What is going on with TikTok: Part one

In late 2017, a Chinese short-form video app, TikTok, has risen from an unknown entity to one of the most popular social media platforms around the world with almost 700 million monthly active users globally and over 2 billion downloads. Being at the heart of the latest trends among Gen Z, TikTok’s content ranges from lip-syncing and dance challenges to short comedy sketches to unboxings to social and political commentary, creating a “side of TikTok” for every interest and every type of person.

With this quick rise in popularity, its country of origin, and the addictive nature of the app, TikTok became the center of much attention both within and beyond the marketing world. Not all of this attention has been positive, leaving many marketers to question on what’s going on with this platform, how can I take advantage of it and is it still worth my efforts with everything going on around the app? Through a series of posts, we will breakdown these questions and guide you through how to handle planning for TikTok during 2021.


The Rise Of TikTok

In order to fully understand what is currently going on with TikTok, it would be helpful to explore the platform’s history and how it became so popular. TikTok was created by merging two other apps – Musical.ly and Douyin, both short-form video sharing apps with unique features that on their own were extremely popular. Douyin popularity was mainly in the Chinese market and Musical.ly in North America, which served as a replacement for Vine, another short-form video app owned by Twitter, that had been shut down. In late 2017, ByteDance, the parent company of Douyin, expanded outside of China and rebranded the global app as TikTok. To quickly penetrate the U.S. market, ByteDance purchased Musical.ly and shortly after merged the app and users into TikTok. This was widely accepted by the U.S. user-base, mostly due to the fact that Musical.ly was automatically updated to TikTok and preserved users’ accounts.

According to Business Insider, this merger allowed for TikTok’s user base to skyrocket and, led to the creation of 1500 jobs in offices across the U.S. and promise of 10,000 more by 2023. According to court documents as part of a lawsuit against the U.S. government, TikTok’s user base exploded during the pandemic and lockdowns, growing from just under 40 million to over 100 million active monthly users between March 2020 and June 2020. 


The Privacy Concerns

TikTok’s rapid success was not without issue – many parents and privacy watchdogs voiced concern over the app’s (and China’s) data collection policies and capability. This led to high profile individuals leaving the app and many companies banning it from company devices. Despite there being a larger amount of news coverage on the privacy concerns, the actual issues with the app were not well-publicized. When you dive into those specific issues, experts have found the issues to not be particularly unique in the world of social media.  Now, this does not mean that TikTok’s method of collecting and uses of the data are not worrying, only that they are one of many platforms that uses these tactics.

Some of the specific privacy issues with TikTok are around users under the age of thirteen and the tracking of their data, accessing users’ clipboard content, issues around censorship, and bugs in the app that could allow access to your personal data from an unwanted source. These, however, are not why the Trump Administration is attempting to ban TikTok – the ban is due to the U.S.’s concern the app will allow the Chinese government to access American’s data and poses a threat to national security.

This now raises the question, “Is this a legitimate concern?” The answer to which is not entirely clear. According to an article in the Washington Post which independently tried to verify TikTok’s claim that data is only housed in U.S. and Singapore – their findings were that data did not go directly from the app to China, but instead headed to cloud servers. They noted that this does not mean that the data does not eventually go to China, but from what they could see it does not. The second part of the answer to this question is found in the TikTok privacy policy which does leave the door open for transfers to other parts of ByteDance and legal requests from governments which could include China. These two factors, in my opinion, do create a legitimate concern, however,  the Washington Post did note that other social platforms’ data collection methods are more extreme.

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A recent video from @lorengray, one of the largest influencers on TikTok encouraging her followers to register to vote


The Executive Order

These national security concerns resulted in the U.S. President drafting and signing an executive order which would prevent U.S. companies, including Apple and Google from conducting business with specific Chinese based companies, including ByteDance. The order was signed on August, 6th 2020 and was slated to go into effect on September 20th, 2020 unless TikTok is sold to a U.S. business.

Despite the potential of legitimate privacy concerns, this executive order has been called into question due to President Trump’s focus on the app since his June 20th, 2020 rally at which there was low attendance but a high number of seats reserved – TikTokkers have claimed responsibility (at least in part) for this, although the Trump campaign disputes this claim. 

Where We Are Today

This executive order has triggered an interest in either partnering or purchasing TikTok from a number of U.S.-based companies, including Microsoft, Oracle and Walmart and a series of legal actions from TikTok itself and creators.  As of today, both of these efforts are ongoing and very complicated to cover in this post, but in short, TikTok is working with Oracle and Walmart to create a partnership that will satisfy the U.S. government’s concerns. Additionally, a federal judge has issued a temporary block on the executive order that will allow the app to be unrestricted for existing users, and downloadable for new users, until at least November of this year. In our next post, we will explore what the specifics are for each effort, what all of this means the future for TikTok in the U.S. and for your 2021 planning.

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What is going on with TikTok: Part two


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