TikTok’s journey to the forefront of the social media world has been nothing short of breath-taking. TikTok allows users to create, share and view 15 second videos, sound-tracked by user-selected music clips. For the past 20 years, the social media sphere has been dominated by US based innovators. In September 2017, however, Chinese-owned TikTok burst onto the global stage. By 2020, seemingly out of nowhere, TikTok became the must-have app.

TikTok now boasts 850 million monthly active users, over 2 billion downloads and is now the fastest growing social media site in the world. Crucially, it has captured the imagination of Generation Z. 41% of TikTok users are between the age of 16 and 24. Whereas for Facebook, only 29% of its users are under the age of 24. Many advertisers are now turning to TikTok as ‘the’ platform for reaching young audiences, ahead of other more established social media sites.

But how did TikTok become a heavy weight of social media and is this sustainable?  This article will explore how TikTok reached its current heights. We will look at whether TikTok has longevity in its model or if it could soon become another has-been social media giant confined to history.

Journey to the Top

TikTok was first launched in China in September 2016 by its parent company ByteDance. By September 2017, TikTok launched internationally and within months it became the No.1 downloaded app on app stores across the globe. In November 2019, it also purchased competitor Musical.ly for $1.1 billion, merging both user bases into one.

Although TikTok’s concept is not new, but this hasn’t stopped it gaining some of the most active users of any social media app. 90% of TikTok users access the app each day. 55% of users create their own content, an exceptionally high figure for an app of this nature. But how did it achieve all of this? There are many reasons for TikTok’s success. Two of the most crucial reasons will be addressed here; its model and its algorithms.

Reasons for success

Most evidently, TikTok’s success can be attributed to its design. Its interface is excellent for browsing and uploading videos. With no tutorial or landing page, users jump straight into content and explore all TikTok has to offer. Users can record and upload content much faster than on other apps. It also followed the successful model of only allowing short videos, keeping those with shorter attention spans hooked. TikTok users can only upload 15 second videos. Social media app Vine also enjoyed similar success with its 6 second videos before shutting down in 2016, showing the model is tried and tested. TikTok put a new spin on the concept, with a new interface.  This model has allowed TikTok to be at the forefront of new viral trends and challenges, all increasing user engagement.

One of the lesser known reasons for their success is their algorithms. TikTok uses one of the most advanced algorithms in the business to identify the types of videos users may enjoy and customise their feeds based on this. They monitor all forms of interactions from likes and comments to how long a user watches a particular video. It then weighs these factors up amongst others to provide the best recommendations.  While other social media sites use similar technology, TikTok has been hailed for its algorithms’ ability to keep users hooked and maximise engagement.

TikTok’s obstacles to growth

Fad culture

One of the cruxes of social media sites is longevity. Over the past 20 years there have been numerous high-profile social media apps whose popularity declined just as quickly as it rose.

Myspace was once king of social media in the mid-late 2000’s. It was the first social media site to reach 1 million users and had over 100 million global users at its peak. It is still operational but is now a niche platform, used almost exclusively by musicians. As of 2019, it had a modest 7.5 million monthly users.

More recent examples of decline include photo-sharing app Tumblr. Tumblr hit peak popularity in 2013. In 2019 however, Tumblr wanted to clean up its platform and banned all pornography from the site, deactivating all offending accounts. This backfired and their usership plummeted almost overnight. Tumblr’s decline was evident in its market value. In 2013, Tumblr was sold to Yahoo for $1.1 billion. By 2019, WordPress owner Automattic bought Tumblr for just $3 million, a 99.9% markdown. Social media is a cutthroat industry where if sites fall out of fashion, they have the potential to rapidly fade into obscurity.

Will TikTok fall victim to fad culture? Unlikely. TikTok’s high engagement levels and advanced algorithms mean usership is not likely to decline, at least in the short-term. TikTok have nailed the formula for keeping users hooked. The app’s breakneck speed of growth will not last forever, but it doesn’t need to. It has already secured itself an enormous young fan base who will likely grow with the app, not grow out of it.

Political trouble

TikTok is owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance. ByteDance has been around since 2012 but TikTok is by far its biggest success. TikTok, like other Chinese multinationals has found itself a pawn in geopolitical disputes.  China has faced numerous allegations of espionage and human rights abuses. Multinational organisations like TikTok are often deemed susceptible to government influence, if not outright agents of the state. Foreign governments believe their citizens’ data is at risk in the hands of such organisations. TikTok and China firmly deny all allegations of inappropriate data access or misuse. This hasn’t stopped the international community from clamping down.

In July 2020, India banned TikTok along with 58 other Chinese apps over alleged threats to national security and defence. This was amid a territory dispute India had with China. India is TikTok’s biggest market outside of China with over 120 million users.

In August, Donald Trump issued an Executive Order banning all US business from doing business with TikTok, unless TikTok’s US arm was taken over by a US company.   TikTok thought it had found a solution by agreeing a partnership with Oracle. This deal achieved nothing as the US government did not respond and TikTok still faced a ban from 12November. In November, TikTok sought an order from US Federal Court to temporarily relieve it from the ban, given the upcoming change of US administration. The case is currently in progress. Biden is expected to maintain a tough stance on China, but whether TikTok will remain in the firing line remains to be seen.

These issues stem not from any failings by TikTok but rather from growing distrust of China in the global community.  Future cases of espionage, human rights abuses and territory disputes could have a significant impact on China’s corporations. TikTok would undoubtedly be at the forefront of those affected. Without foreign business in the biggest foreign markets advertising revenues would plummet, seeing a gradual decline in the company.

If China’s foreign policy does not change, TikTok could find itself becoming a political football, at the mercy of foreign administrations. This is possibly the most immediate threat to TikTok’s continued growth. Navigating these issues will be the most important challenge TikTok needs to overcome to remain a top global player.

Conclusion

TikTok appears to have cemented its place at the top of the social media world for the foreseeable future. It has captured the imagination of its loyal fan base and is the forefront of social media trends.  It has also learnt from the lessons of the past. Big social media sites know how to draw in users and keep them hooked for longer than ever. Like its competitors, over time, TikTok’s appeal will only widen so it has the potential to be one of the key players over this coming decade.

Unfortunately, TikTok’s obstacles to success are as substantial as its potential. The paradigm of social media has completely shifted.   The biggest threats to social media sites are now issues of politics not popularity. Whether it be tackling fake news or maneuvering geopolitical conflict, the sets of challenges facing social media sites in the 2020’s will be completely different to those of the 2010’s. If TikTok can handle these situations effectively, this will no doubt give TikTok the ability to keep on ticking.