Humans are born with two hands, ten fingers, a set of eyes in the front of their face, with attention spans shortening to that of a goldfish – there are endless explanations as to how we have evolved over thousands of years. Would scrolling aimlessly for hours on an app ever be your guess? Social media has made itself prevalent in everyday life everywhere around the world, whether that’s updating your relationship status on Facebook, posting your food on Instagram, or adding a photo to your snapchat story. However, the social media game has changed entirely since the uprise of TikTok over the past 3 years. TikTok and its counterpart, Douyin, is owned by ByteDance, one of the largest tech startups in the world. It all started with an app called Music.ly, a social media platform that endorsed the sociality of music by licensing all kinds of music for users to make dancing videos. The app was bought by ByteDance in 2017, and at the time TikTok was already owned under the same startup, and ByteDance ended up merging the two together in 2019 (5). TikTok is a platform where users can make videos up to 3 minutes long with countless filters, effects, and an endless music library. Since the rise of the Covid Pandemic in 2020, the app has evolved into much more than a music platform – the app introduced a new way to communicate, monetize, advertise, educate, and advocate, but are these innovations really making a positive impact on its users?
TikTok could be described as the manifestation of all social media platforms combined – the lifestyle glorifications of Instagram, the vlog culture carried by creators at YouTube, the endless voices and commentary of twitter, and the silly filters found on Snapchat. The app introduced a toolset that anyone could use to build brands for themselves, as influencer culture has reached an all-time high in popularity and has become a legitimate source of income for many people. This new utilization of social media has led to what is called “social e-commerce” – the ability for companies to sell products and services directly from a social platform. According to eMarketer, the US social e-commerce market skyrocketed by almost 38% to $26.77 billion in 2020 and is expected to surpass $50 billion annually by 2023 (16). TikTok has become the Adobe Photoshop of social medias: influencer culture has become a multi-million-dollar industry, and TikTok is the perfect canal to take advantage of these opportunities. As TikTok described it, it is a “suite of solutions, features, and tools that give businesses the opportunity to tap into the power of commerce” (16). The opportunities alone TikTok has created for all users is something that has never been seen before, and it’s all being done with the app’s algorithm.
On TikTok, content is sorted and shared to users directly through their “For you” page – which is the main channel of content that people see when they’re on the app. The way that the algorithm works is that it tracks what users like, watch, rewatch, interact with, and skip past in order to recommend content that suits them. This includes accounts you follow, videos you comment on, your favorites list, videos marked inappropriate, as well as the content you make on your own profile (13). Every ‘For You’ page is different – no user has the exact same videos on their for you page. This advanced content separation surpassed the algorithms of competitors like Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. In fact, during the rise of TikTok, several updates have been made to rival platforms in attempt to keep up with the success of TikTok’s elite algorithm – Instagram added new segments to their feed including reels, short span videos people can post separate from their profile grids, as well as purchasing options stemming directly from a company’s posts (3). Oftentimes users will repost TikToks to their Instagram and Twitter, and it’s common to see trends originating from TikTok trickling down these competitors home pages. The significance of social e-commerce that TikTok has endorsed has skyrocketed within the marketing industry, and competing platforms are trying to keep up.
Another aspect that separates TikTok from its competitors is the overall design of the app, the way that videos fill the user’s screen rather than being formatted into square-shaped boxes and grids like on Instagram. This tactic is meant to keep the users scrolling seamlessly, loosing track of time being consumed with what’s playing on their screens like a movie. “The simplicity of interaction and focus on the content combines with the core method of how to hook your users – It’s the same principle that slot machines use” (7). An app that has endless content especially curated for users has some long-lasting effects on user’s attention span, leaving them addicted to scrolling through videos. The impacts of decreased attention spans have been linked to users who use TikTok for more than 90 minutes per day – so much so that TikTok has hired influencers to create pop-up warnings to remind users to take breaks from scrolling for too long. This is especially dangerous as more than 60% of users are of age where their pre-frontal cortex isn’t fully developed (14).
