you click on the audio at the bottom of a tiktok, you can see all the other tiktoks that use that sound file.
The most common example involves a specific dance routine combined with the accompanying sound. Audio is constant on this group of tiktoks, but each user provides a unique video of themselves performing the dance.
These dances are examples of TikTok memes. Memes on more text- or image-centric platforms involve some fixed “meme format” which is then remixed by users who edit the image or text to create a specific meme. On TikTok, however, the raw material that is remixed is the user’s body, as the user performs the behavior associated with the meme format, what I call “incarnate memes”.
This makes the body much more prominent on TikTok than on other platforms. While smart puns are very useful on Twitter, TikTok rewards conventionally attractive or flashy bodies to a greater extent than Instagram.
This also means that identity categories that are increasingly central to politics play an important role on TikTok. Incarnated memes often play on the race, gender, appearance, or physical location of the TikToker.
More mainstream image memes can appear anonymous or disembodied as they are shared across the web. With TikTok, it is impossible to separate the individual from the meme.