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Shira Inbar for Quartz

How TikTok became China’s first global app

Jane Li
Member exclusive by Jane Li for China’s first global app

Your neighbor’s teenage children are on it. So are Jimmy Fallon and the Washington Post, as well as Bollywood stars like Madhuri Dixit Nene.

But TikTok, which is downloaded more often than Facebook and Instagram, is not based in Silicon Valley or in one of Europe’s emerging tech hubs. The short-form video app is owned by Chinese unicorn ByteDance, founded in Beijing in 2012, and has become arguably the first app from China to become truly intertwined in the lives of its international users. ByteDance is now the world’s most valuable private startup and has a massive app universe whose combined monthly active users reached 1.5 billion in 2019.

A platform for short selfie videos, TikTok is supremely skillful at dragging its largely young users down a rabbit hole of quirky, endless videos. Like legacy social media, TikTok allows you to connect with people you already know—but that’s an almost irrelevant part of the app. The reason TikTok has become a global phenomenon is the eternal loop of videos from people you don’t know under the “For You” tab. Here, TikTok’s powerful algorithms surface videos from millions of users, personalized for you.