Any new technology or platform triggers a debate about its advantages and disadvantages after it gains a critical mass sufficient to make it noticeable. TikTok has received its fair share of flak from its critics, not only when it started being noticed but even long after it’s become fairly ubiquitous. A number of charges have been levelled against the platform by its naysayers, the majority of which do not take into consideration the benefits of TikTok for the prosumers and the role of TikTok in the digital economy. While these are important factors to be taken into consideration while evaluating the social media platform, what this opinion piece focusses on is the very nature of this platform and the significance of TikTok in the digital world. This is coming from someone who had been among its naysayers for quite sometime. Though not present on the platform as yet, one has come to appreciate the nature of TikTok enough to shake off one’s biases.
The internet is gradually moving society from a representative democracy to a participatory democracy. It does this by creating the capacity for individuals or small groups to do things for themselves”
– Stephen Downes
I’ve chosen this quote by the Senior Research Officer for Digital Technologies at the National research Council of Canada ( attribution) to present my take on TikTokers and TikTok. Why so, one may ask? The reason is simple: TikTok has democratized expression and content creation to create capacities for disparate identities across the globe.
As hyperbolic as this claim may sound, a careful consideration of the case at hand may end up persuading the reader. Had I been asked to give my two cents on TikTok four years ago, I might have been dismissive of it as a mere “fad” among teenagers. And I wouldn’t have been alone. There was a time when TikTok-bashing had become a trend among the non-users who viewed it with disdain, derision and disparaging defiance. The scene was something like this :
Today, anybody who views the TikTok world as a “fad” is not just living under a rock – the person is six feet under altogether.
The Oxford Dictionary defines a fad as “something that people are interested in for only a short period of time”. Well, TikTok is something that people are interested in – over one billion people, that is. The key phrase is “for a short period of time”. Does this apply to a brand that has survived almost half a decade with ever-increasing prospects of a promising future?
A quick look at the numbers and facts will help us grasp the scale we are talking about:
- TikTok has a global user base of over a billion people.
- TikTok was the most downloaded app globally in 2020.
- The average total time spent on TikTok per day is 52 minutes. 90% of TikTok users use the app multiple times daily.
- Morning Consult ranked TikTok as the third fastest-growing brand of 2020.
- Bytedance, the parent company of TikTok is now the world’s most valuable startup with a valuation of over $ 75 billion.
One of the most common misconceptions about TikTok is that it is just a fad, born of the whims and fancies of teenagers. This is just lazy thinking at play. The slightest exercise in pattern recognition will tell you that every social media platform has taken off with a disproportionately large number of young users in its demographic mix. If TikTok is shouldered by a young audience, why, so was Facebook, so was Instagram and so was Snapchat. Facebook presents a classic case of taking off within the coterie of Harvard grads before becoming accessible to the wider world. So, was Facebook a mere fad just because it relied heavily on a young demographic? No, it’s a bloody behemoth that the Congress is now desperately trying to tame, and in all likelihood will fail to do so. So much for a “fad”.
Teenagers and young adults have always been early adopters of every social media platform and have always provided the critical mass necessary for it to blow up – until the platforms get saturated by middle-aged relatives battling mid-life crisis and sending you friend requests at odd hours of the night. This is when the younger flock migrate towards greener pasture. We’ve seen this happen with Facebook and we’re slowly seeing this happen with Instagram.
TikTok – the social media platform that is used to make a variety of short-form videos, from genres like dance, comedy, and education, that have a duration from 15 seconds to one minute- happens to be a part of the pattern. Therefore, the condescending attitude towards the platform insofar as its young userbase is concerned is just beside the point.
Another charge leveled by the naysayers is that the content quality in TikTok is deficient in brain cells. This is nothing short of misplaced snobbery, at best. Firstly, to imagine that humans are primarily rational creatures is the most irrational assumption that a supposedly rational person can make. Secondly, who expects the internet to be so intellectually stimulating anyway. It may be just one big meme for all we know. In this context, one might want to have a look at Desiderius Erasmus’ brilliant work In Praise of Folly. Click here to read this brilliant piece. Thirdly- and most importantly- this line of thinking completely misses the point about what TikTok has actually achieved : TikTok has democratized audio-visual expression within the attention economy.
What TikTok has actually achieved is that it has effectively simplified the process of expressing yourself to the world. One crucial feature about TikTok is that disregarding the entire step of value judgement, it has allowed the masses to express themselves in whatever shape or form they like. Your content need not be polished, refined, or erudite for that matter. In effect, TikTok has democratized expression in the audio-visual format. Being an entertainment platform instead of a lifestyle platform, TikTok allows you to be yourself and make a fool of yourself in the process. Instead of presenting a highly edited Instagrammable-but-fake version of yourself to the world (see?), TikTok allows you the freedom to be silly- which most of us are in our private lives anyway. Consequently, TikTok may also be viewed as a rejection of intellectual and aesthetic elitism in the digital world.
This connection with our light-hearted selves is what makes TikTok emotionally stimulating – to the point of being addictive. However, the brand’s awareness about its inherently ( and perhaps deliberately) addictive nature and acknowledgment of the same has allowed the platform to gain the trust of its young userbase. Not only does the platform have a time management feature, TikTok’s 2019 “You’re in Control” content series was designed to help users to control the usage of their time on the platform.
Furthermore, TikTok is also seeing the rise of doctors, lawyers and psychologists who create snappy content to reach the masses – it is only a matter of time when what was thought to be an “intellectually unstimulating version” of the social media may become a tool for disseminating information to the masses in a creative way. And in doing so, the brand will move further in upholding its mission “to inspire creativity and bring joy “.