It is a rainy summer morning in London but in my head I’m a competitor at the Tokyo Olympics, watching footage on my phone of 7ft-tall Argentine basketball player Francisco Caffaro trying to squeeze into a Japanese shower cubicle. I swipe onto a video of gold medalist Tom Daley, not diving but wobbling his head in time to Olivia Rodrigo’s Deja Vu. Onwards and US volleyball player Erik Shoji is talking me through his teriyaki and rice-ball dinner in the Olympic Village.
It’s just another few seconds on the Chinese-owned micro-video app TikTok, where at any one time 75 million different videos are jostling for attention and which in the space of just three years has come from nowhere to become a – if not the – driving force in western culture.
“Omnipresent” … and Omnipotent?
Right now, millions are enjoying the Olympics through the prism of its (mainly) 60-second videos, with silly snippets giving a face to sports and competitors that often previously languished in obscurity. Who, after all, honestly previously cared about the US women’s rugby or its team member Ilona Maher before she gained 300,000 TikTok followers with such videos as her paean to the “tall foreign demigod lookin athletes”?
Last month, an estimated 1.9 billion people watched TikTok’s quaver logo repeatedly flashing around the Euro 2020 pitches as one of the tournament’s official sponsors. Millions of fans flipped between watching matches to TikToks of the players performing dance routines or sharing footballing tips.
It’s a huge leap for the social-media platform, which initially many dismissed as “just for kids”. Since it became available internationally in August 2018, TikTok has been downloaded 3 billion times and is used by an estimated 1.1 billion people daily in more than 150 countries – especially impressive when you realize those countries don’t include China (which has a Chinese version of the app called Douyin, owned by the same company, ByteDance) and India, where Narendra Modi’s government banned it, accusing the Chinese of illegally accessing data.
“Our goal is just to be omnipresent as a brand. We want to become the most relatable brand on the Internet,” James Rothwell, TikTok’s head of marketing for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, tells me.
Many of our institutions such as the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 have been “advised” by TikTok on how best to launch their accounts, as have brands such as Stella McCartney and Birds Eye. Its recent collaboration with Ed Sheeran attracted more than 5 million views, the largest audience for a live streamed concert to date. From being the place where teenyboppers performed dance routines it’s now being used as a recruiting tool in the US, where brands such as the fast-food chain Chipotle are using its spin-off, TikTok Resumes, to ask potential staff to upload their video CVs.
To show it means business, TikTok has bagged two prominent new London addresses for its UK and European headquarters, one above the new Crossrail station in Farringdon and one over two floors at Soho House’s new Soho Works space in the Strand.
“We want to become the most relatable brand on the Internet.”
After all, its ever growing numbers are enough to make the likes of YouTube and Google quake. (TikTok is the only major social-media app that didn’t originate in California.) In the first half of this year, TikTok was the most downloaded and highest-grossing non-game app, beating Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram, with nearly 383 million people installing it for the first time. Typically, users open the app eight times a day, spending a daily average of 52 minutes on the platform (for younger people aged 4-15, it’s 80 minutes).
Those younger people (even if the app is officially for 13+ only) were – at least at the start – TikTok’s bread and butter. TikTok was born after ByteDance’s owner, 38-year-old Zhang Yiming, who has an estimated net worth of $35.7 billion, bought the lip-synching app Musical.ly for a rumored $1 billion in 2017, merging it with the unknown TikTok. ByteDance has been named as the world’s most valuable start-up, worth more than $80 billion.
Musical.ly’s followers – reportedly 200 million of them – were largely children, who used it to make videos of themselves singing and dancing along to pop songs. At first, this was TikTok’s USP. But quickly other types of videos started crowding onto the platform. Musicians found the app an ideal vehicle for new material. Comedians started using it for sketches. People flocked there to share household and beauty “hacks” such as applying foundation with a moisturizer and to lecture on anything from the semiotics of Black Lives Matter to living in a convent (#nunsoftiktok has been viewed 8 million times).
For many, TikTok rapidly gained the edge over “old-school” platforms such as Instagram or YouTube because its videos were simple to film (the app provides all necessary editing software) and snappier in feel. The “feed” aspect means anything that bores you can be instantly scrolled past.
Most of all, people were drawn to TikTok by its light-heartedness. According to Nico Cary, the chief operating officer of Influentially, an agency that manages social-media stars, its core appeal lay in being for everybody, not just the rich, famous and gorgeous. “You’re never going to get your superwealthy woman on TikTok; they’ve never cared for it. TikTok’s a much more playful, positive and unfiltered place than other social media, and because it’s so normal it gives anyone an opportunity to express themselves, not just the One Per Cent.”
