I Tried TikTok For One Week: Here’s What I Learned

It’s all about the music.

Clark Boyd
Oct 6 · 15 min read

15 SECONDS OF FAME

TikTok seems new like it popped up from nowhere.

However, it is built on solid foundations — at least in modern terms.

TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, has the highest valuation of any startup in the world, at $75 billion.

It owns a range of online video properties and combines these data sources to train its sophisticated Artificial Intelligence systems. Japan’s Softbank invested $3 billion in ByteDance late last year.

ByteDance bought the popular lip-syncing app Musical.ly in 2017 for $1 billion and rebranded it as TikTok for an international audience.

Musical.ly’s 100 million monthly users were migrated to TikTok in August 2018.

That gave TikTok a huge boost, and it has used this as a springboard to deliver some pretty staggering growth figures since then.

These are just a few TikTok statistics:

  • Over 500 million monthly active users worldwide.
  • Downloaded 660 million times in 2018.
  • Q1 2019 was up 70% versus the same period in 2018 for global downloads.
  • Available in over 150 countries.
  • The average user spends 52 minutes per day on the app.

India is the biggest market (a cause for concern, chez Zuckerberg), but it has gained mass popularity in the US, too.

So, what exactly is TikTok and how does it work?

In all honesty, I had no idea just a short number of days ago.

I’ve seen the occasional LinkedIn post about how popular it is and the odd spammy ad, but I had the sense that TikTok was just a more chaotic and confusing Snapchat.

As such, it was categorically Not For Me.

Closer inspection has confirmed a small number of my assumptions, but falsified others.

Basically, TikTok has a communal homepage, populated by a “For You” feed.

Short videos play and the user can swipe up to see the next one, if they don’t like what’s on screen. There are options to like, share, and comment, as you’d expect.

The user can click on the name of the song that is playing to find more information or see other videos that use this clip as a soundtrack. Here’s what mine looks like now:

The app provides content creation tools that help users record, edit, and soundtrack their 15-second clips.

Users can double-tap on a video to respond with a video of their own.

This starts to explain the proliferation of content, upon which the TikTok model depends.

The concept of “network effects” is carried to its logical conclusion. It is the future as imagined in experimental, modernist novels that focus more on form than content. Perspective and narrative are distorted to the point of non-existence.

As for the videos, the singer ‘mxmtoon’ (not her birth name) quite rightly notes, “There’s an image of TikTok being cringier comedy for younger individuals in middle school.”

There’s a lot of that.

In fact, there are some broad categories of content that always show up on the homepage:

  • Dancing to a short clip from a popular song.
  • Slapstick “comedy”.
  • Practical jokes where the victim 100% knows they are being filmed.
  • Singing in the car.
  • Satisfying moments when things just go right.
  • Satisfying moments when things just go wrong.
  • Animals do the funniest things.
  • Kids say the funniest things.

The overall experience takes some getting used to, let’s say.

TikTok breaks those User Experience rules we’ve all agreed are “best practice”.

The closest I’ve seen to the initial homepage in any form of culture is that episode of The Simpsons where Homer creates this web page:

Combine that with a soupçon of ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’ and a dash of that prank show ‘Just For Laughs’ (the one they always have on planes), and you’ve pretty much got the TikTok cocktail nailed.

It is supposed to be broad, elemental, and satisfying. That helps to explain its mass audience, on an international scale.

Anyone can understand a man getting hit in the head with a frying pan.

Ironically, TikTok is not about time, in a purposeful way.

In fact, there are no time stamps on the videos.

It is a place to immerse oneself in guilty pleasures, to lose track of the normal world.

It is the teen-friendly equivalent of a Vegas casino, with a Million Follower Jackpot. Just keep playing and it could be you.

In fact, this is perhaps the defining component of TikTok’s growth.

The hierarchy of Instagram has now congealed into a familiar form. People know who the influencers are and these influencers use the instruments at their disposal to maintain that status quo. It’s difficult to build a following on there and it takes time.

