THE BIG READ | What is TikTok and how did it take over the world?

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TikTok is used by an estimated 1,1 billion people daily in more than 150 countries. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)
TikTok is used by an estimated 1,1 billion people daily in more than 150 countries. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)

It’s a rainy summer morning in London but in my head I’m a competitor at the Tokyo Olympics, watching footage on my phone of 2,1-metre-tall Argentine basketball player Francisco Caffaro trying to squeeze into a Japanese shower cubicle.

I swipe onto a video of British gold medallist Tom Daley, not diving but wobbling his head in time to Olivia Rodrigo’s Deja Vu. Onwards and US volleyball player Erik Shoji is talking me through his teriyaki and rice-ball dinner in the Olympic Village.

It’s just another few seconds on the Chinese-owned micro-video app TikTok, where at any one time 75 million different videos are jostling for attention and which in the space of just three years has come from nowhere to become a – if not the – driving force in western culture.

Recently an estimated 1,9 billion people watched TikTok’s quaver logo repeatedly flashing around the Euro 2020 pitches as one of the tournament’s official sponsors. Meanwhile, millions of fans flipped between watching matches to TikToks of the players performing dance routines or sharing footballing tips.

It’s a huge leap for the social media platform, which initially many dismissed as “just for kids”.

Since it became available internationally in August 2018, TikTok has been downloaded 3 billion times and is used by an estimated 1,1 billion people daily in more than 150 countries – especially impressive when you realise those countries don’t include China (which has a Chinese version of the app called Douyin, owned by the same company, ByteDance) and India, where Narendra Modi’s government banned it, accusing the Chinese of illegally accessing data.

“Our goal is just to be omnipresent as a brand. We want to become the most relatable brand on the internet,” James Rothwell, TikTok’s head of marketing for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, tells me.

Its recent collaboration with singer Ed Sheeran attracted more than 5 million views, the largest audience for a live streamed concert to date. From being the place where teenyboppers performed dance routines it’s now being used as a recruiting tool in the US, where brands such as the fast-food chain Chipotle are using its spin-off, TikTok Resumes, to ask potential staff to upload their video CVs.

The result of all this is an impressive uptick in growth that’s no doubt making YouTube and Google quake.  In the first half of this year, TikTok, which is the only major social media app that didn’t originate in California, was the most downloaded and highest-grossing non-game app, beating Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram, with nearly 383 million people installing it for the first time.

Chinese billionaire Zhang Yiming developed TikTok
Chinese billionaire Zhang Yiming developed TikTok through his company Byte­Dance. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Typically, users open the app eight times a day, spending a daily average of 52 minutes on the platform (for younger people aged 4-15, it’s 80 minutes).

Those younger people (even if the app is officially for 13+ only) were – at least at the start – TikTok’s bread and butter, but now this is starting to shift.

TikTok was born after ByteDance owner Zhang Yiming (38), who has an estimated net worth of $44 billion (R638 billion), bought the lip-synching app for a rumoured $1 billion (then R13 billion) in 2017, merging it with the unknown TikTok.

ByteDance has been named as the world’s most valuable start-up, worth $140 billion (R2,03 trillion).’s followers – reportedly 200 million of them – were largely children, who used it to make videos of themselves singing and dancing along to pop songs. At first, this was TikTok’s unique selling point. But quickly other types of videos started crowding onto the platform.

Musicians found the app an ideal vehicle for new material. Comedians started using it for sketches. People flocked there to share household and beauty “hacks” such as applying foundation with a moisturiser and to lecture on anything from the semiotics of Black Lives Matter to living in a convent (#nunsoftiktok has been viewed 7 million times).

For many, TikTok rapidly gained the edge over “old-school” platforms such as Instagram or YouTube because its videos were simple to film (the app provides all necessary editing software) and snappier in feel. The “feed” aspect means anything that bores you can be instantly scrolled past.

Most of all, people were drawn to TikTok by its light-heartedness. According to Nico Cary, the chief operating officer of Influentially, an agency that manages social-media stars, its core appeal lay in being for everybody, not just the rich, famous and gorgeous.

“Creators” (TikTok reprimands me when I call them TikTokkers) also loved the fact that fame could – with luck – be found virtually instantly, rather than through stolidly building up followers and likes as on the other platforms.

“You can come in with zero [followers], but if your content is good the algorithm will recognise that and show it to more people,” says James Stafford, TikTok’s head of partnerships and community for Europe and the UK.

Unsurprisingly, 50 per cent of TikTok’s users are under the age of 34, with 3,5 per cent aged between 10 and 19 and 41 per cent between 16 and 24. But now, boomers and Gen-Xers, who took years to realise the potential of the likes of YouTube, have started piling in.