Alongside this addiction, violent trends have gone viral on the app and have caused severe damage to many people, especially in oppressed communities. Recently in March of 2022, a trend gained traction called the “Orbeez Challenge” where users were using Orbeez new gel pellets to target and shoot students at Barrington High school who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. Other incidents of this trend were reported by police in North Carolina and in Illinois by the Elmhurst police on April 12th, 2022 (11). By the same token, there has been a new trend on the rise that’s been heavily criticized, coined “The Boiler Summer Cup Challenge” – a trend in which users convince fat women to go out with them, appear interested, all to gain points in who is with the largest person. This trend stemmed from existing hazing methods developed within fraternities, male users as young as 16 have participated in the trend as it’s gained popularity (10). The trend went viral almost instantly, and it angered women across the world – thousands of response videos were posted and remain up of users expressing their distain towards making fun of women and their bodies. The severity of the violence from this trend only increased and caught the attention of TikTok who had later taken measures into its own hands and tried to remove any and all posts and reposts of the challenge. Although TikTok banned the challenge, there remains still numerous videos under specific hashtags of people continuing to carry on this trend.
In addition to harmful trends towards marginalized communities, censorship has also proven to be very harmful to those same communities. TikTok’s rise during Covid was also prevalent during the rise in social movements such as Black Lives Matter (BLM); many videos of protesters and riots had a drop in popularity, as there was also a removal, of specific hashtags associated with the movements that were banned (1). In specific, content that contained any mention of George Floyd or BLM didn’t get as much attention as other videos in the algorithm. This censorship caused many problems for users who saw a drop in popularity in their content, especially in Black creators who had significant followings on the app. TikTok had acknowledged this problem and vocally apologized for the “glitch” in their algorithm (15). They later came out with a “diversity council” to hold the app accountable regarding censorship, as this movement was not the only to have been censored out. Any footage or imagery of the protests in Hong Kong regarding Chinese propaganda were also being censored out. The algorithm was designed to show happy-go-lucky content to avoid any signs of unrest towards the government, a tactic researchers fear is a way the app can manipulate the reality of current events (8).
There’s no question that TikTok has dominated the social media game, it has revolutionized the ways people communicate, interact, advocate, advertise, dress themselves, dance, you name it. In its innovative and entrepreneurial nature, it has achieved exactly what the world is constantly fawning for – something new. Social media is no longer an innocent entity, used to document fun moments in one’s life. Social media, likewise to almost all things that are commonly shared between people these days, has evolved into a business, and it is one of the biggest money-making industries in the history of humanity. It surpasses any fashion show, magazine, private club, or gaming site – it is a community larger than we can fathom, and it is harmful. It is predictable for one to argue that it isn’t the app’s fault, that TikTok is merely a platform that is not directly the cause of anything foul, and that it’s the autonomous decision for users to download the app and what they do with it. So who do we blame? The users? For the rise in overconsumption, media addiction, eating disorders, shortened attention span, increased oppression towards marginalized communities, among many other things that will not fit in this page-limited document that I’ve already surpassed. Ultimately, It’s the thirteen-year-old teen who downloaded the app that is to blame, right? There is science, psychology, and decades of research on the evolution of humans behind the making of TikTok’s algorithm that is designed to hook people. How can you expect users to know any better, to see right through and outsmart what this app is being designed to do – all based off the primal tendencies of the masses. It is essential that we critically examine what is really being done with TikTok, and to question these mega-marketing tactics, that in their nature are brilliant! Alas, the question is not if this technology is brilliant, but how is this technology being used and is it contributing to a more positive bigger picture? The default for brilliance is not humanitarian, in fact I would argue that the implementations of TikTok are quite the opposite.
- Biddle, Sam, et al. “TikTok Told Moderators: Suppress Posts by the ‘Ugly’ and Poor.” The Intercept, The Intercept, 16 Mar. 2020, https://theintercept.com/2020/03/16/tiktok-app-moderators-users-discrimination/.