On TikTok, the content matters more than the profile that posted it. If you have an idea for a video, you can create and post it for instant feedback.

If people like it, it can take off — it is far from unusual for a video to get over 100,000 likes in its first week.

If they don’t like it, so be it.

It is ‘Funny or Die’ for social media.

The most popular videos among TikTok’s young demographic tend to create a sharp emotional connection.

This is a generation for whom the quotidian is viewed through a smartphone lens.

That creates an astute sense of what will create a connection with their peers; the mundane can be turned into millions of views.

Some of the videos really are witty, inventive, and surprising.

For example, video creators put a new spin on tired song lyrics by exploring the ambiguity resident in language to develop a dialogue with the viewer.

Sometimes, it’s a man getting hit with a frying pan. Other times, it’s a deceptively complex examination of how we create meaning online.

Small wonder TikTok is so hard to pin down.

The personalization of the Home feed is what keeps users coming back, too.

This depends mainly on user interactions via the “Discover” stream, which contains hashtag trends and a search bar.

Whatever you like, it’s probably on there, and they’ll keep showing it to you until you give up.

So you like Dancing Jesus, but you’re not so sure about flying toasters? Well, you’ll be seeing a lot more jivin’ Jesuses from now on.

I spent a bit of time clicking around, liking occasional posts, in the hope I wouldn’t have to see another pair of pals dancing to Taylor Swift in my Home feed.

These are my highlights from week one:

It seems to have picked up that I like animals and The Simpsons, plus that I may be too old to be on there in the first place.

As personalization goes these days, it’s very good indeed.

Users can create order in the TikTok chaos by sending the right signals to the algorithm.

After a while, a pleasing pattern sets in.

What’s the bad news?

At a time when some social media companies are relaxing their focus on relentless “engagement”, TikTok is brazen in its intentions:

An “addiction-reduction” feature was added in 2018 to try and curb the habits of extreme users, but it is no more than a notification to say they have been on the app for 90 minutes without a break.

Former TikTok employees have spoken out about the company’s aggressive marketing, too.

One said in a recent interview, On Instagram, they’d run ads with clickbaity images — an open, gashed wound, or an overtly sexy image of a young teen girl — and it wouldn’t matter if Instagram users flagged the images as long as the ad got a lot of engagement first.”

This can create and enhance a sometimes toxic atmosphere on TikTok. For all its overt wholesomeness, it can be a grubby place under the surface.

If you have managed to maintain some faith in the innate goodness of man in these trying times, don’t open the comments on any video of a girl dancing.

Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission imposed a $5.7-million fine on TikTok. They found that a significant number of Musical.ly users (since migrated to TikTok) were under the age of thirteen, and the app did not ask for their ages when they signed up.

Moreover, three people in India have died while trying to create great TikTok videos. This is not a TikTok-only problem, unfortunately. The desire to capture something intense, with all its attendant online engagement, pushes some people very far indeed.

As with so many tech companies today, TikTok evidently has some serious issues to resolve.

None of this seems to affect its audience numbers, however, and that means businesses are keen to get involved.

Can companies use TikTok?

I am sure that many companies would prefer to ignore TikTok.

Glossy brand advertising does not sit so well on such a disorderly platform.

It is not possible to port existing content across to TikTok, either, unless the company has a blooper reel at its disposal.

To cut through, brands would need to create unique content that fits the format and taps into the user mindset.

That means creating an emotional connection on a base level, which leaves little time to communicate the company’s message — not that people want to hear a corporate message on TikTok, anyway. It is now possible to create 60-second videos, but it is unclear whether viewers will take to a longer format.

We have reached the point where companies can no longer ignore such a popular communication medium. If their target audience is hanging out on TikTok, they should really be taking it seriously.

Instagram certainly is.

It is testing a new ‘Clips’ feature that resembles TikTok’s video stories. Who’d have thought they’d rip off a rival feature, eh?

Some big companies are getting on board with TikTok now, too.

TikTok and the NFL have announced a new partnership and the Rugby World Cup has shared memes throughout the tournament.