A video of Arnold Schwarzenegger on a bike dressed as a cowboy and chasing his mini pony went viral during lockdown.

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (top right) does the tequila shot challenge while Mick Fleetwood and Elton John have also posted amusing videos. (PHOTOS: TikTok)

Elton John was one of the earliest adopters to use the platform to reboot his classics – his Step into Christmas video was viewed nearly 500 000 times; while Andrew Lloyd Webber is a regular with 261 000 followers and is especially fond of using the “duet” feature, which allows him to split the screen and play the piano alongside another act.

Whatever its demographics, if a craze has swept my household – and the world – this past year, it is more than likely to have been born on TikTok. My 16-year-old daughter, who spends hours daily scrolling the app has, in the past year, surprised me with sudden, urgent demands for, among others, pleated white miniskirts in response to the #tenniscore trend, where TikTokkers began wearing garments that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Wimbledon’s centre court, leading to searches for tennis skirts tripling on the shopping platform Lyst.

In the past few months I’ve been ordered to buy Little Moons mochi balls (gelato ice cream encased in Japanese rice flour dough, sales of which rocketed in the UK by 700 percent after TikTokkers began posting videos of them going in search of the ice cream), probiotics (a “creator” swore by them for perfect skin) and Madeline Miller’s 2011 novel The Song of Achilles, about the Trojan War – this prompted by a viral where a weeping creator filmed herself rocking back and forth while clutching the novel, which resulted in the book recently reaching No 3 on the New York Times bestseller list.

We’ve also been subjected to endless playing on a loop of Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 hit Dreams, which recently re-entered the charts after it featured in a viral video that also involved Ocean Spray cranberry juice (sales of which rocketed too).

Whenever I ask my daughter if she’s concerned about Beijing potentially invading her data privacy, not to mention controlling her customised For You feed, I’m told I’m “racist” and “xenophobic”. I’m also told that these were the concerns of Gen-Z arch-nemesis Donald Trump, who in the last months of his presidency threatened to “ban” TikTok unless its US arm was sold to an American company such as Microsoft.  This ultimatum eventually came to nothing as Trump left office – ByteDance still owns the US operation which has grown by around 7 million users.

Music is at the heart of TikTok, since most clips use a soundtrack from its vast database. Meanwhile, big-name artists are using the platform to go viral, by releasing songs where people can copy the choreography – last year, Canadian rapper Drake had us all dancing to his “right foot up/left foot slide” Toosie Slide.

But the app’s not only boosting established names; it’s launched dozens of careers, making it the contemporary equivalent of Motown, with music executives constantly scanning feeds to spot the next big thing.

“TikTok’s only as good as its creators, so it’s 100 per cent in our interests to nurture them,” Stafford says.

That’s what happened to 26-year-old Nathan Evans, who at Christmas was working as a postman in Airdrie, outside Glasgow. At first he’d uploaded the music he made at home to YouTube. But his nine-year-old nephew and seven-year-old niece kept nagging him to join TikTok.

“I said, ‘No way. TikTok is for kids,’ but they said, ‘Uncle Nathan, trust us.’ ”

So Evans trusted them and saw his videos instantly gain far more attention than on other social media. He’d been on the app for about a year when, on December 27, he uploaded his version of the 19th-century whaling sea shanty Wellerman.

Within a couple of days it had attracted hundreds of thousands of views. Queen’s Brian May and Andrew Lloyd Webber “duetted” it on guitar and piano respectively. Today, the #SeaShanty has been viewed 5,9 billion times on TikTok, Evans has 1,3 million followers and his version’s been viewed half a billion times.

Postman Nathan Evans’ videos led to a recording de
Postman Nathan Evans’ videos led to a recording deal and the chance to duet with superstar singer Ed Sheeran. (PHOTO: TikTok)

Unlike YouTube, creators don’t earn royalties for their videos but depend on it leading to other opportunities – which is exactly what it did for Evans.

“Things went crazy,” he says. “I was walking about posting letters in the snow when my phone rang and it was Polydor Records.”

Within a fortnight he had a three-album deal and had quit his job. By March, Evans had topped the UK charts. His new single is out shortly.

Music’s far from the only field where stars are born overnight. Abby Roberts (19) from Leeds, has 16,5 million followers on the app. When I speak to her on Zoom, three minders hover in the background.

Her elaborate and often highly lockdown-appropriate creations (think transforming herself into Tiger King’s Joe Exotic) have been “liked” 1,3 billion times and led to her working on campaigns with Anastasia Beverly Hills and L’Oréal. She intends to move permanently to Los Angeles to pursue – among other things – her flourishing music career.

