The Cultural Influence of TikTok
By Tali Lesser
TikTok is a social media app created by ByteDance, a Beijing based tech company. In 2016, the company launched Douyin, an app similar to TikTok for the Chinese market, and in 2017 launched TikTok for markets outside of China. In 2018, TikTok merged with the app Musical.ly in order to create a larger video community. The most recent statistics, dating back to July 2018, show that TikTok and Douyin combined have 500 million global monthly active users. As of last year, about 60% of TikTok’s 26.5 million monthly active users in the United States are between the ages of 16 and 24. The app is known for being popular among young demographics, but it is gaining increasing popularity among older demographics as well, especially during the pandemic when people are stuck indoors and are searching for distractions to occupy their time. As of April 2020, the app has amassed over 2 billion downloads worldwide, and has emerged as this year’s most downloaded app, outpacing Zoom, WhatsApp, and Facebook. The five aspects of the circuit of culture—production, representation, identity, consumption, and regulation—are an effective framework for explaining the cultural impact of TikTok on everyday life.
How are videos produced and created? How does user creativity play a role in video production?
TikTok is simultaneously a social media and content creation app. Videos (colloquially called “TikToks”) can be up to 60 seconds long, and can consist of shorter videos stitched together. In order for a video to get a view, users must watch the video all the way through. If a user scrolls past a video without watching it from start to finish, this does not count as a view. Videos take up the entire screen, and only one video can be played at one time, so users’ attention is always fixated on the content. If the user is disinterested in the content, they are compelled to keep scrolling to the next video to watch something more interesting to them. Because the interface does not utilize any negative space, users must be mindful of not putting any text on their video that will be covered by the interface. The more users scroll, the more videos that appear, and the feed never runs out of content unlike other social media apps.
Users can utilize the sound of other videos, which has resulted in many lip-syncing videos of speaking or singing. Users often use hashtags to describe and categorize their content and help their videos become viral. When users include hashtags that are trending in their video caption, their video is more likely to appear on the discover page and therefore gain more views. While anyone can make a Tik Tok account, certain accounts are “verified” with a blue check mark below the username. According to TikTok representatives, the purpose of users being verified is to confirm that it is an authentic account, and that it is not a user impersonating a celebrity. Verified accounts are typically well-known users that have gained extreme popularity (such as influencers), public figures, and large brands or companies. One unique functionality of the app is the ability to “duet” videos, meaning users can post their own twist to another user’s video with the original content appearing alongside their new video. Additionally, users can reply directly to a comment on their video with a new video, creating a “communication tree.” When one user complained that people were duetting videos with nothing to add to them, a meme emerged of users creatively adding to her video.
How does the app represent itself in society?
For TikTok, the aspects of production and representation are not clearly distinct since the app is simultaneously an app for content creation and social media. Users may choose not to engage in the content creation aspect of the app by not producing any videos of their own, however TikTok does not require that you post videos in order to be on the free app service. Even without contributing to the repository of videos on the app, each user makes a significant contribution merely by watching videos and sharing them, which contributes to the efficacy of the app’s algorithm. The app has two main video feeds. One is the “Following” feed and the other is the “For You” feed. The “following” feed contains videos from accounts that users have “followed,” and these accounts may be other people the user knows personally (their friends) or accounts of strangers they have chosen to follow out of interest.
The app’s algorithm for the For You Page (FYP), which predicts videos that the user will enjoy based on previous usage of the app, is one of TikTok’s uniquest features. The algorithm draws people toward the app and entices them to continue using it. In the beginning of the app’s popularity, it was represented in American society as an app mostly for teenage girls. Musical.ly, the predecessor to TikTok before it was purchased and merged with the app, was able to gain increasing popularity by allowing watermarked videos to be easily downloaded and uploaded to other social media platforms such as Youtube, Instagram and Facebook. Rather than hurting the app, distributing the video via other platforms was beneficial for advertisement for the app and did not deter people from using it because other social media sites lacked the most important ingredient: TikTok’s algorithm. Other companies, such as Facebook, have tried to copy TikTok’s short video concept but have not been as successful. The “brand” was specifically important in early representations of the app, and continues to be important today. As soon as ByteDance introduced the For You Page algorithm, it became a signature part of TikTok’s brand, but interestingly, there is no other centralized aspect to the brand, which can be further explained by the multitude of identities represented on the app.
Who uses the app? What are some of the subcultures and sub-communities the app has created?