In the long term, TikTok would like to grow up and appeal to a broader audience. Preferably, an audience with more disposable income.

It will put resources behind these partnerships to prove that the format can work for brand promotion.

No doubt, it is possible to convey a personality through TikTok, just as some corporations have used Twitter to develop a more human face for the company.

So, TikTok success can derive from memes, visual gags, dancing, or short-form stories.

Music curation cuts across all of these categories and music have become the driving force behind TikTok’s influencers. (You can see the top 50 influencers here if you’re interested.)

Musicians are rushing to the platform and once they arrive, they soon see that the rules of engagement are somewhat different.

In the next section, we’ll take a look at how TikTok is starting to dictate the terms in some sections of the music industry.

“This is a real thing.”

— Mark Zuckerberg on the TikTok threat

IT TIKS ALL THE BOXES

“I write hooks, and I try it in the mirror — how many hand movements can I fit into fifteen seconds?

You know, goodbye, call me back, peace out, F you.”

— Adam Friedman, Music Producer

TikTok has come a long way from its beginnings as a lip-sync video app.

This is to be expected: even the most ardent lip-sync fan must get bored of it after a while.

That said, it is quite the leap to go from predictable videos of teens miming to Taylor Swift, to what Rolling Stone recently called “The music industry’s new fame machine”. All in a period of one year.

Yet, that is the trajectory that TikTok has taken.

Established musicians can extend the appeal of their work by creating TikTok-friendly clips and compilations.

In this scenario, the prevailing culture is reflected within the confines of TikTok. Ed Sheeran pops up all the time, for example.

Meanwhile, up-and-coming artists create “native” TikTok material that is designed to attract dance routines, call-and-response cue-card videos, and hashtag challenges.

In the most successful TikTok music, the song is not the finished article. It is a jumping-off point for individual users to customize and create their own content.

The modern user wants to be a part of the action, not a passive consumer.

The song must, therefore, leave room for the co-creation of a TikTok video.

Many of these videos are short, simple dances made to pass a bit of time, made by what is apparently known as ‘VSCO girls’.

There’s a good Vox article on the VSCO phenomenon here and it does begin to explain a lot of the engagement on TikTok.

Essentially, ‘VSCO girl’ is “a catchy nickname given to largely white and largely middle-class teenage girls.”

The VSCO part comes from the name of a photo-editing app; 75% of its 20 million users are under 25.

Spend a few minutes on TikTok and you will hear the same songs over and over again.

Stunna Girl, a 21-year old rapper, got her break on TikTok with the song ‘Runway’.

The lyrics go as follows:

Twerk

Twerk

Twerk

Twerk

Twerk that ass,

Bitch

Bitch, I look like I’m fresh off the runway (uh)

Bitch, I go crazy the dumb way (uh)

Bitches wanna be me, one day

Is it just me, or were things genuinely better in the past?

You never heard Rod Stewart mouthing off like that, that’s for sure.

Anyway, you can imagine how these lyrics lend themselves to lip-syncing situations for high school students.

Soon after ‘Runway’ went viral on TikTok, Stunna Girl signed a record deal with Capitol.

The song inspired the #RunwayChallenge, which was developed by TikTok users.

At its peak, ‘Runway’ broke into the top 10 songs on Spotify in the US.

TikTok is also viewed as the “staging ground” for Lil Nas X’s mega-hit, ‘Old Town Road’, which broke Mariah Carey’s long-standing record for most consecutive weeks on top of the Billboard 100 charts earlier this year.

I have heard of this song only today, but once you know what it is, you can’t avoid it on TikTok.

These developments are cause for optimism and concern for the music industry.

In theory, the incumbent record labels have the perfect platform to reach their target audience.

They also have access to millions of mini auditions for a record deal and a lot of material they can use in music videos.

As it stands, the labels even pay influencers to promote the latest hits on their TikTok channels.

That could lay the foundation for a fruitful exchange between TikTok and the record labels.

In reality, it looks as though that relationship is set to deteriorate.