“My ultimate goal is to have my own makeup brand,” she tells me in her hybrid northern/transatlantic accent – few of her legions of US fans realise she’s British. Chirpily, she tells me how her followers soared almost immediately she joined TikTok in 2019.

“It was the third video I posted on there. The next day I was off school sick and saw I’d had 100 000 views. I went back to sleep and the next time I looked I was hitting one million.”

Both in hoodies and with nose rings, nice-looking but not intimidatingly so and endearingly upbeat, Roberts and Evans come across as ideal “creators” in a world where authenticity is key.

Relatability is also what made Poppy O’Toole (27) who turned to TikTok after being made redundant from her job as a junior sous chef last year.

Abby Roberts’ fun make-up videos have attracted mo
Abby Roberts’ fun make-up videos have attracted more than a billion likes. (PHOTOS: Gallo Images/Getty Images, Instagram)

“I’d always wanted to do some social media thing, but I was working 70-hour weeks, so there was no time,” says Poppy, who hails from Birmingham.

In November her video on how to make the perfect roast potato went viral. Today she has 1,4 million followers and a cookbook due out in September.

Increasingly people are using the app to educate as well as entertain. Clinical psychologist Dr Julie Smith (37) runs a private practice in Hampshire. The mother of three joined TikTok in late 2019 and thinks she was the “first therapist on there”. Today, her 60-second videos on subjects such as anxiety or “three signs of depression no one tells you about” have been watched 31,5 million times, leading (there’s a theme here) to another book deal.

Some carped that TikTok’s one-minute limit (they’ve recently raised the time limit to three minutes, but few are yet exploiting this) was too short properly to tackle such serious subjects.

“You can’t give all the information in 60 seconds but you can give a bite. Learning one small piece of information that you can then retain is better than a half-hour video you don’t think of again. But the feedback has been fantastic,” Smith says.

But if it’s all so fabulous then why did my other daughter, who is 14, last year delete the app?

A keen cook, she’d been following accounts such as #WhatIeatinday. But her For You was soon full of emaciated girls showing off plates of three lettuce leaves and a carrot, or a viral craze in which girls were displaying how tiny their waists were by tying their headphone cables twice around them.

'Increasingly people are using the app to educate as well as entertain'

Meanwhile, a friend who’d suffered from a lockdown eating disorder found her For You page full of #thinspo accounts from people promoting anorexia and bulimia. My daughter decided she was better off not knowing.

Compared with some social media platforms, which have allowed such “pro-ana” [pro anorexia) content to sit around for months, TikTok’s trying hard to tackle these issues.

When I search for #thinspo I’m sent straight to a page for an eating disorders helpline. But even as a digital dinosaur, I’m instantly able to subvert this and find page after page of ultra-skinny girls celebrating their weight loss (the headphones challenge is still out there, even if many such videos are scorned with #bullshit).

“We don’t allow content that would either promote or glorify or even normalise eating disorders or eating habits that will lead to harmful behaviours,” says Alexandra Evans, TikTok’s head of child safety, Europe. “TikToks are very short, so we already have built that diversity into the platform for business reasons instead of safety reasons and we give people quite a lot of agency about what they’re seeing.”

Evans points out there’s a “not interested” button you can click to remove any dodgy content, but how many teenagers are sensible enough to do this? Anyway, very often this isn’t about teenagers.

TikTok’s 13+ rating means children shouldn’t be able to download it – but that’s only if parents have put filters on their phones. The platform also has a “detection strategy” in place to bust those who’ve lied about their age when registering and during the first three months of the year it removed 7,3 million underage users.

But many young children will remain there with parents delighted by their electronic babysitter – not great when content such as a live streamed suicide (which many reposted after it appeared last year) occasionally busts through the barriers.

British chef Poppy O’Toole became a star after her
British chef Poppy O’Toole became a star after her video on how to make perfect roast potatoes went viral. (PHOTOS: TikTok)

Others worry that, like other social media, TikTok is an ideal vehicle for fake news. Memes supporting, for example, the Nazis, the IRA and the antivax movement have all at various times been posted and held some sway.

In TikTok’s defence, however, most are quickly removed. More troubling were previous complaints that #protest throws up demonstrations from around the world, but almost none from Hong Kong. Yet when I check, there’s plenty of footage of tear-gassed protesters being led away by police.

Still, these are problems for all social media firms, not just TikTok. Meanwhile, my 16-year-old has just texted demanding I go to the shop to pick up cocktail sausages and tzatziki for dinner, inspired by a TikTok video headlined, “When it’s picky bits for dinner but you’re painfully middle class.”

No matter how thorny the underlying issues, for now this app looks set to control my life – until the next one comes along.

© The Times Magazine, News Licensing


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