TikTok, something more than a mere smartphone app

Ali Zain, Hacettepe University, Graduate School Of Social Sciences

TikTok is a video platform and social network launched by China-based IT company ByteDance. Established in 2016, TikTok became one of the largest smartphone applications when its parent company acquired Musical.ly, another short video platform popular in Europe in the US, and merged the both applications in 2018. Currently it is available in over 150 markets and 75 languages, providing the users with a global and at the same time highly localized experience. Interestingly, despite its Chinese ownership, TikTok is not available in China and instead it operates with name Douyin in order to comply Chinese censorship and restrictions. Today it is as popular as in the United States as in China and developing countries of Asia, and together with Douyin, it has more than one billion users across the world. United States, India, China and United Kingdom are the major shareholders among most followed accounts of TikTok.

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Equipped with simple and user-friendly inter-face, it enables the users to create short music videos ranging between 3 to 15 seconds and short looping videos having a duration of 3 to 60 seconds. Users can select the music or audio of their choice, record their video with speed adjustment and share the final version with others on TikTok as well as other social media networks. The “react” feature of the application enables the users to film their reaction to a certain video while the users can film a video aside another video through “duet” function. The users can also mark themselves as “private” to protect their content and can also opt whether other users should be able to interact with them through comments, messages or “react” and “duet” features. The artificial intelligence of TikTok also equips it to display highly personalized content to each user based on their usage behavior.

However, more than its features, it is the immense popularity and issues connected to TikTok which make it an irresistible topic of debate today. It faces criticism due to lack of sufficient privacy guidelines, production of racist and anti-Semitist content, distribution of pornographic content, cyberbullying and highly addictive algorithms.  As a result, an addiction-reduction feature was also added to TikTok as well as Douyin in 2018 which encourages users to take break after every usage of 90 minutes. However, TikTok still continues to face legal actions as well as brief censorship due to the other issues. Due to distribution of pornographic or inappropriate content TikTok has so far witnessed short-duration bans in Indonesia, India and Bangladesh, however, the application was restored after the administration removed millions of videos and users identified by the authorities. Similarly, the US Federal Trade Commission also imposed a fine $5.7 million on TikTok’s parent company ByteDance for collecting the data of minors under the age of 13 in violation of local privacy laws. In response to this, TikTok has now launched a kids-only mode in their application which does not allow uploading of videos, direct messages and commenting, although the users can still view and record the content.

In China as well, Douyin was reprimanded for showing unacceptable content and the Chinese government announced that it would start to hold app developers like ByteDance responsible for user content shared via apps such as Douyin, and it also released around 100 types of the content that will be censored in China. Meanwhile, China’s famous social media network WeChat has also been accused of censoring the distribution of content generated by Douyin, and both companies have sued each other in the Chinese courts in this regard.

In short, TikTok has gained global popularity in a very short time due to user-friendly and easy features, artificial intelligence-based personalized user experience, interactivity and its inter-platform compatibility which enables users to share their TikTok content on other social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and etc. Although it has also given rise to several problems, the massive user-base of TikTok enables it to become a great source of increasing digital literacy around the world by engaging users in development of ideas and recording and editing of appropriate visuals using smartphone devices to make their content more engaging, create overnight new influencer and celebrities through viral content and a localized experience of global phenomena (Glocalization) as it also enables users to reenact the content originally produced in some other region and language according to their local practices. However, the developers of TikTok and similar applications also need to pay an enhanced attention to include gatekeeper algorithms that might enable them to detect and remove the content which violates terms of use and hence help such platforms to comply with the elements of mainstream social values.

 

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One Response to TikTok, something more than a mere smartphone app

  1. […] This article was originally published on Hacettepe University Faculty of Communication’s New Media Blog. The author has only re-published the content […]

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