TikTok is not just another fad – it is filling a void in the online world that has been growing over the past decade, for an authentic, communal, and adaptive social media. As an evolved and improved platform, it has the momentum to shift social norms and digital hierarchies. TikTok is an innovative product which is already changing the world, and attempting to stifle it would be to ignore reality and miss out on all the good it can bring.
Out of the ashes of 2020 rose TikTok, a new type of social media paving the way in internet culture, education, and activism. TikTok is a video-based social media app with an unusual authenticity and growing cultural influence – presenting a rare chance for positive social impact through transformation of the social media space.
TikTok has been available for download worldwide since 2018, but saw a massive increase in users this year. The app’s Q1 downloads for 2020 set the record for the most downloads of any app in a single quarter at 315 million, and almost 120 million of its over 2 billion total downloads happened in April 2020 alone. In the midst of COVID-19 quarantines and mass mobilizations against the status quo, TikTok’s innovative and unique design is at the frontier of a new wave of social media, which is transforming the way we interact with each other and consume digital content.
New App, New Structure
So what makes TikTok so special? The structure of TikTok ensures that the content a user sees is less dependent on who they follow compared to other social media. The central feature of TikTok is its “For You” page, an explore page which is constantly providing new videos from creators the user does not necessarily follow and often has not interacted with. Though the Instagram explore page performs a similar function, it is more periphery to app usage, dominated by popular accounts, and more dependent on the user’s previous activity than the ‘For You’ page. Similarly, Twitter users are only exposed to new content if introduced to it by those they follow or if it is popular enough to trend.
Though TikTok tailors the ‘For You’ page to the individual user’s preferences by prioritizing content and creators the user has engaged with previously, the sheer quantity of videos it provides necessitates featuring new topics and obscure creators on every ‘For You’ page to keep up with demand. This regularly exposes users to new content which is not based on their previously identified interests, follows, or searches, and it is this aspect of the ‘For You’ page which makes TikTok a powerful tool for fostering exposure to different points of view and new information.
TikTok’s authenticity is a breath of fresh air. Most corporations, politicians, news organizations, and even celebrities have been late discovering it and have a minimal presence on the app. No candidate for the 2020 presidential election attempted to campaign on TikTok, and the app has committed to combating election misinformation from all sources (unlike competitors). Some politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have created accounts, but their activity is negligible. In fact, the most followed politician on the app is Minnesota State Senator Matt Little.
TikTok’s advertising policies and sponsorship culture help to preserve this grassroots quality. Advertisements are rarely integrated into the platform by being placed in a user’s feed, like on Instagram or Twitter, and any ads which are placed cannot be political. The bulk of advertising on TikTok is done by the creators themselves, creating a higher standard of accountability by relying on an individual’s reputation. Through sponsorships, the benefits of advertising are distributed to creators rather than to the tech platform.
TikTok has taken this progressive advertising policy one step further by introducing a financial alternative to sponsorships, the Creator Fund. By creating this multi-billion dollar program which distributes funds to creators based on the number of views they accrue, TikTok has removed the creator dependency on sponsorships and enabled creative freedom unencumbered by corporate interests for its successful creators. These actions on the administrative side of TikTok have minimized corporate interference in content and created more responsible advertising – a stark contrast to Facebook’s continued refusal to hold its advertisers accountable.