If you haven’t been living under a rock, chances are you’ve heard of the app called TikTok. And whether you’ve succumbed to your curiosity by joining downloading it or not, there’s no denying its current widespread global popularity, especially with the younger Generation Z. Rapper Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road and the Kombucha girl meme are only a few of the recent viral media borne out of the app, but what exactly is TikTok?
Basically, it’s a video sharing platform where users can film a 15-second clips of themselves while lip syncing to audio or acting out funny sketches, as supplemented by its library of songs, sound bites, and other effects. Though it’s not limited to this type of content—seeing as you can pretty much take a video of just about anything—it's the meme-worthy or hilariously entertaining posts that mostly dominate TikTok’s viral scene. The app also has a collaborative aspect to it called ‘duets,’ where a user can reply to a video with their own, creating a split screen, and placing the two videos side-by-side, often resulting into interactive sketch-type clips.
According to Business Insider, TikTok was downloaded 663 million times in 2018 alone, where it finally reached a total of one billion downloads, beating out Instagram’s 444 million for the year. For a young app, it’s already climbed the ranks of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, and is currently the fourth most used app on the US Google Play Store, just behind the aforementioned brands, according to SimilarWeb. That said, how did a short-form video sharing platform ruled by teens reach such a hefty, breakout feat?
The Beginnings of Tiktok
To understand the phenomenon, it’s important to note that TikTok’s massive range of users wasn’t grown from scratch. The app first started out as Musical.ly. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, it’s a similar short video sharing platform where users could primarily lipsync to a database of songs. First launched in 2014 by founders Alex Zhu and Luyu Yang, the app’s run was short lived as it was soon bought by ByteDance, a Chinese company that owned a similar app to Musical.ly at the time, a.k.a. TikTok, back in 2017. The company soon merged the two platforms together a year later, migrating the accounts of Musical.ly’s 200 million users to TikTok. Meaning, the social media sensation that we know of today definitely had a mile-long headstart audience-wise.
While there’s no one event or personality that can be attributed to TikTok’s success, it does benefit greatly from celebrities who publicly make use of the app. TV host and comedian Jimmy Fallon, for example, took advantage of it for his talk show’s challenges segment, where he pioneered the #TumbleweedChallenge, daring viewers to roll on the ground like a tumbleweed. In just a few days, Jimmy’s call garnered 8000 video replies, which racked up over nine million views in total.
The TikTok Challenge
This type of immediate response to fun, random trending challenges contributes to TikTok’s viral power, with thousands of users hopping on the bandwagon for a shot at their literal 15 seconds of fame whenever a new one pops up. For those who’ve held off on the app, you’ve probably glimpsed a few of these challenges popping up on your Facebook timeline nonetheless. The most recent of which is the #BoyChallenge, which includes girls tying up their hair and changing up their wardrobe to look like their male counterparts. Most of the results are impressively believable it’s almost uncanny, making for an addictive watch that can have users scrolling through the hashtag for hours.
Other viral challenges include the Adele or #HariboChallenge where objects, oftentimes Haribo-branded gummy bears, are propped up together as if they're an audience singing to the tune of Adele’s Someone Like You live in concert.
Another popular one that’s made rounds on social media is the Mr. Sandman Challenge. It involves activating the app’s nine-camera split filter while the subject of the video moves in time to the popular barbershop melody. The most well known version of which is user Jade Taylor-Ryan’s iteration with her pet cat as the clip's adorably confused star. Posted over two months ago, the video has since then gained 2.1 million likes on TikTok.
What’s more, the desire to go viral on TikTok isn’t at all a pipe dream the way it might be on Instagram. This fact then subsequently acts as another incentive, especially for the younger generation, to try out their luck. TikTok users have the app’s algorithm to thank for this, which, according to Rolling Stone, is “constantly searching for new clips, rather than just pushing out the latest videos from already popular users.”
Harboring an Authentic Culture
Make no mistake, though: It’s not just about popularity for the Z generation. A major aspect that also comes into play is authenticity. Where the latest Gen Z IG aesthetic of unfiltered raw images and vintage film-type photos have yet to fully replace Instagram’s glossy curated feed, TikTok proves to be the exact opposite. With how the platform is used, there’s no pressure to generate cool, almost editorial-worthy content. Where videos of someone awkwardly dancing or reenacting the soundbites to a movie scene present as cringey to most locals outside of the app, for TikTok users it’s all part of the experience.
It’s a platform that banks on the amalgamation of both creativity and lowered inhibitions, which can frequently result into viral posts or memes. Here, kids don’t feel the need to mask themselves as someone they’re not except when in the vein of producing something funny. There’s a sense of freedom to post whatever one wants, and is essentially a resistance to the culture of perfectly staged photographs and videos that they were born into.