This is not a review of TikTok. You can find many reviews, both credible and not so much, with a quick Web search. This post offers a bit of context on the app, its parent company and where social media’s headed – for bigger-picture parenting. (BTW, if your child is a big fan of TikTok, a great family media literacy lesson would be to pick 3 random reviews or articles and, with open minds and hearts, talk with your child about how credible they are and why.)
TikTok is quite the phenomenon. The lipsync, or short video, app is all over the news and blogosphere for a bunch of reasons:
- It’s exploding among tweens and teens. TikTok passed the 1 billion global downloads mark last month, The Financial Times reported, a whole lot of those in the U.S. and India. It’s “dominated by the demographic marketers call Gen Z,” Quartz reports (anyone born in 1997 or later, Pew Research has decided).
- It’s exploding outside of China now. That – Chinese entertainment media breaking out of China – is pretty unprecedented. “Consumer-focused companies have generally had a hard time breaking out of China, thanks in part to the very different habits of Chinese and foreign users,” according to Foreign Policy. The fact that this is social media – user-created content – seems to help. Because, by definition, wherever in the world the app goes, it’s personalized; a product of the user’s own culture and…
- Peers & performance. It’s not quite Snapchat because it’s a little less 1:1 focused, though the level of privacy and publicity can be calibrated by the user. It can be as goofy and fun as Snapchat snaps, though. “Swiping through the app’s slick interface reveals an endless stream of kids doing silly things in basements and classrooms, lip-syncing to 2 Chainz and Bill Wurtz on grainy front-facing iPhone cameras,” Quartz adds.
- But not necessarily close peers. TikTok is changing people’s experience with social media. It’s interesting that the New York Times’s coverage went from “TikTok…Brings Fun Back to Social Media” to “How TikTok is rewriting the world” just in the past month. The Times reports that the app “is more machine than man…. It’s an algorithmic feed based on videos you’ve interacted with, or even just watched… It is not, unless you train it to be, full of people you know…. In this way, it’s from the future – or at least a future.” Instead of interacting or sharing with friends and family, this can be sharing with “simulated temporary friend groups” (a kind of interest community, I guess) served up by algorithms, Times reporter John Herrman reports.
- Bytedance’s crazy valuation. Bytedance, is the “most valued startup in the world,” according to Foreign Policy, with a valuation of $75 billion. [In case you were wondering (because your child used Musical.ly), Bytedance acquired Musical.ly in 2017 and merged Musical.ly and TikTok last August.]
The kids and changing-social-media part of all that is significant enough. “It’s been a while since a new social app got big enough, quickly enough, to make nonusers feel they’re missing out from an experience,” reports the New York Times, so there’s a FOMO-on-steroids, or Fortnight-like, element to this – even though Fortnight is reportedly already passé (being replaced by Apex Legends). TikTok will likely have more longevity because it’s being marketed internationally so aggressively “likely as a hedge against regulatory actions restricting growth in China,” Foreign Policy reports.
So regulatory pressure is the other part of this big story. Bytedance has dealt with it in China, India and Indonesia – and, here in the U.S., last month settled with the FTC for $5.7 million, the largest penalty yet for violating children’s online privacy under COPPA, according to the Associated Press.
The other kind of privacy
And that’s just the “old-fashioned” kind of privacy. There’s also the “big brother” kind that’s only just beginning to be talked about: the fact that Chinese companies don’t have the independence from government that companies based in other countries do (see my Medium post about this other kind of privacy that, almost unbelievably, geopolitical as well as personal).
Think about the concerns we’ve had in Europe and North America about social media’s ability to use, not just our demographic, but also our psychographic data to algorithmically finely target ads (and misinformation) to us. Then add government into the mix. If it’s social media based in a country where government can control business, we have a whole new set of concerns – especially if the latest machine-learning technology is involved and if the government wants to know more about the users than they want it to know.
The safety piece
Plus, like any other platform that aggregates vast numbers of young people, it also aggregates creepy behavior (see Motherboard.com for a report on that as well as TikTok’s tools for user self-protection). Not that TikTok and all social media platforms I’m aware of don’t have safety tools in place (TikTok definitely does), but we need to encourage our children to block and report creepy messages from people they don’t know – or even disable messaging in TikTok if anyone gets annoying or intrusive. They need to know that it’s smart – and helps everybody – to report to us and to the apps they use any content that makes them uncomfortable. Of course we’re there for our children and students, but we also need to empower them to help keep each other and their communities safe. We know from research at the Crimes Against Children Research Center that in 70% of cases, bystanders try to help peers being victimized online as well as offline.
So TikTok is a complicated mix of youth, sociality, music, karaoke, video, international popular culture, cutting edge technology, risk and … personal as well as geopolitical privacy issues. But its popularity and growth show that it’s also just plain fun – with all the above plus features like video editing, duets, virtual money, filters, music scene currency and the way its technology can make your experience more exactly-what-interests-you than ever. While Facebook doubles down on the private kind of social media, TikTok’s doubling down on the public, performative kind.
- Good for kids and parents to know (G4K&P2K): “Here’s how to change who can see the videos you’ve liked” in Adweek.com
- G4K&P2K: “TikTok is launching a series of online safety videos in its app,” TechCrunch reported.
- G4K&P2K: With the FTC settlement, TikTok “will no longer allow children under 13 to upload videos, leave comments, build a profile, or send messages,” TheVerge.com reported
- Good for parents to know: Wired’s “A Beginner’s Guide to TikTok“
- The Guardian on how TikTok is “taking over the Internet”
- TheVerge.com on Indian lawmakers’ call to ban TikTok last month
Disclosure: As a nonprofit executive, I’ve advised social media companies youth online safety for a number of years, though not including TikTok’s parent Bytedance. The ideas expressed, here—informed by my advisory work, as well as 20+ years of writing about youth and digital media—are entirely my own.