- Blotcky, Alan. “What’s TikTok Doing to Our Kids? Concerns from a Clinical Psychologist.” Nydailynews.com, New York Daily News, 18 Nov. 2021, https://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/ny-oped-whats-tiktok-doing-to-our-kids-20211118-32kx365w2ja6rhnoe2aoorkbpi-story.html.
- Canales, Katie. “Instagram Copied TikTok. Now It’s Swarming with TikTok Videos.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 22 Sept. 2021, https://www.businessinsider.com/tiktok-videos-on-instagram-reels-facebook-copycat-2021-9.
- Chloe Martin, et al. “Has Tiktok Made Our Attention Spans Shorter?” The Indiependent, 16 Aug. 2020, https://www.indiependent.co.uk/has-tiktok-made-our-attention-spans-shorter/.
- CNBC. “The Rise of TikTok – YouTube.” Youtube, 13 June 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SIvxaxWHms.
- Cullotta, Karen Ann. “Barrington High School LGBTQ+ Students Shot with Gel Pellets in What Officials Say Is Latest Tiktok Challenge.” Chicagotribune.com, Chicago Tribune, 20 Mar. 2022, https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/breaking/ct-barrington-high-school-pellet-guns-shot-at-lgbtq-students-20220318-ans632prmngx3fxixmgzaq3vbu-story.html.
- Dulenko, Vitaly. “How Tiktok Design Hooks You Up.” Medium, UX Planet, 8 Dec. 2020, https://uxplanet.org/how-tiktok-design-hooks-you-up-6c889522c7ed.
- Harwell, Drew, and Tony Romm. “Don’t Look for the Hong Kong Protests on TikTok. You Won’t Find Them.” The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Sept. 2019, https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/don-t-look-for-the-hong-kong-protests-on-tiktok-you-won-t-find-them-on-platform-20190917-p52s08.html.
- Herrman, John. “Will Tiktok Make You Buy It?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Oct. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/02/style/tiktok-shopping-viral-products.html.
- K, Kaan. “What Is Boiler Summer Cup Tiktok Challenge?” TechBriefly, 26 May 2022, https://techbriefly.com/2022/05/26/boiler-summer-cup-tiktok-explained/.
- Megan, Graydon. “Elmhurst Police Warn of Teens Shooting Pellets at People for Orbeez Challenge.” Chicagotribune.com, Chicago Tribune, 12 Apr. 2022, https://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/elmhurst/ct-dob-elmhurst-police-orbeez-challenge-tl-0414-20220412-xsz2jp5onjgvhjs5spfuzfqmle-story.html.
- Moniuszko, Sara M. “’Very Concerning’ Body-Checking Trends Have Made Their Way to TikTok.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 10 Dec. 2021, https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/health-wellness/2021/12/10/body-checking-trends-showing-up-tiktok-experts-express-concern/6446604001/.
- Newberry, Christina. “How the TikTok Algorithm Works in 2022 (and How to Work with It).” Social Media Marketing & Management Dashboard, 12 Feb. 2022, https://blog.hootsuite.com/tiktok-algorithm/.
- Price, Dan, and Dan Price (1604 Articles Published) . “7 Reasons Tiktok Is Bad for Everyone.” MUO, 24 Oct. 2021, https://www.makeuseof.com/is-tiktok-bad/.
- Shead, Sam. “Tiktok Apologizes after Being Accused of Censoring #Blacklivesmatter Posts.” CNBC, CNBC, 2 June 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/02/tiktok-blacklivesmatter-censorship.html.
- Singh, Chandraveer. “What TikTok Shopping Means for the Growing Social Commerce.” SocialPilot, 9 Mar. 2022, https://www.socialpilot.co/blog/tiktok-shopping.
- “Social Commerce: How Social Shopping Can Drive Sales (2022).” BigCommerce, 10 Apr. 2022, https://www.bigcommerce.com/articles/omnichannel-retail/social-commerce/#what-is-social-commerce.
- “Tiktok Statistics – Everything You Need to Know [Mar 2022 Update].” Wallaroo Media, 24 Mar. 2022, https://wallaroomedia.com/blog/social-media/tiktok-statistics/.