The Many Faces of Tiktok, the Video Platform That Is Threatening the End of American Dominance in Social Network Leadership

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In 2015, there was a social network that captured the imagination of teens using popular music tracks. “OMG, Selena Gomez invited me to a duet!”, cried thousands of middle schoolers who went on to obsessively show off their dance moves and lip syncing skills on this app called musical.ly.

Despite the anxiety from a portion of the adult community around the platform being a haven for pedophiles, its popularity among teenagers soared. Instagram was mildly worried about the growing popularity of musical.ly, but it was still comfortably ahead in terms of overall usage.

As ByteDance bought musical.ly, integrated it into TikTok (which already had a huge presence under the name of Douyin in China), and started growing to hundreds of millions of users in other parts of the world, majority of Americans continued to predominantly use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Reddit — all social platforms created and led by white Americans.

In 2020, that changed. Especially with the COVID-19 lockdown, TikTok has taken over America in ways that many people didn’t realize would happen. After fighting the cringe factor, talked about widely by YouTubers and Redditors, tens of millions of adults in the US are now on the platform, secretly or openly loving the cringe and contributing to it.

Cringe is a positive emotion in entertainment. Self-proclaimed intellectuals may snark at it, but Hollywood knows all too well that cringe, like sex, sells.

So, what are the many faces of TikTok?

The Dancers

You are not a TikToker if you don’t learn the moves. From the all famous Charli D’amelio to YouTubers like Trey Kennedy and late night hosts like Jimmy Fallon, they all dance.

In another world, some of these dances may never have been meant for a sober public display of our skills.

In another world, late night hosts would stick to what they do best: comedy.

But, they all dance now — and it’s cute. I guess?!

The Lip Syncers

Dubsmash, Musical.ly, TikTok — all contributed to the rise of the lip sync movement. Before COVID-19, that was a middle school thing to do in the US. Now, adults are enthusiastic and willing participants in the lip syncing party.

Teenagers lip syncing to lyrics of popular songs are dime a dozen. But, the latest superstar of lip sync is Sarah Cooper — if you haven’t seen her Trump videos, you must be living under a rock!

Then you have the drunk rambling Kylie Scott impression of Trump.

The Many-Me’s

Many-Me’s are people who create Lilly Singh style skits on TikTok, with the same person playing several roles.

Some of them are very good at it. Like MissKat, who plays parts of the body.

Or Benjamin Brainard, who plays different states.

And then there are newbies who are trying their hand at this thing.

The Cringe

This is what TikTok was really known for amongst the adults in the US until they made it their guilty pleasure. TikTok cringe is so well known that there’s an entire subreddit that discusses it.

Since there is so much of cringe that can be found on Reddit, Buzzfeed, and YouTube, I’m going to make my point with just one example here.

The Moms

TikTok Moms are famous. They are often described as secretly making TikTok videos while frowning upon their kids for being on it. It’s really among the worst kept secrets though. TikTok moms prove that moms are dying to get themselves out there, be seen, and be known for something other than parenting.

There are moms who try…

There are moms who have done better…

And there are moms who have done well…

Remember the thing that happened to Facebook where the moms showed up and the kids didn’t want to be on it no more? Well, that isn’t happening to TikTok, at least no signs of that anytime soon.

By focusing on a culture that is all about entertainment, TikTok has kept the nosy and embarrassing family moments away from the platform, making it safe for all generations to hang out on it.

The Families

Buzzfeed wrote about how TikTok has become the new family board night and it certainly appears to have some truth in it.

Families spend time dressing up…

Or learning dances…

Or pranking…

Or just 🤷🏻‍♀️…

The Memes

Of course, no discussion of TikTok would be complete without talking about the memes. It is home to video memes en masse and some of them will have you thinking it’s not so bad after all.

Although, sometimes, what passes for a meme vs just another TikTok dance beats me, but that’s when I play the age card and say, I’m too old for this!

The Uncomfortable

And then there were two. Finally, after we cycle through all those faces of TikTok, we’re left with the uncomfortable — TikTok Thots and TikTokNSFW (or TikTok Porn). I’m not going to glorify these dimensions by posting examples here, but, these do exist and they are real.

There is considerable discussion about the fact that some of the NSFW content is simply made on TikTok, but is not exactly posted there. But, there is also ample evidence of at least partial nudity that is known to exist on the platform.

Now, I’m not necessarily passing judgment on content that adults may be posting on various platforms. But, the problem arises when the platform has the ability to expose that to children and even make children be a part of it.

The Controversy

Not long ago, a popular Indian YouTuber, Carryminati, created a video roasting TikTok creators, which spread like wildfire in India, garnering over 52M views on YouTube. Adding fuel to the fire was the encouragement from the Indian Prime Minister to use more Indian products.

This all led to a massive fall of TikTok ratings all the way down to 1.6 on Google Play, led by a movement calling for uninstalling Chinese apps and specifically, TikTok. The deep pockets and influence of Bytedance came in handy to convince Google that this was an act of brigading to swiftly restore the ranking to 4.4 by deletion of millions of ratings!

Meanwhile, Google unlisted the Carryminati video citing violation of terms. His followup video about the topic ended up getting over 63M views at the time of this writing!

In the midst of this chaos, there emerged an app called “Remove China Apps” on Google Play that detected Chinese apps installed on the device and encouraged deletion of those apps. Two weeks after the app launched and after millions of downloads, Google took it down citing violation of Google Play policies which forbid products that “encourage or incentivize” people to delete or disable other apps.

It is also no secret that the US military has banned the use of TikTok following warnings from Pentagon.

The Extravagance

This article would not be complete without talking about the extravagant spend by TikTok to get people’s attention, particularly in 2018 and 2019. Citing one study, TikTok’s parent company…

“ByteDance flooded the world with marketing. It reportedly spent $3M/day on user acquisition and PR throughout 2018 and 2019, beating short-video competitors in each market by simply outspending them. TikTok spent over $300m on Google ads in 2018; and $10m/month in India alone. In Q1 of 2019, 13% of all ads seen by users of Facebook’s Android app were for TikTok (Apptopia). At the peak of the ad blitz in September of 2018, 22% of all ads seen on Facebook’s properties by Apple devices in the US were for TikTok.”

The Conclusion

There is no denying that TikTok has given rise to a new media format — one that allows people to role play to voices and sounds.

There is also no denying that there is a new favorite digital home for people.

America is in the honeymoon phase with TikTok. And it is here to stay for a while.

At the same time, it is also worth noting that TikTok’s success has been a little different from other social media. No other social media platform has had to spend the kind of money that TikTok has spent for success.

For the first time, the world is in love with a social network made by non Americans. And that’s not accidental.

More about that in a future post. For now, I’ll conclude with this.

There will be more vertical short video platforms that emerge as winners. TikTok is not the be all and end all of short videos. It is just the beginning.

Shameless self-plug: To be part of an emerging winner in vertical short videos, head over to Rizzle, a place for talk shows, opinions, and mini-series.

Getting personal: With everything going on in the world now, Rizzle is home to the #ThisIsMe Million Voices Project. Join us to tell your story and bring humanity back together again.

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Vidya Narayanan

Vidya Narayanan

Building Rizzle (rizzle.tv), the future of video! In past life (@Google, @Qualcomm), I built stuff that you’ve likely used!