qmunicate Investigates: TikTok

I’m pretty sure I don’t need to explain what TikTok is but for those of you lucky enough to be living in blissful ignorance, TikTok was launched in China in 2016, and is a video making app that allows users to set 15 second videos against music. Giving rise to trends such as Renegade and the VSCO girl, TikTok arguably stepped in to fill the Vine shaped hole in our hearts. Yet, at its centre, TikTok is a commercial venture – with the numbers monthly active users at around 500 million, TikTok is valued at around $78 billion and its commercial nature should not be ignored.

Part of what has made TikTok so successful is that it is fun. From lip syncing to songs to making videos with your mates, TikTok embraces key elements of teen life that have always been omnipresent in society. It seems somewhat reactionary to take the piss out of teenagers that are just having fun, and TikTok has become just another way for teenagers to escape a world of stress and anxiety. From a fun activity at pres, to a way for societies to market themselves, TikTok is slowly making its way into university culture as well as high school.

TikTok’s effect on music is also interesting to note. The rise of TikTok dance challenges have laid out the path to viral fame for songs like ‘Say So’ by Doja Cat, and artists are increasingly turning to TikTok as a marketing platform. With the rise of streaming platforms, securing viral success can massively increase artist’s exposure, and TikTok music has established itself in the music scene, with themed TikTok nights springing up (even at the university itself with the much awaited TikTok Hive Night). Even older tunes have seen a resurgence on TikTok and it’s encouraging to see people’s music tastes being widened for whatever reason, even if it is TikTok.

Surprisingly, TikTok is also being used as a platform for social change. Body positive TikToks aimed at encouraging users to celebrate their uniqueness are on the rise. Doctors are also taking to TikTok to try and inform younger audiences about health campaigns, like sexual health advice being given to the background of ‘Sex Talk’ by Megan Thee Stallion. Yet TikTok is not without its controversies. TikTok is ultimately set up to make money. It works on the standard internet model of monetisation based on attracting user signups and then selling advertising space. It has been accused of predatory behaviour by targeting younger users, who are particularly vulnerable to cyberbullying. Notably, it was hit by one of the largest FTC fines in 2019 of $5.7 million for failing to protect the data of its younger users. Perhaps most ominously, the app was accused of censoring pro-Hong Kong videos and blocking LGBTQ content in countries like Turkey. 

Force for good or ominous internet behemoth? TikTok beautifully encapsulates the Janus face of technology – it’s ironic, perverse and paradoxical. Despite its somewhat cringey simplicity, it hides a complex capitalist advertising platform that’s fundamentally built to make its owners money. However, perhaps it truly is the people that make TikTok. At the end of the day, TikTok is only a platform, and it is shaped by what people put on it. In recent days, we’ve seen TikTok used as a force for good to spread vital information about the Coronavirus (see: Gloria Gaynor singing ‘I Will Survive’ while washing her hands). TikTok’s given rise to some of the most iconic moments of the decade, and I for one can’t wait to see what comes next.

[Catherine Bouchard – she/her – @cat_b_99]

[Photo credit: Catherine Bouchard]

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