Pay attention: TikTok has already changed the world

Tik-ed off: You won't be able to download it in the United States after Sunday, but TikTok has already changed the social media world.
By DAVID CHAUVIN //

For those who don’t regularly interact with Generation Z, TikTok’s meteoric rise to the forefront of public attention is somewhat bewildering. Throw in the president’s public feud and the battle over TikTok’s pending “sale,” and suddenly the video-sharing app seems everywhere.

As trivial as the entire saga can seem, it’s really the opposite: TikTok is fundamentally changing social media and the ways people create and interact with content.

And even with a national ban on new TikTok downloads – as per executive orders signed by President Trump in August – set to take effect Sunday, the social-networking service will have a resounding impact on the way we experience social media.

First, some context for us oldies: TikTok allows users to easily make and share short videos, usually featuring background music. The user-facing premise of the app is that it provides a simple framework for the most inexperienced filmmakers.

Why is it so important? Putting politics aside, it’s because of its algorithm, its functionality and the evolution of its capabilities.

That TikTok is mostly foreign to anyone over 30 is completely by design. The app was first launched in 2014 (as Musical.ly) as a means of creating and sharing 15-second videos with fun audio filters, similar to Instagram’s photo filters. This was around the time Vine and its seemingly endless stream of 6-second videos owned the Internet.

But while Vine focused on reaching the masses, Musical.ly’s mix of simplicity and fun, customizable user experiences made it the perfect app for an untapped tech-space niche: children.

David Chauvin: A TikTok-ing time bomb, without “delicate” regulation.

As smartphone use increased among pre-teens, Musical.ly provided a unique opportunity. In 2017, it was reported that 45 percent of U.S. children ages 10-12 had their own smartphone with a service plan, and 42 percent ages 8 and younger had their own tablet. When social media pillars such as YouTube and Facebook were deemed unsafe by parents, their Disney-fide counterpart was seen as an acceptable avenue for kids to join the social media revolution – training wheels for future influencers – and every day, millions of teens and pre-teens shared videos.

It’s easy to take this quick description and write off TikTok as yet another flash-in-the-pan app that will dissolve when the bubble bursts, like so many before. But what makes TikTok special isn’t its user interface, it’s the engine under its hood.

As a communications professional, it’s fascinating. As a father and a person, it’s a bit worrisome.

TikTok is a fundamentally different app. On most social media platforms, the experience is self-driven; a new Facebook user has to build a network to formulate a newsfeed and share content.

Not on TikTok. Instead, users are encouraged to jump from audience to audience, trend to trend. The platform automatically places users into like-minded friend groups to expose them to a constant stream of content and instant feedback. Unlike Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter, where a feed of friends’ activity greets you, the first thing a TikTok user sees when he or she opens the app is a page of curated videos, titled “For You.”

This automation is based on TikTok’s complex backend algorithms, which infer interests based on a user’s watch habits and data (location, shopping tendencies, Internet search history, phone contacts, media subscriptions, etc.). The never-ending video stream is based on what the app thinks you’ll be interested in based on tendencies you’ve demonstrated – including details unbeknownst to you.

This is nothing new for social media channels. But this is the first app that starts making assumptions the second you open it.

On other apps, “going viral” is a pipedream. On TikTok, it’s almost preordained. Add the infinite amount of data TikTok has sourced from the millions of young people who’ve grown up using it – and the millions more who join every day, at least until Sunday, because of how easy it is to make cool videos – and you have the communications professional’s dream, featuring an algorithm that constantly adapts to users’ interests and keeps them consistently engaged with relevant content and direct access to new users who share their interests.

That’s why this free, childish video app is valued in excess of $50 billion, and why behemoths like Oracle are in this fight.

It’s also what makes it so controversial. Such vast quantities of data must be handled delicately.

In any consumer relationship, there are three roles: seller, buyer and product. Note that nowhere in that formula is “end user” – that’s why it’s important to recognize who fills what role.

More often than not, the user of these free platforms is the “product,” being sold to advertisers, who can push product engagement. Other times, it’s even more nefarious. And we can’t forget that the app’s target audience (under 18-24) does not have a fully developed sense of their digital footprint and its far-reaching impact.

As a communicator, maybe it’s all for the better – didn’t Snapchat’s Stories feature make Instagram better? Didn’t Twitter’s newsfeed make Facebook’s advertising more effective?

Either way, TikTok has revolutionized social media, without much of the American public noticing.

David Chauvin is executive vice president of ZE Creative Communications.