TikTok calls itself the “destination for short-form mobile videos.” In some ways it’s a bite-size version of YouTube, with videos ranging between five and 60 seconds in length. Creators have access to an assortment of filters and effects, as well as a massive music library.
Tracks on TikTok have high meme potential, and it’s turned the app into something of a hitmaker. Lil Nas X’s country tap jam Old Town Road is the best example of this. While lassoing some near 67 million plays on TikTok, the single trotted to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, where it stayed for a record-setting 17 weeks.
Like any other social network, TikTok has a gamut of influencers and meme machines who cash in on views, likes, comments, shares—and virtual coin. There are more than 35 TikTok stars who count their followers in the tens of millions—most of whom are not mainstream celebrities.
But the machine most central to TikTok’s instant success is its algorithm, which uses artificial intelligence to make personalized recommendations for viewers. The video feed plays the minute the app opens, instantly sucking viewers in. Users can follow their favourite creators, but they don’t have to for the feed to be filled automatically with curated clips.
As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg put it in leaked audio: “I kind of think about TikTok as if it were Explore for stories, and that were the whole app.”
TikTok makes content discovery central to its experience—which is what allows videos to blow up so fast.
In China, TikTok is known as Douyin. The forerunner to the TikTok app, Douyin was launched by ByteDance, the world’s most valuable startup, in 2016. TikTok officially made its overseas debut in 2018 when it merged with Musical.ly.
TikTok’s success has not come without controversy. The app was briefly banned by lawmakers in India last year who cited cultural degradation and explicit content as reasons. In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission levied $5.7 million fine for violating children’s privacy law. Security concerns have led the U.S. government to launch a national security review of the app, while censorship allegations have drawn criticism from lawmakers and competitors.
TikTok has fresh competition in 2020. Byte, a new TikTok rival from a Vine cofounder, danced to the top of Apple’s app store on Jan 24. And Google just jumped into the short-form video game with Tangi. In Asia, Tencent-backed Kuaishou is gaining popularity, while its sister app, Kwai, is popular in Brazil. And of course, Facebook and Instagram will also look to close in on TikTok this year.