TikTok is well known for its short lip-sync and dance videos and is affiliated with the fame of viral artists such as Lil Nas X and Doja Cat. TikTok was created in Aug. 2018 when the lip-sync app Musical.ly and the Chinese app ByteDance merged. The short, catchy video clips entered the social media stage in time to replace Vine and overtook Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat as the most downloaded platform within a month of the application’s release. Although its unique structure allows for creative videos and popularity for a lucky few, it shares a similarity with all of these platforms through its collection of personal data.
By tailoring the videos that users view to their demonstrated preferences, the app keeps close track of which videos elicit the most views or likes from a user in addition to age and demographics.
“In a way, I’m like, ‘Well, I’m glad it’s not under the Facebook umbrella,’ but I don’t think it’s necessarily any better, I just think we don’t have as much information on it,” Ana Luisa McCullough ’22 remarked.
Indeed, the cybersecurity firm CheckPoint recently found several security weaknesses in the application’s data protection, such as the ability to access users’ personal information and message spam links.
TikTok has been recognized as a platform that can lead to instant, widespread popularity. “Old Town Road,” which holds the record for the longest running number one hit song ever, was discovered by a record label after it was posted on TikTok. Several music clips become instantly recognizable from being replayed on the app thousands of times in lip syncs, dancing or acting videos, including Doja Cat’s “Say So” and DaBaby’s “VIBEZ.” The app has attracted a larger audience and provides another platform for music to be discovered. With the application’s preference tracking and personalized content, users see clips that are always different. It allows them to discover new accounts more than other platforms do, such as Instagram, where the primary content that users observe is from the people they already follow.
Several Wellesley students have amassed significant numbers of followers and likes through TikTok. McCullough (@analuisa_procrastinates) said of the app: “It’s cool to see people from other parts of the world, [and] there’s a whole culture of parents on TikTok. It’s interesting to see a wide range.”
Incidentally, Wellesley students Ashley Wang ’20 and Christiane Joseph ’20 posted their first TikTok under the handle @poc.ryot, wishing to broaden the range and promote greater queer and people of color representation. Their idea of a funny, ironic comment attracted just under 40,000 views within four days. “We couldn’t believe it actually worked. It was easy,” Joseph commented. “But like, too damn easy,” Wang agreed.
Despite the spontaneous nature and comical goal of their post, as well as the generally mindless entertaining content on TikTok, the message has real relevance for representation on social media. “Even though we weren’t really taking a big stance on it, it is true. In our comments, people were like ‘What about this person, what about that person.’ But it’s like … you’re naming one person. I feel like you could list all of the famous POC TikTokers on your hand. And it shouldn’t be like that,” Wang explained.
Additionally, users’ newfound popularity and visibility, as well as the comedic nature of most videos provokes thoughts on the possible impacts on school or professional life. “The main thing that has been odd for me has just been … being perceived,” McCullough shared. “I just don’t think about people actually seeing my TikToks.”
Jhenna El-Sawaf ’21 (@jhennanotjenna), also a Wellesley TikTok user who has amassed a significant number of followers could corroborate this feeling: “It’s just a weird way for someone to previously have seen you. So yeah it’s a little embarrassing. It’s also fun though.”
Wang and Joseph’s following elicited more contentious attention. “We got lovers, we got haters,” Joseph said of the comments on their post. “That’s when we knew we were famous — when we got a bunch of haters,” Wang joked.