by Lynette Owens
Long before COVID-19, TikTok’s rise to stardom was a familiar story to many in the tech landscape. The user-generated short-form video app popularized by teens, unique dances and celebrities was created for fun, then stumbled over growing pains, went mainstream thanks to advertisers, was agonized over and eventually accepted by parents, and was critiqued and criticized by lawmakers. So many social apps before it – Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram – have gone through some version of this plot line.
Enter the global pandemic and a fast track to fame. Like many other apps, TikTok experienced incredible growth. As of April 2020, it had 800 million active users and had been downloaded more than 2 billion times globally, with some of the more active TikTok influencers boasting 40-50 million followers. For an app like TikTok, which promotes itself as an entertainment app, the timing and environment sealed its status as a formidable contender to the giants of social media.
But the next chapter for TikTok looks to be unique as it finds itself in the middle of a political tug-of-war, which may force it into the arms of a U.S. behemoth.
No immunity from politics
For a few years now, we’ve had our eye on TikTok. While there are a lot of similarities between it and other social networking apps, there are a few parts of its origin story that have brought it to the place it is today. TikTok’s popularity in the U.S. began with an app called Musical.ly, which used the short-form video social media format first popularized by Vine. Users could film themselves using a library of 15-second audio clips from music to movies to television shows. There were other similar apps gaining popularity at the same time, such as the German-based Dubsmash and Douyin in China. In 2017, Musical.ly was acquired by the Chinese company ByteDance, which also owned Douyin, in a wise attempt to reach the coveted U.S. youth market, a bet which proved wildly successful. But the challenges followed soon after.
TikTok naively made the mistakes of its predecessors – violating youth privacy laws such as COPPA, getting hacked, and allowing inappropriate content to mingle with benign content. They worked hard to fix it by hiring experts in trust and safety, developing family settings to limit screen-time and inappropriate content, and creating lots of tips and resources to educate its users about privacy and safety. These were the same trials that other apps encountered and weathered. But one they haven’t been able to overcome is its ties to China and the suspicion that the Chinese government has access to troves of personal data on TikTok users. Consequently, many individuals, groups and countries, including the U.S., have criticized and deleted TikTok.
TikTok has consistently claimed that its U.S. user data is stored in the country itself with a backup in Singapore and that its data centers are located outside China, implying that the information they collect is not subject to Chinese law. Some privacy advocates argue, however, that there is still a risk TikTok could be forced to hand over data to the leaders in Beijing. With the President of the U.S. now giving it a 45-day ultimatum, the app finds itself in a plot twist all its own: be shunned from the coveted U.S. market it successfully entered and won over so quickly or be absorbed by a U.S. tech giant.
Kids will write the next chapter
Microsoft is ready to take its turn with a mainstream social media app and wants to welcome TikTok, valued at $50 billion, into its family. The app would give Microsoft not only access to millions of teens but a solution which has so far eluded them. According to The Verge, Microsoft “has tried desperately to adapt its Windows operating system to be more consumer-friendly with video creation apps, but TikTok offers an easy way for millions to create videos from their phones instead.” Microsoft is still working on its integration of LinkedIn, a social network for professionals, which it acquired back in 2016, so any ultimate purchase of TikTok will take time, too.
While this plays out, teens continue to make and watch TikToks but are also keenly aware that the app and their time on it are about to change. As we await news of TikTok’s fate, a few things are becoming clear:
First, privacy and security risks remain. If you were worried about your personal data being collected by a government against your wishes, you should not be using any social network. None of them are without that risk. A study by the Pew Center confirmed people’s resignation to this reality. As long as it’s being collected, it can end up in the wrong hands. TikTok, like many other free apps, collects personal information in order to identify you, improve its service to you, and advertise to you. Personal data is the lifeblood of the internet economy.
Second, TikTok as a non-independent app may lose its luster among teens, who are gathering in other spaces such as Dubsmash, which without much fanfare has become second behind TikTok, and Byte, founded by the makers of Vine, which has benefited from the chaos surrounding TikTok. Triller is another one to watch; it’s already 5 years old but has Hollywood ties and some very cool video effects that will be a draw for those who haven’t heard of it before.
Third and finally, as I have watched for a decade, the more that changes, the more that stays the same. The latecomers have joined in with their copycat answers to Tiktok: Instagram, owned by Facebook, this week launched a feature called Reels, and Snapchat will launch its own short-form video feature soon. For so long, social networks have tried to differentiate themselves, only to end up becoming indistinguishable.
So, you may be asking “what happens next?” I believe teens, not corporate giants, will decide. Social media apps often focus so much energy on the “media” aspects – video editing features, unique audio files, fun graphics – but it is the “social” element that drives its ultimate popularity. The app that will win next is the one where everyone wants to be. Often for teens, that is a place where only they congregate, grown-ups unseen. I believe TikTok as a Microsoft entity may unfortunately face an uphill battle to retain its millions of teen users over the long-term. As I personally know TikTok employees, I do hope the best for them. Hopefully, it won’t be a repeat of Vine’s story – acquired by Twitter and ultimately shut down – and more like Instagram’s, which seems to be flourishing more than Facebook.
Keep talking and learning about your kids favorite apps
As parents, the best thing we can do is stay in constant communication with our kids. Ask them what they think about TikTok’s fate and you may be surprised what you discover. There are so many dimensions of its story to dig deeply into some meaningful conversations as a family. How do you feel about government access to our personal data? What role can/should apps play in protecting it? Can a government just shut its doors to an app and does that protect our data any better? What do you think will happen to TikTok? Will you still use it after it is bought?
I also encourage you to be aware of the apps noted above, specifically Dubsmash, Byte (not to be confused with TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance) and Triller. Kids gravitated to TikTok for the pure entertainment value, and even more so when a pandemic forced them indoors and away from their friends and other activities. If TikTok is no longer an option for them, something will take its place in your kids’ lives.
We also welcome you to attend our upcoming webinars, where we will discuss these apps and these issues further. You can find out more about our “Managing Family Life Online” webinar series here.
In the meantime, you and your kids should continue enjoying TikTok. It’s still a fun way to pass the time as we continue to stay safe and stay home. If the surprises of 2020 continue, who knows? TikTok could end up remaining as popular as ever and its story may never end.
To find out more about TikTok’s safety features and resources, visit there Safety Center here.
Lynette Owens is the Founder and Global Director of Trend Micro’s Internet Safety for Kids and Families program. With 20+ years in the tech industry, Lynette speaks and blogs regularly on how to help kids become great digital citizens. She works with communities and 1:1 school districts across the U.S. and around the world to support online safety, digital and media literacy and digital citizenship education. She is a board member of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, an advisory committee member of the Digital Wellness Lab, and serves on the advisory boards of INHOPE and U.S. Safer Internet Day.
Follow her on Twitter @lynettetowens