TikTok’s contract is running out with the three biggest record companies, who between them control 80% of the global market. The current contract was signed way back when TikTok was Musical.ly. One imagines that the price for access has risen since then.

Recent discussions between the two parties have brought little progress.

As TikTok grows, it starts to shape the prevailing culture and create new tastes. At present, that evolution is in symbiosis with the established music industry and its interests.

However, there are signs that TikTok has ambitions to take ownership of more intellectual property.

There is a program known as ‘TikTok Creators’, which provides management to rising stars on the platform.

These talent managers provide feedback on video performance and advise the creators to jump on certain hashtags to increase their reach.

TikTok has been more hands-on than one might expect of a platform business. Aside from the ‘TikTok Creators’ program, they can decide who will go to the top of the feed.

As one musician put it, “It’s like they have a magic button they can press to make a song go viral.”

They probably do.

This all strengthens the ties between TikTok and the content.

TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, also has ambitions to launch its own music streaming service.

The streaming service will host content from the major record labels if they can strike a deal.

However, it is the ideal platform to turn TikTok users into paying subscribers. It can lead them straight from the music to video editing tools, and then back to TikTok.

ByteDance also acquired AI music generation company Jukedeck in July this year. Jukedeck creates royalty-free music based on the contents of a video.

This all puts ByteDance in a position where it could, at least hypothetically, sustain itself and rival the traditional music industry.

The core point here is one of the boring-but-critical music rights, of course.

It all comes down to how much each party needs the other and TikTok really needs to tie down the rights if its potential IPO is to go to plan. The labels will extract better terms on this deal than they did on the last one, no doubt.

However, a subtler point relates to the balance of power in the creation of modern culture.

No element of culture exists in a vacuum and TikTok has already started to shape tastes.

TV writers perhaps have in the back of their mind today that content can go viral, if it fits into the right meme. Season 2 of ‘Killing Eve’, for example, generated set pieces that could have had a clickable ‘Share’ button on the screen.

No doubt, we’ll get to that point soon enough.

That is not a criticism; it is impossible not to feel the impact of how an audience consumes content when creating content for mass consumption. It is part of the writer’s job.

The same logic applies to TikTok.

Even if an artist is focused squarely on just creating some seriously excellent tunes, they must have some sense of what their audience wants to hear and how they want to hear it.

As such, they may wonder how certain segments of their songs will play for the TikTok crowd.

The audience and the medium are different on TikTok; so too is much of the content.

There is a demand for music that packs a real punch in just 15 seconds.

If established artists don’t create it, someone else will.

There is a growing number of ‘TikTok artists’ who provide consultancy to the record labels on what the next big thing will be.

One piece of advice is that successful TikTok musicians start with a 15 second, self-contained ‘song’. If the audience likes what they hear (measured in likes, shares, and comments), the artist expands to a full three-minute song.

The implications for culture are very significant here.

Rather than taking a longer piece of work and shortening it for social media, we begin with the pure essence and develop from there, if it plays well to the focus group.

It will always be in TikTok’s interests to push original music that is native to their platform, too.

As such, this approach to music creation will grow in popularity for as long as TikTok remains in favor. Once these changes occur, they are not easily undone.

In that regard, there is no single factor about TikTok that suggests it is here for the long haul.

Many similar apps have gone through a cycle of boom and bust, and TikTok is the beneficiary of the inevitable ennui on incumbent platforms like Instagram and Twitter.

The lustre of social networks fades fast once the grown-ups join and the advertising money flows in.

TikTok’s growth plans center on precisely these events. What is good for the company's bottom line is rarely good for creativity.

The audience may well move on to the next app, but TikTok’s rapid evolution is still instructive for any company wishing to comprehend the zeitgeist today.

It is the nature of TikTok that anyone can make it big, in no time. That applies to its users, musicians, and even to the TikTok app itself.

Whatever the outcome, TikTok’s impact on what comes next will be significant, both in music and in our wider, technology-driven culture.

“If you can get famous easily, you’re gonna do it.”

— KevboyPerry
TikTok influencer

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Clark Boyd

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