If you have not checked out Tik Tok, it’s about time you do. The 15-to-60-second video feel-good app has fascinated United States adolescents in a way that’s only comparable to Snapchat in 2014. The Chinese app already has 1.5 billion users, and with its fun and entertaining offer, it is changing the way social media platforms are perceived. Users go to Tik Tok to distract themselves, hiding away from the polarized political conversations taking place on Facebook and Twitter. Tik Tok is entertaining, authentic, and fast—features that users now demand from all content they consume. The Chinese app’s success does not only mean users are starting to demand other things from social media apps, like authenticity, it also means the app has become a new competitor in the content production market. All players compete for one thing—the consumer’s attention.
Tik Tok, owned by the Chinese giant ByteDance, was founded in late 2017 but merged with the app Musical.ly in August 2018. Since then, the company has attracted hundreds of young Americans—60% of Tik Tok’s monthly active users in the US are 16 to 24 years old. It’s, without a doubt, Gen Z’s preferred social media platform, a totally reasonable choice. When you open Tik Tok’s app on the phone, videos start playing—ranging from a kid dancing to bachata to a girl playing with her dog, all musical videos, of course. To go to the next video, you just scroll down and watch. As the videos fill the whole screen, the user is immersed in the experience, as he/she cannot even see the time on the phone. It’s easy to stay on Tik Tok for hours watching ordinary people create video content with background music and feeling as if the world is meant to be funny, ironic, and non-confrontational. It’s so much fun that when we started scrolling at IESE, we kept doing it for 30 minutes non-stop.
Tik Tok’s success could have a rippled effect on two areas—what the audience expects from content, and what content producers and other platforms compete with. For one, Tik Tok’s rapid growth shows that the audience is fed up with polarized political discussions, bad news, and intricate pieces, but also that the user is tired of over-produced images with perfect influencers. According to a survey by eMarketer, Facebook users are using the platform less because they “don’t like rants” or there’s “too much negativity.”
Tik Tok is natural and genuine as users record themselves in normal or funny situations and upload it online. The user does not want to admire, to follow, or to think; he/she wants to have fun. Tik Tok is the ultimate feel-good app; it’s pure social entertainment. For content producers, from streaming companies to brands, Tik Tok brings up an interesting point: authenticity and entertainment matter. While brands have tried to advertise their content on social media through models and beautiful influencers, there’s been a rise in the last year of ‘natural’ and authentic Instagrammers: people who post pictures without make up, for example. The Chinese app follows that trend.
Tik Tok’s success implies there’s a harsher competition in the content market. Since the birth of the Internet, content producers have had to compete with user-created content as well as with their natural competitors—producers, news outlets, TV, radio. With Tik Tok, the battle continues. If individuals spend 30 minutes on the app, that means they will not invest that half-hour reading the latest news piece or watching a show on Netflix. All content-producing companies—from streaming to the news—fight for the same two things: user’s time and advertising dollars. For example, streaming platform Quibi could find in Tik Tok a strong competitor, as it offers 10-minute streaming content pieces (read Quibi, the new streaming platform for mobile devices.) Quibi wants users to log in when they have dead-time on their hands, the same as Tik Tok.
Moreover, Tik Tok launched its ad features earlier this year. Still, only a few advertisers have ventured to invest in the app—4% of social media marketers are currently using the platform. But that could explode in 2020, taking away ad dollars from other platforms. In this sense, news organizations won’t be directly impacted, as the target audience differs from Tik Tok’s: Tik Tok users are very young. However, it will definitely affect other social media services like Facebook, and Mark Zuckerberg knows it.
Fourteen months before Tik Tok merged with Musical.ly, Zuckerberg had tried to buy the app without success. In November of this year, Facebook released an app to compete with Tik Tok called Lasso. As it once did with Snapchat by updating Instagram’s stories feature, Facebook intends to destroy Tik Tok by imitating and “enveloping” it. It also wants to bring back the teenagers that have abandoned Facebook —or never used it in the first place. Lasso mirrors Tik Tok completely: it’s a short video app where users can record themselves singing. Facebook hopes that its preeminence as the number one social media company in the world will be enough to draw users to Lasso, but, as The Verge reports, it might be too late. Tik Tok has the first-mover advantage, while Facebook keeps drowning with a variety of ‘scandals’ (read Facebook’s ban on extremist figures is not enough to stop fake news, we need more.)
However, not everything is perfect for the Chinese app. On the contrary, 2020 may be an uphill year for it in terms of regulation. First, as it’s Chinese-owned, Tik Tok is undoubtedly censored, banning pro-LGTBQ content, for example. Second, the US Congress has also raised security concerns, as the app collects data on its US users and shares it with the Chinese government. Despite all of this, Tik Tok was reported to be one of the ten most downloaded apps of the decade.
For news outlets, Tik Tok could represent an opportunity—The Washington Post and NBC News already have accounts—but news organizations should not go crazy about the app. Tik Tok is for young people who go there to have fun. If news outlets manage to present their content in a fun way and drive Tik Tok users to their websites, then the platform will be useful. For now, as the Nieman Lab writes, Tik Tok will only be another way to get the brand out there, directly to teenagers’ screens.
What’s clear is that Tik Tok, with its social entertainment stance, is representing our world’s zeitgeist. We want authentic, fun, and easy-going content. We want to lose track of time; we want a break from reality. And we want it all on our smartphones. In 2020, content producers and social media platforms will look at Tik Tok as the competition.
Watch this Tik Tok video from actor and professional fighter Dwayne Johnson (“The Rock”), which is trending on the app.