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Internet hellscape or #goodcontent?
If you’re old enough to remember Kesha’s “Tik Tok,” you might be baffled by the rise of TikTok. It’s a short-form mobile platform where users can create 15-second video clips set to music. That humble function belies its massive popularity. One of the most popular apps of all time, TikTok has been downloaded an estimated 1.3 billion times.
Unlike Instagram, it hasn’t yet been overrun by advertisers or influencers. Unlike YouTube, it still gives amateurs a decent chance to create a viral hit. And unlike Facebook, it’s parent unfriendly—which can make it potentially dangerous.
Most revolutionary of all, TikTok consistently inspires creative, surprising content, built on a model that significantly departs from those platforms we adopted way back in ’09.
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Quartz Obsession — TikTok — Card 2
45: Average minutes per day that TikTok users spend on the app
120 million: Monthly active users of TikTok in India
717 million: Monthly active users of TikTok, globally
738 million: Times the TikTok app was downloaded in 2019
46 million: US downloads of the app in 2019
$5.7 million: Amount TikTok was fined in February of 2019 by the FTC for violating child privacy laws
8: Times a day a US TikTok user opens the app, on average
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TikTok was preceded by musical.ly, the first successful lip-syncing mobile app that was launched in 2014 by two Chinese entrepreneurs. In 2017, TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, bought musical.ly for up to $1 billion. In September of 2018, it surpassed Uber as the world’s most valuable startup. Shortly after, Facebook quietly launched a lip-syncing mobile app called Lasso—essentially, a TikTok look-alike.
The app is truly worldwide, although the numbers vary according to who’s measuring them: 40% of TikTok’s users are outside China.
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Quartz Obsession — TikTok — Card 4
Unable to import block of type SHORTCODE_CAPTION. Sorry! Delete me or seek out the truth.
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Quartz Obsession — TikTok — Card 5
TikTok is so much more than lip-syncing teens. The Verge has called it a “spiritual successor to Vine,” the beloved (and short-lived) video app acquired by Twitter. Like Vine, TikTok’s 15-second native upload time limit, endlessly looped, fosters a frenetic but inventive culture of rapidly mutating memes.
Central to the TikTok experience are its challenges. One classic example is Jimmy Fallon‘s delightful #TumbleweedChallenge: dropping to the ground and rolling (like a tumbleweed) to a Spaghetti Western-esque riff.
Korean pop, or K-pop, has started making its way into the TikTok-challenge sphere, as well—like this dance challenge set to the song “Any Song” by Zico:
Celebrity is the exception, though; TikTok’s feed is dominated by amateurs who perform tongue-in-cheek challenges. (For the uninitiated, TikTok’s Instagram is a good place to start to get a feel for the material.)
Other (somewhat) more serious creators are breaking out on the app as well. The bite-sized videos are just the right size to show off a dance—like the Renegade, the wildly popular brainchild of 14-year-old Atlanta dancer Jalaiah Harmon. But Harmon has also learned that breaking out is hard to do. She first posted the dance on Instagram, but it blew up in uncredited form on TikTok, leaving Harmon to chase down her own fame, a difficult task given the site’s non-chronological, AI-driven format.
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Quartz Obsession — TikTok — Card 6
(An angelic choir of Gummi Bears chanting Adele’s “Someone Like You”)
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Quartz Obsession — TikTok — Card 7
“Everything about TikTok teeters on the edge of amateur professionalism—and it’s that juxtaposition that makes the app so bewitching. Impressive editing is paired with the childlike acting and lip-synching the app and its challenges call for. It’s gleeful and adorable. …. TikTok isn’t about perfection; it’s about belonging to a movement.”
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Quartz Obsession — TikTok — Card 8
At the core of ByteDance’s approach is artificial intelligence. It describes its platforms as “enabling people to enjoy content powered by AI technology,” and it conducts research in natural language processing, computer vision, machine learning, and more. The content is generated by users, but the entire structure supporting it is assisted by AI.
The result, John Herrman writes at the New York Times, is a platform that’s “more machine than man”—which is fundamentally different than its predecessors. Rather than being oriented around who you already know, follow, or like, or what you’ve already watched or searched for, TikTok’s algorithm builds a cache of content it assumes you’ll be interested in seeing as soon as you log in and then adjusts it, opaquely, over time. “At the core of TikTok’s popularity is its almost unsettling ability to recommend content that sometimes people don’t even know they want,” Jane Li writes for Quartz.