“Creators” (TikTok reprimands me when I call them TikTokkers) also loved the fact that on TikTok fame could – with luck – be found virtually instantly, rather than through stolidly building up followers and likes as on the other platforms. The difference lies in its “For You” algorithm, which analyses users’ behavior (what they search for, how long they spend watching each video and so on) and then serves them bespoke content. “You don’t have to be Ant and Dec [with 3 million followers]. You can come in with zero, but if your content is good the algorithm will recognize that and show it to more people,” says James Stafford, TikTok’s head of partnerships and community for Europe and the UK.
Unsurprisingly, 50 per cent of TikTok’s users are under the age of 34, with 32.5 per cent aged between 10 and 19 and 41 per cent between 16 and 24. But now, boomers and Gen-Xers, who took years to realize the potential of the likes of YouTube, have started piling in. A video of Arnold Schwarzenegger on a bike dressed as a cowboy and chasing his mini pony went viral during lockdown; Sir Elton John was one of the earliest adopters to use the platform to reboot his classics – his Step into Christmas video was viewed nearly 500,000 times; while Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s a regular with 261,000 followers and is especially fond of using the “duet” feature, which allows him to split the screen and play the piano alongside another act.
The influx of affluent, middle-aged users is great news for TikTok’s advertising revenue, which funds the app, with a rumored charge of $2 million to take over its front page for a day. Luxury brands such as Balenciaga and Prada have jumped on board, while TikTok’s latest brand partnership is with the decidedly upmarket Aston Martin Formula One team.
Whatever its demographics, if a craze has swept my household – and the world – this past year, it is more than likely to have been born on TikTok. My 16-year-old daughter, who spends hours daily scrolling the app has, in the past year, surprised me with sudden, urgent demands for, among others, pleated white miniskirts in response to the #tenniscore trend, where TikTokkers began wearing garments that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Virginia Wade, leading to searches for tennis skirts tripling on the shopping platform Lyst, where searches for silk polo shirts also rose by 21 per cent.
In the past few months I’ve been ordered to buy Little Moons mochi balls (sales rose 700 per cent after TikTokkers began posting videos of them going into Tesco in search of the ice cream), probiotics (a “creator” swore by them for perfect skin) and Madeline Miller’s 2011 novel The Song of Achilles, about the Trojan War – this prompted by a viral where a weeping creator filmed herself rocking back and forth while clutching the novel, which resulted in the book recently reaching No 3 on the New York Times bestseller list.
We’ve also been subjected to endless playing on a loop of Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 hit Dreams, which recently re-entered the charts after it featured in a viral video that also involved Ocean Spray cranberry juice (sales of which rocketed too).
Whenever I ask my daughter if she’s concerned about Beijing potentially invading her data privacy, not to mention controlling her customized For You feed, I’m told I’m “racist” and “xenophobic”. I’m also told that these were the concerns of Gen-Z arch-nemesis Donald Trump, whose threat earlier this year to “ban” TikTok, by insisting its US arm was sold to a US company such as Microsoft, was simply a spiteful reaction to last summer’s activism: teenagers, rallying on TikTok, sabotaged a Trump rally in Oklahoma by registering for seats then not showing up.
TikTok denies in the strongest possible terms that it would share data with Beijing. But a recent survey showed one third of Brits had concerns about the issue (although often not strong enough concerns to stop them downloading the app). Behemoths such as Amazon and Wells Fargo bank banned it from corporate devices (Amazon later relented). The Democratic and Republican national committees both told staffers not to install the app on phones. As the tech writer Casey Newton puts it, there’s “no evidence TikTok is doing anything extraordinarily shady with our data, and no evidence it could stop the Chinese government from forcing it to at any point”.
Despite the app’s prevailing air of daftness, there have also been numerous reports of the company’s “toxic”, Chinese-influenced work culture in the US and Europe. “High control from base in China regarding working hours, culture and (lack of) flexibility,” says one review on the website Glassdoor. “The atmosphere and culture is fake as, once you are in; it like little china [sic] everything is controlled,” reads another. (In fairness, other reviews say things such as “lovely culture and co-workers”.) Recently, CNBC reported on six Brits who’d either backed out of interviews, turned down job offers or left the company after learning that TikTok has a “996” culture – associated with some Chinese companies that demand working hours of 9am to 9pm six days a week. Not expecting a completely frank answer, I ask Paul Hourican, head of music operations UK, how it’s been for him.
“There’s definitely not a culture in the UK or Europe where people work on Saturday, which is pretty standard in China,” he says. “We do normal working, plus the hour or two we all have to do, like yourself I’m sure, at the end of the day. But it’s a good atmosphere to work in. In Europe there’s a real sense of a shared mission. There’s a lot of work, but for a lot of people it’s a chance to do some of the best work of their careers, so everyone’s supercommitted and superpassionate.”
Do they take direct instruction from the Chinese? “We make all the decisions here around what’s best for the UK, what’s best for various markets across Europe. There’s the autonomy that you would just expect from a company focused on Europe.”
Like all the TikTok employees I meet – some on Zoom, some at its #ForYou event at a hipster brewery in Shoreditch, a bit like a belated Christmas party for staff who up until now have mainly only met on Zoom – Hourican is youngish, with a background working for other big tech firms. He’s also – and I don’t think it’s an act – hugely enthused about his work, which, after all, offers huge opportunities for creative, ambitious types.
