Synopsis: TikTok emerged out of two apps- Musical.ly and Douyin. Post its introduction to the US and Global market it has impacted every corner of society from politics to mental health to the music industry. Some of these are positive while some are very harmful. The success of TikTok meant the introduction of similar applications such as Instagram reels, Moj, Triller and Bytes. While these apps do not have the same level of success and impact as TikTok the findings are applicable.
Tiktok is a video-sharing platform owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance. It allows users to create and share 15-30 sec videos with music and special effects. The content of Tiktok videos ranges from dance, music, comedy, art, education and so on. However, Tiktok did not initially start as Tiktok; it has a history behind its origins. In 2014, Alex Zhu and Luyu Yang introduced musical.ly to the world to create an educational platform. As they realised the idea was unprofitable, the app’s narrative shifted from an educational one to a recreational one that allows you to lip-sync to popular songs. Later in 2016, ByteDance introduced Douyin to the Chinese market, which allowed for short-form video sharing, which functions similarly to Tiktok. Seeing its popularity, ByteDance combined musical.ly and the workings of Douyin to create Tiktok, which was then introduced to the global market. All musical.ly users shifted to Tiktok while Douyin remained as a separate app. Since it hit off in the US, there has been more than a billion downloads (Gayton, 2020).
Instagram reels, Dubsmash, Moj, Byte and Triller, are a few examples of apps that function similar to Tiktok. They allow users to create, share and consume content in video form and keeping the root of Tiktok’s success within them. The videos are all under 30 seconds. Though none of them has the same level of functionality and popularity as Tiktok, a few people have migrated to these platforms. The reason for Tiktok’s unparalleled successes is all due to the technology behind its functioning- the algorithm. TikTok’s algorithm is unlike any other. It analyses the user even before they begin using the app and catches on to every minute interaction, which then allows for creating a perfect ‘for you’ page. The content delivered to the users neatly matches their interests, but it doesn’t end there. TikTok provides you with endless content, meaning there is no end to the scrolling. This is important to understand because the goal of any social media platform is to ensure that they maximise the number of hours a user spends on their app, and Tiktok has perfected this down to an art form. AppAnie conducted an analysis limited to Android users and uncovered that the average time spent on the app was approximately 21.5 hours a month (TikTok Shines in Hours Spent per User 2021).
Internet culture and the reason for its popularity is fascinating to dismantle. According to symbolic interactionists, we exchange meaning through language and symbols, and we actively construct our reality based on these everyday happenings (Learning, Sociology). Similarly, Internet culture can be deconstructed. The idea of ‘shared memes’ and living within a global community could possibly explain why the younger generation fund the popularity of social media. Once a trend or meme format becomes viral, its features are taken and adapted to create additional content. Therefore, to have an enjoyable internet experience, one does not require original content or organic thoughts. These trends and memes are recycled and circulated to all four corners of the internet, and this cycle repeats itself, leaving us in an endless void of meaningless content. The same applies to TikTok, individuals from across the globe can be active participants by recreating a famous trend. These videos get interaction because of the inherently communal aspect of the content.
How are these sites impacting society?
Tiktok undeniably has a firm hold on societies all over the world as it allows you to expand your social network whilst expressing yourself creatively. The Self-Determination Theory can possibly explain why users are motivated to stay on the app. According to the SDT, when individuals feel competent, autonomous, and connectedness the motivation to use the platform (here TikTok) increases (Montag et al., 2021). However, there exists a dark side to the platform which many choose to ignore.
Negative side of SNS
- Explicit Content, Sexual Harrassment and Grooming
TikTok was found to have mined data of users who were under 13 years of age and were fined US 5.78 $ million as it blatantly violates the Children’s online privacy protection act. This prompted the developers to reconsider the workings of TikTok and disable certain services such as direct messaging and video uploading for those under the age of 13. The alarming increase in sexually explicit content and pornography made children a vulnerable target for sexual predators as well. The Madras high court in 2019 stated this as a concern and appealed for the ban of the app in the country (Chakraborty et al., 2020). Instagram reels, which co-opted a very similar design for their app is not that safe either. In Kerala a woman was set on fire by her partner and the reason behind the murder was an Instagram reel. Although this was an isolated event and the cause of murder was not inherently because of the reel, rather the partner’s inability to let go of toxic possessiveness, it is an indirect effect.
