The trouble with TikTok
Facebook and Instagram are on high alert because there's a new social media kid in town: TikTok, a Chinese-owned video-sharing app gaining traction among tweens and teens. But global concerns are mounting about this app - should parents be concerned? John Meagher finds out
It has been billed as the world's most valuable start-up that you've never heard of. And it is fair to say that there is a sizeable chunk of the population for whom the word TikTok, means absolutely nothing. Something to do with time? Incorrect. A brand of mint? That's Tic Tac.
But for anyone under the age or 20 - or their parents - TikTok will need little introduction. It was the most downloaded app on both Apple and Android devices last year and its rise in Europe and the US in 2019 has been nothing short of breathtaking.
Earlier this week, it was reported that the TikTok app has been downloaded 1.5 billion times. And the vast majority of users are tweens, teenagers and third-level students.
So what is it? It's essentially a video-sharing platform with a twist. TikToks can be up to 15 seconds long, but users can also connect multiple clips together for up to 60 seconds of total recording. It's perfect for these instant-gratification, low-attention span times. If you want short, funny clips about a bewildering array of subjects, you have come to the right place.
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TikTok is remarkably simple to use and within a few minutes, you can find yourself down a rabbit-hole that's every bit as addictive as YouTube. The brisk length of each video ensures that you jump from one subject to the next. In the time it might take to compose a tweet, you can comfortably watch two or three TikToks. Spend even an hour on the app and it will become blindingly obvious how it has become such a sensation among children.
And its popularity is threatening the dominance of more-established players such as Instagram and Snapchat, both of whom have had to stand back and watch as TikTok hoovered up in the download wars.
What makes it completely different to its household-name rivals is the fact that it was not dreamt up in California's Silicon Valley, but in China. While other hugely popular apps in the world's most populous nation have failed to make an impact internationally, TikTok has been an unmitigated global success in just two years.
But while the app provides hours of daily entertainment to its young audiences, others are concerned. US authorities are especially worried that its algorithms could be manipulated by the Chinese government. The US has launched a national security review of TikTok's owner ByteDance's acquisition of the US app Musical.ly.
This week, the CEO and founder of TikTok's parent company, 40-year-old Chinese native Alex Zhu, was in New York to reassure his critics that the company is not collecting data on its users for use by the Chinese government - or any other agency.
In an interview with The New York Times, he denied censoring videos that displease China. It does not share user data with China or even, he stressed, its Beijing-based parent company. Furthermore, he explained that all data on TikTok users worldwide is stored in a facility in Virginia, with a back-up server in Singapore.
Cork-based tech expert and digital marketing consultant Damien Mulley has been fascinated by TikTok's meteoric rise. He believes the decision by Twitter to discontinue its popular short-video service, Vine, left the market open for a start-up like TikTok.
"It's an app that's big into creativity and it's very user-friendly, too so it's had instant appeal for tweens and teenagers," he says. "It allows you to create any videos you want very quickly. It has a whole database of music that you can add to the skits that you do. It fits in very well with younger people who are messing around and wanting to be creative."
The big draw, according to Mulley, is the fact that TikTok has reached critical mass in that so many Irish schoolchildren use the app now that those who don't will feel like they are on the outside. "That's how these networks get really big," he says, "the moment you feel that all your peers are on it is when you want to be on it, too. Years ago, the attraction to Bebo was all the people you knew were on it. Facebook was the same, too."
He believes that Instagram stands to lose most. "It's not seen as fun place for stupidity or experimenting," he says. "The music component of TikTok is a big part of its success and, in a survey I did recently, 54pc of teenagers are on Spotify every day. Music is a core part of their identity and TikTok plays into that, especially since they made music integral to what they offer."
Niall McHugh is an account manager with the Dublin agency, ReputationInc, and manages the online presence of a range of leading Irish and international brands. He has been keenly aware of TikTok's massive growth.
"What people may not realise is just how popular the TikTok app is," he says. "In a very short space of time, it has caught right up with Instagram in terms of monthly active users and it's a massive threat to both Facebook and Instagram.
"One of the main challenges facing companies looking to get in on the action is in trying to replicate and attract TikTok's following among Gen Z [loosely defined as those born in the mid-1990s and after], which poses ethical and legal issues for companies in how they target and collect data on those under the age of 13 - an audience which Facebook has lost and is eager to win back."
