In light of recent events, Tik Tok has become relevant on a scale that feels unjustified to many. There is a potent stigma against Tik Tok, with people discarding it as “that app where kids do stupid dances,” and I take some issue with this. While it is true that the most popular content on the app is dominated by young people dancing, better insight can be garnered by looking at the platform as just that: a platform. The essentialist claim that Tik Tok is for stupid kids ignores an enormous quantity of high quality content. Like any other social media platform, Tik Tok is what you make of it. The only rule across the entire app is that any given video must be a minute or less in length. Beyond that, there is an incredible diversity of genres that cannot be pinned down by a single descriptor.
Tik Tok’s origins lay in the wake of an app called Musical.ly, which is also the source of the current platform’s primary criticism. Musical.ly was entirely filled with shallow videos of children and young adults dancing. Musical.ly appealed primarily to a very young audience, much younger than the demographic of Tik Tok today. This allowed it to largely fly under the radar, despite the fact that it had over 70 million registered users in 2016.
While I don’t personally enjoy the kind of content that is shown to users by default, I quickly discovered plenty of videos that fit my interests and sense of humor, which I attribute to the app’s algorithm. Tik Tok uses a feed similar to Twitter or Instagram rather than a page of suggestions like YouTube. After only a few days of use, the algorithm had garnered a better understanding of what I wanted to see than YouTube had in over a decade. I think this more than anything is what has led to Tik Tok’s monumental success, as each user feels as though the app’s content was made specifically for them. Additionally, the lack of direct choice from the viewers allows Tik Tok to show videos from less popular creators, giving the platform a significantly less hierarchical structure than other extant social media sites. It seems as though Tik Tok is by far the easiest place to obtain a modest following without any connections to larger influencers.
I am not a complete Tik Tok apologist. The platform has been used to spread mass amounts of misinformation to a highly impressionable, young audience. Specifically, there are dozens of pages unironically peddling unsubstantiated conspiracy theories like QAnon, Pizzagate and lizard people. While one would hope that viewers could see through the claims put forth by these creators, the top comments on these videos are filled with messages like “I learn more from these videos than in school” and “The government is trying to cancel Tik Tok because you’re spreading the truth.” These videos are a particular pet peeve of mine, but I think they also demonstrate the breadth of the Tik Tok platform in terms of the sheer variety of content available.
As far as concerns about the recent acquisition go, we still know very little. Tik Tok and Oracle as well as the Trump administration have been opaque in regards to what a shift in ownership of American operations of the app will mean for users. It’s entirely possible that this will be a purely corporate change, and the transition will feel seamless. However, others speculate that Trump pushed for Tik Tok to accept a deal with Oracle due to his relationship with the company’s CEO, Larry Ellison, so that he can control the discourse on the app and further his own campaign.
Tik Tok is in no way beyond reproach, and it remains to be seen if the current draw of the app will sustain through the long term, but I am willing to admit that I have sunk hundreds of hours into it over the past year and a half. The platform currently stands as a meaningful and valid place for people to share jokes, skits, hobbies, political opinions and more so long as they are able to squeeze it into the 60-second limit. And while the app is in its infancy, its popularity shows no obvious signs of slowing, so perhaps it will be viewed as something more than a vapid fad in the not so distant future.