- Body Image and Ideal Beauty Standards
As mentioned earlier, certain trends tend to get a lot of traction, and multiple users worldwide attempt to recreate them. While some of these trends are harmless and fun, others can prove to be very toxic, especially to vulnerable audiences such as minors. An example of such a trend is for women to wear baggy clothes, and as the beat drops, they stretch it back to show their ‘hourglass’ figure. At first glance, there is not much wrong with the trend, but once it is dissected, the trend is perpetuating glorified societal stereotypes of what an attractive body is. Comment sections are, more often than not, filled with users complaining about their body and how much they dislike it because it is not similar to that of the video.
As these trends have a huge number of people recreating them, it creates an echo chamber where the same content is recycled repeatedly. This is harmful as it sends people down a rabbit hole of self-deprecating thoughts. TikTok making this a trend reinforces ideal beauty standards, and people subconsciously reaffirm their beliefs that there is a certain way one must look to be considered attractive. It is not surprising that these ideals align with the eurocentric definition of beauty (Tovar, 2020). Instagram is a platform that revolves around sharing pictures and videos with those who follow the account. The time spent using a social networking site that is focused on appearance is directly proportional to self-objectification and body surveillance (Feltman & Szymanski, 2017). With Instagram specifically, as it is a photosharing app, users are exposed to commentary about one’s physical appearance from their followers, which can also be tied to the higher rates of self-objectification and body surveillance. The negative reactions individuals get from these apps or just the mindless comparisons they make with other users can profoundly affect their mental health and self-esteem. Moreover, these apps are designed to keep the user on the platform for as long as possible. Therefore, users fall victim to mindless scrolling and enter an endless stream of content that accumulates their negative feelings about themselves.
Positive side of SNS
- TikTok and The Music Industry
Nonetheless, the positive effects of such social media platforms must be highlighted when conducting a discourse. TikTok, for example, has provided a platform for up and coming artists to interact with potential fans. Scouting is one way in which the app has impacted the music industry. As the traction a viral video gets is unimaginable, smaller artists can become big overnight. For example, Ryan Lehan’s song My Little garnered him a huge following and increase in streams because a famous tiktoker- Caleb Finn- posted a video that played his song in one of his videos (Volksgeist, 2020). This opened up a range of opportunities for Ryan as an artist, which would have taken more time if it weren’t for TikTok. Similarly, Brakence, a small-time artist, gained thousands and thousands of fans by posting videos of him singing his original songs along with some covers. The platform essentially gave him a place in the cutthroat industry (Volksgeist, 2020).
TikTok doesn’t just help smaller artists find their place, it also helps well-established artists to climb up the chart. Roxanne was one of TikTok’s most viral songs, and the trend led to a 2470% increase in the artists monthly listeners. Doja Cat’s hit song Say So topped the Billboard hot 10 months after its release because it went viral over a TikTok trend (Volksgeist, 2020). Aurora released Runaway in her 2015 album ‘Running with the wolves’ and the song re-entered the Billboard hot 200 earlier this year because a trend with her song is currently going viral. TikTok essentially allows users to explore a whole range of songs. The 30-60 sec video acts as a sample of what the song sounds like and prompts listeners to listen to the song in its entirety on streaming platforms.
- TikTok and Politics
As Instagram reels more or less contain content imported from Tiktok and adopt similar ways of functionality, the audience range is expanded to a combination of both TikTok and Instagram users. Social media apps like Twitter, Instagram and TikTok are also essential tools used for politics. Political activism on these platforms helps the movement to gain momentum and have aided the people. Black Lives Matter is an example of a movement that was based around social media. Individuals worldwide trended the hashtag to raise awareness of the horrific anti-black police brutality in everyday life. Politicians use the platform to reach their supporters and to conduct campaigns as well.
Read: Sociology of Music
Needless to say, in this digital era, social media sites are very much interconnected with our everyday lives, and it would be impossible to separate oneself from them. There are cons to every good, and it is up to the authorities to ensure that we live in a safe space, whether physical or digital.
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Feltman, C. E., & Szymanski, D. M. (2017). Instagram Use and Self-Objectification: The Roles of Internalization, Comparison, Appearance Commentary, and Feminism. Sex Roles, 78(5-6), 311–324. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-017-0796-1
Gayton, C. (2020, July 18). The Origins of TikTok. Medium. https://christinagayton.medium.com/the-origins
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Tovar, S. [Salem Tovar]. (2020, November 20). How TikTok Makes You Feel Ugly | An analysis [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nAoIRBLzoc
Volksgeist. (2020, August 29). How TikTok is Breaking the Music Industry [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXhBiDk6Cho