“TikTok does away with many of the assumptions other social platforms have been built upon, and which they are in the process of discarding anyway,” Herrman writes. “TikTok’s real influence going forward may be that the other social media platforms decide that our friends were simply holding us back. ”
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Quartz Obsession — TikTok — Card 9
A big part of what makes TikTok so much fun is the robust suite of tools it comes with. In case you’re not (yet) a power user, here’s a non-comprehensive guide:
🎶 Music: This is the bread and butter of TikTok. Users can discover sounds through playlists, trending lists, and hashtags, and time them to their own videos. They can also upload their own sounds, which other users can then remix.
🎥 Video editing: Users can set timers, start and stop recording, interchange audio, reshoot, create slideshows, and upload videos recorded outside the app.
👯 Duets: Users can post their own videos that play to the left of another user’s video, creating an interactive “duet.” Some of TikTok’s finest memes are duets, as are some of its most terrible (like when adult men create duets with teenage girls).
💸 Virtual money: Users can purchase coins, diamonds, and gifts for other users.
🌈 Filters: Users can add special effects (like video glitches) and stickers (like rainbow GIFs).
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Quartz Obsession — TikTok — Card 11
Search “TikTok” on YouTube, and you’ll find hundreds of “Ultimate Cringe Compilation” videos with millions of views. These 10-minute videos feature what many consider to be the most cringe-worthy content from TikTok (and musical.ly), which is usually created by its most earnest and youngest users.
For older Gen Zers and younger millennials, these cringe compilations can be their first foray into TikTok, which explains why so many non-users consider it a hellscape. (On the other hand, as Taylor Lorenz writes at the Atlantic, “everything about social media is mortifying and cringey, but it gives us an outlet for expression and a way to connect with new people, so we use it.”)
Mocking TikTok is like mocking an overly sincere karaoke singer—cruel but lacking in imagination. It’s a longstanding tradition for the more cynical half of the internet (Reddit, Facebook, Twitter) to mock the younger, more sincere half of the internet (Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube) for being, like, too popular.
Meanwhile, TikTok is evolving. Users have gained self-awareness, creating ironic meme videos that mock TikTok meme videos on TikTok itself. The ouroboros of irony (in which sincerity becomes irony becomes post-irony) will one day consume us all.
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Quartz Obsession — TikTok — Card 12
The Delhi-based market intelligence firm KalaGato estimates that as of August of 2019, a third of all smartphones in India had the TikTok app installed on them. There are a few reasons for this. Data is cheap in India. Using TikTok does not hinge on being a fluent speaker or reader of English. And Indians have an affinity for film.
“In a country like India, which worships cinema, the success of mediums like TikTok isn’t surprising,” Apaksh Gupta, CEO and founder of influencer marketing firm One Impression, told Quartz. “Anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection can make a video of their own or watch videos on the move. This, amongst a series of other factors, has built India’s affinity for TikTok.”
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Quartz Obsession — TikTok — Card 13
TikTok’s 15 seconds of fame isn’t just for on-camera talent—it benefits musicians, too. While not a music streaming service, TikTok has popularized a number of underground tracks, Genius reports. Among TikTok’s most popular songs (with 3.6 million videos) is iLOVEFRiDAY’s “Mia Khalifa” You might not have heard the full track, but maybe you’ll recognize its lyrics-cum-meme:
Hit or miss
I guess they never miss, huh?
You got a boyfriend, I bet he doesn’t kiss ya …
TikTok is popular enough to catapult artists from obscurity into fame—“Mia Khalifa” reached number one on Spotify’s Global Viral 50 chart. It’s unclear whether virality on TikTok is financially profitable, but artists—and presumably, the music industry—are beginning to view TikTok as yet another platform for discovery.
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Quartz Obsession — TikTok — Card 15
In yesterday’s email about lazy rivers, 32% of you said that that the lazy river is your favorite feature of a water park, 25% said you’re eager to rise the highest, fastest ride you can find, and several of you wrote in to say that you’d rather go to a lake or the ocean. 📧 David said in a message, “If there are at least three jets returning water from a pool filter, a pool can have its own lazy river. When the jets were properly pointed to form a triangle just below the surface, my inlaws’ pool would very slowly circulate a pool float around the pool, even with a person on the float.”
Today’s Obsession is an updated and revised version of one that originally landed in inboxes on March 13, 2019. We’ve added new information to reflect the extensive reporting Quartz has done since.