He says the big players have been keen to replicate TikTok's success with young audiences. "Late last year, Facebook launched a standalone video-sharing app called Lasso to directly combat the rise and popularity of TikTok. Similarly, Instagram has since diversified to retain audiences and is currently testing a new feature entitled 'Reels' with its Brazilian users, with a view to expanding into markets where TikTok is yet to establish a firm foothold."
McHugh believes TikTok is already a highly attractive platform for brands to sell their wares. "Like other social media platforms, influencers and celebs can play a massive role in delivering brand messaging to prospective audiences with many well-known content creators already present on TikTok and delivering key messaging or product placement on behalf of brands," he says.
"Brands, too, can create their own social media channel and upload video content direct to fans and there is massive opportunity for big brands to advertise and reach global audiences."
And, he adds, opportunities also exists for advertisers to latch on to certain hashtags, trends and emerging topics. "Given people's preferences for engagement with hashtags, the TikTok algorithm could also allow advertisers to directly target specific users and their homepage / 'for you' section based on that users' preferences."
Viral content from the app is also permeating into other social platforms. "Although some may not currently be on the app, more and more of the content is being shared on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram," McHugh says, "meaning that we may have seen TikTok content without being fully aware of its origin. This highlights the effective focus on creation, entertainment and engagement. If brands can tap into this and the fun nature of content, it is relatively easy to communicate a brand's message and even drive direct collaboration with users."
TikTok's reach beyond its core audience also intrigues Damien Mulley. "You can see TikTok seeping into Facebook and Instagram and Twitter now," he says, "and a lot of the really funny, viral videos that are being consumed in those spaces are TikTok videos. The best example is 'Old Town Road' and all those people who made their own videos from it."
The song, from emerging US hip-hop artist Lil Nas X, was specially remixed for TikTok and became a viral sensation earlier this year. "I promoted the song as a meme for months until it caught on to TikTok and it became way bigger," the rapper - real name Montero Hill - told Time magazine.
"I was pretty familiar with TikTok: I always thought its videos would be ironically hilarious. When I became a trending topic on there, it was a crazy moment for me. A lot of people will try to downplay it, but I saw it as something bigger. TikTok changed my life."
Despite the fun aspect to app, it has become part of the conversation around cyberbullying. Although not as convenient as the likes of WhatsApp and Snapchat when it comes to the sobering phenomenon of 'pile-in' bullying, TikTok is increasingly being seen as something that parents need to be mindful of.
Mulley suggests such talk is little more than a moral panic. "Anything new that comes along, there's a worry that it's going to be misused or abused. But it's not the app itself, it's the people that are using it. Bullying has happened on Bebo, Facebook, Messenger, Snapchat, you-name-it. But the app shouldn't be blamed."
It is a sentiment echoed by Timmy Hammersley, engagement and participation officer at youth mental health charity Spun Out. "Social media is here and it's not going to go," he says. "You hear people talk about blocking [children's] access to these apps, but that's not going to work. We need to empower people to connect with social media in a healthy way.
"I think it needs to become part of the conversations at home, in schools and at universities. Society has changed but the educational curriculum hasn't changed with it and I don't think we're preparing young people to deal with the challenges that exist with social media."
Hammersley, a former Tipperary senior hurler and current GAA coach, says he frequently encounters young people who have great difficulty navigating the demands of social media and massively popular apps like TikTok. "There are downsides and they begin with you and your relationship to yourself - and that's going to really impact on your relationship with social media. We still have this thing in society where there's a certain image of perfection and a desire to show the world that we're successful and happy. The pressure to conform to that can be intense."
And that pressure can be seen on TikTok. Although there is a lot of goofing about, much of the content it presents is carefully manicured teens striving to impress their peers.
But is TikTok simply a fad? Will it endure the way former sensations, such as Bebo, failed to do? Niall McHugh believes it has a very good chance of being able to stick around.
"Time will tell whether or not TikTok can continue to diversify and compete against the bigger social media players, but the app and its parent company have already established themselves as being well versed in adapting having previously merged with Musical.ly.
"Parent company, ByteDance, which has a valuation of $78bn and generated more than $7bn in revenue for the first half of this year, also owns several other popular apps and has plans to diversify further into the music streaming business as a direct rival to Spotify and Apple Music."
They are big figures for an extraordinary start-up and with its frantic growth showing little sign of abating, there will be few left who confuse it with something to do with time. Or small, hard mints.
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