Photo by Kon Karampelas
Technology / United States

China’s Got Us Hooked: the Mystery Behind Tik Tok and its Origin

“We are TikTok famous!” These are the infamous words our generation longs to proclaim, the very words my roommate came into the room saying one day after practice. It was still early fall and her team had yet to take press photos for the school. One of our friends decided to make a TikTok of the event, something she usually does in a goofy and sarcastic manner. After adding a couple of hashtags like #foryourpage, she posted the video with no intentions. In a matter of hours, it had thousands of views. Today it exceeds 20.4K.

When my roommate told me this, I was slightly confused. I have never been one to fully understand the different social media ‘fads’ that have surfaced over the course of my teenage years. I never get the meme references made by social-media-savvy members of my generation, and to this day my friend forces me to watch various vine compilations so I can laugh at her jokes and be in on them. But TikTok is truly uncharted territory. What is TikTok, and why do members of Gen Z find it so attractive? What implications does TikTok’s popularity leave society to consider?

TikTok, a Chinese owned company, is a social media platform often described as a mesh between Vine and Users are given 15 seconds to perform skits, dances, or DIY’s. Recently, TikTok has become such a marker of modern social culture that it has even begun to infiltrate the secondary school system. Taylor Lorenz, a technology reporter for The New York Times, investigated the increasing presence of TikTok clubs in various middle schools and high schools around the United States. According to her case study at West Orange High in Winter Garden, Florida, even teachers are not blind to the potential influence TikTok has as a creative outlet for media-centric teenagers. Simply put, TikTok and secondary schools have a shared target consumer: Gen Z. For this reason, educators have taken to promoting and utilizing the application itself. One teacher at West Orange, the advisor of the schools TikTok club Michael Callahan, believes it fosters an environment of collaboration and teamwork, two characteristics often missing from the high school experience. 

The students Lorenz interacted with have a lot to say about TikTok, and some even self-identify as ‘TikTok addicts.’ To them, everyone’s identity is wrapped up in their TikTok status—have they made it to the ‘For You’ page? What video made them famous? To investigate these ever-so-pressing questions, I did what any other sensible person would do: download the app. I was quite confused by what I initially saw, yet I couldn’t stop scrolling. On occasion, I even found myself laughing aloud to the goofiness of a video. Before I knew it, I had watched too many TikToks and, weirdly, I began to sympathize with those who identify as addicts. 

In terms of lifespan and popularity, TikTok is still a child undergoing rapid growth in downloads and actively-contributing users. Such exponential growth rates require major, speedy adjustments and an endless flow of new features to keep up with an overflow of new content. The application exploits the urge to scroll mindlessly and provides endless content for the hungry members of Gen Z. Unlike platforms such as Instagram and Twitter, the application itself does not reach a scroll limit; you could scroll continuously for hours and never run out of new content. For this reason, TikTok satisfies teenage impatience and desire for more. Its consistent revival of content promotes an addictive spirit, preying on the susceptibility of screenagers to fall into its intricately crafted trap.

TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese tech giant originally popularized by Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. Ever since its establishment in 2012, ByteDance has focused on expanding its consumer base to western markets. TikTok is perhaps their most successful product under this initiative. The success of TikTok is largely important to ByteDance because it demonstrates the capability of Chinese companies to find international success despite China’s Great Firewall which inflicts regulations and censorship on media content. TikTok diverges from Douyin largely because of this Firewall presence within China. Theoretically, TikTok does not conform to the level of censorship Douyin is programmed to follow because of the app’s western-centric intent. TikTok represents ByteDance’s efforts to ascend into the world of Chinese-owned, borderless social media. Achieving borderless social media, according to ByteDance, allows the company to avoid Chinese regulations placed on applications used by the Chinese population. 

Recently, ByteDance has faced scrutiny over TikTok’s censorship of controversial topics, ranging from mentioning particular political leaders such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Narendra Modi, to the protests in Hong Kong. While ByteDance has often denied these accusations of censorship, former employees have spoken up on the topic, claiming “they were instructed to follow rules set by managers at ByteDance’s Beijing headquarters, such as demoting and removing content related to social and political topics, including those censored by the Chinese government.” The objective of TikTok as a westernized, non-censored version of Douyin is thus undermined. The fact that ByteDance claims not to censor user content despite the statements of former employees demonstrates a broader miscommunication concerning ByteDance’s policy approach. Despite these facts, and increasing public knowledge of them, ByteDance has reached a revenue stream between 7 and 8.2 billion dollars in just the first half of 2019. That amounts to more than 7.2 billion-dollars in revenue of 2018 alone. 

These developments leave us with a significant problem concerning the divergent values of the Chinese and American societies. ByteDance intended for TikTok to be a borderless platform, defying the Chinese government’s expectations on censorship. Yet even with these expectations, ByteDance’s understanding of free speech is implicitly different than American tech companies. I don’t believe their perspectives on transparency should be equated because they succumb to diverse sets of national presumptions. However, with this understanding of the values instilled in each company, we as users should be cognizant of the impact our choices have. By using TikTok, are we as consumers promoting the limitation of our freedom of speech?