Like previously mentioned, a range of people have accounts on TikTok, such as every day users, companies or brands, celebrities who gained their fame elsewhere, and even celebrities or influencers who gained their fame on the app itself. An interesting byproduct of the app’s unique For You Algorithm is the variety of sub-communities within the app. Users may refer to being on “Baby TikTok” or “Teacher TikTok,” which means they see and interact with many videos on their For You Page regarding a specific topic. Users often form virtual communities because they are able to connect with others with the same interests by following their accounts, commenting on their videos, and messaging them privately on the app. In this way, users on Teacher TikTok can share tips and tricks with other teachers, commiserate about virtual learning, or just share relatable, funny content. Subcultures on the app are sometimes even more esoteric, such as “WitchTok.” The app has created a platform for modern witches, those believing they have psychic powers, to join together virtually for different causes. Over the summer, witches on TikTok casted spells to protect Black Lives Matter protestors and hex white supremacists. More recently, witches gathered online to curse Donald Trump and conjure a “blue wave” for the Democrats. WitchTok not only provides an opportunity for modern witches to meet and mingle with each other online, but allows for people outside the community to learn about the art of magic. People who have marginalized and stigmatized identities often find and create sub-communities within TikTok because it is harder for them to form communities in person. For example, Muslim individuals who identify as LGBTQ have found a place on TikTok to share their identity and create safe spaces.
How are people consuming the product? Problems with consumption?
TikTok videos are extremely ephemeral, and when users have scrolled past a video on their feed without liking it, it is very difficult to later find that specific video. Searching using keywords in the app will only show videos that have used that specific hashtag. For this reason, people double tap or press the heart button to “like,” videos which then save them to a personal feed so that they can later find them. Users can consume videos without creating any videos themselves, and people can even consume videos without having the app downloaded. People who do have accounts can share videos to their friends through SMS or post them to other social media platforms.
The aspects of production and consumption are very closely related; often educational campaigns created by users on the app are tailored specifically for TikTok audiences, with particularly attention paid to how audiences will consume and apply the knowledge disseminated in the videos. For educational campaigns to be effective, it is not enough for audiences to merely watch the videos, but users need to internalize the knowledge and know how to effectively use it.
One such educational campaign was created by Elton John for World Aids Day. The Elton John Aids Foundation and TikTok teamed up to launch video quizzes and a live show on December 1, 2020. He said in a statement that the purpose of the campaign and live stream was “to break down the myths around HIV, talk about safe sex and ensure that young people know how to protect themselves and others.”
Additionally, users have utilized the app to create informal educational campaigns on racial justice. In June, videos with the #blacklivesmatter hashtag skyrocketed in views. However, some users claimed that they were being “shadow banned,” meaning TikTok was quietly demoting videos related to the black lives matter movement in order to avoid being “too political” and deterring users from using the app. One 17-year-old user from New Jersey, however, stated that despite some negative reactions from users, she posts video related to racial justice because she wants to spark conversation and for “for people to understand our emotions and why this is a movement, because we want change and we want the harm to stop.”
Another educational campaign on the app is aimed at disseminating scientifically accurate vaccine and virus-related information. The initiative is aimed at building trust in the COVID-19 vaccine, since “seeing is believing” and TikTok is a very visual platform. Anna Blakney is a bioengineer who joined TikTok in order to spark conversations about the vaccine and answer people’s questions. Her videos are often lighthearted in order to capture people’s attention and entertain them, while still relating accurate information. Disseminating accurate information regarding the vaccine is particularly important because it can play a crucial role in ending the pandemic, but only if people actually take the vaccine.
Despite some educational benefits reaped from consumption of TikToks, there are also problems such as over-consumption and circulation of misinformation. Because the feed of videos is never ending, users often find themselves spending hours on the app scrolling mindlessly. A recent study on TikTok usage found that one of the main reasons people use the app is for escapism, “to escape from reality” and “avoid loneliness.” The problem of over-consumption has become so pronounced that TikTok itself has started embedding videos in people’s For You Page when users have been scrolling non-stop for a certain amount of time encouraging them to get some water, get a snack, or even to go to sleep.
Additionally, the vast proliferation of short, ephemeral videos that are hard to track down after watching can aid in spreading misinformation. TikTok attempts to take down misinformation, specifically with regards to the election and COVID-19, but this does not stop millions of users from consuming false information and possibly internalizing it before it is taken down. The company attempts to address spread of misinformation through regulation, which is further addressed in the following section.
How does the app manage users and content?
Tiktok has several modes of regulation, the least obvious one being its algorithm. Like previously mentioned, “shadow banning” is a way TikTok regulates content on the app, though the practice is not officially recognized. Additionally, the algorithm sometimes creates echo chambers of content on people’s For You Page, which is a form of regulation because it is controlling what videos users have the opportunity to watch. The app has also received criticism for censorship of videos that might upset the Chinese government, such as videos that mention Tiananmen Square and Tibetan Independence.
In contrast to the more covert ways TikTok regulates users and content, the app also has official community guidelines and terms of service in order to regulate what content is allowed to be posted on the app. Users are not allowed to post disinformation, hate speech, or pornographic content, and TikTok reserves the right to take down any content that violates their terms. According to the most recent transparency report, the app took down 104,543,719 videos in the first half of 2020 that violated community guidelines and terms of service, which represents less than 1% of all videos uploaded to TikTok. In July, TikTok released a statement that it had deleted 29,000 corona-virus related videos in Europe for breaking its rules. Though guidelines claim that hate speech is not tolerated and is removed from the app, research has demonstrated that far-right extremism has been able to slip through the cracks through videos, comments and symbolism. This is particularly devastating considering how many young audiences are on the app who may not have parental supervision or previous exposure to hateful rhetoric.