Music is at the heart of TikTok, since most clips use a soundtrack from its vast database. More and more big-name artists are using the platform to go viral, by releasing songs where people can copy the choreography – in the first lockdown, Canadian rapper Drake had us all dancing to his “right foot up/left foot slide” Toosie Slide. But the app’s not only boosting established names; it’s launched dozens of careers, making it the contemporary equivalent of Motown or – more crudely – Stock, Aitken and Waterman, with executives constantly scanning feeds to spot the next big thing. “TikTok’s only as good as its creators, so it’s 100 per cent in our interests to nurture them,” says Stafford.
From Postman to Superstar
That’s what happened to 26-year-old Nathan Evans, who at Christmas was working as a postman in Airdrie, outside Glasgow. At first he’d uploaded the music he made at home to YouTube. But his nephew, nine, and niece, seven (who – as an executive on our Zoom clarifies – shouldn’t have actually been on the 13+ app), kept nagging him to join TikTok. “I said, ‘No way. TikTok is for kids,’ but they said, ‘Uncle Nathan, trust us.’ ”
So Evans trusted them and saw his videos instantly gain far more attention than on other social media. He’d been on the app for about a year when, on December 27, he uploaded his version of the 19th-century whaling sea shanty Wellerman. Within a couple of days it had attracted hundreds of thousands of views. Queen’s Brian May and Andrew Lloyd Webber “duetted” it on guitar and piano respectively. Today, the #SeaShanty has been viewed 5.9 billion times on TikTok, Evans has 1.4 million followers and his version’s been viewed half a billion times.
“Things went crazy,” says Evans. “I was walking about posting letters in the snow when my phone rang and it was Polydor Records.” Within a fortnight he had a three-album deal and had quit his job. By March, Evans had topped the UK charts. His new single is out shortly.
Music’s far from the only field where stars are born overnight. (Unlike YouTube, creators don’t earn royalties for their videos but depend on it leading to other opportunities.) Abby Roberts, 19, from Leeds, has 16.6 million followers on the app. When I speak to her on Zoom, three minders hover in the background. Her elaborate and often highly lockdown-appropriate creations (think transforming herself into Tiger King’s Joe Exotic) have been “liked’” 1.3 billion times and led to her working on campaigns with Anastasia Beverly Hills and L’Oréal and being a guest judge on BBC 3’s beauty competition series Glow Up. She intends to move permanently to Los Angeles to pursue – among other things – her flourishing music career.
“My ultimate goal is to have my own make-up brand,” she tells me in her hybrid northern/transatlantic accent – few of her legions of US fans realize she’s British. Chirpily, she tells me how her followers soared almost immediately after she joined TikTok in 2019. “It was the third video I posted on there. The next day I was off school sick and saw I’d had 100,000 views. I went back to sleep and the next time I looked I was hitting one million.”
Both in hoodies and with nose rings, nice-looking but not intimidatingly so and endearingly upbeat, Roberts and Evans come across as ideal “creators” in a world where authenticity is key. Relatability’s also what made Poppy O’Toole, 27, who turned to TikTok after being made redundant from her job as a junior sous chef during the first lockdown. “I’d always wanted to do some social media thing, but I was working 70-hour weeks, so there was no time.” In November her video on how to make the perfect roast potato went viral. Today she has 1.7 million followers and a cookbook due out in September. “No one minds when my Brummie accent occasionally comes out. I recently pronounced something wrong in a video and on some of the other platforms it was like I’d done something terrible, but on TikTok it was like, ‘Oh, actually, this is how we say it,’ and I was like, ‘Great!’ ”
A More Sinister Side
Increasingly people are using the app to educate as well as entertain. Clinical psychologist Dr Julie Smith, 37 and a mother of three, runs a private practice in Hampshire. She joined TikTok in late 2019 and thinks she was the “first therapist on there”. Today, her 60-second videos on subjects such as anxiety or “three signs of depression no one tells you about” have been watched 31.5 million times, leading (there’s a theme here) to another book deal. Some carped that TikTok’s one-minute limit (they’ve recently raised the time limit to three minutes, but few are yet exploiting this) was too short properly to tackle such serious subjects. “You can’t give all the information in 60 seconds but you can give a bite. Learning one small piece of information that you can then retain is better than a half-hour video you don’t think of again. But the feedback has been fantastic,” Smith says.
But if it’s all so fabulous then why did my 14-year-old – whose friends, she says gloomily, are “all addicted” – last year delete the app? A keen cook, she’d been following accounts such as #WhatIeatinday. But her For You was soon full of emaciated girls showing off plates of three lettuce leaves and a carrot, or a viral craze in which girls were displaying how tiny their waists were by tying their headphone cables twice around them. Meanwhile, a friend who’d suffered from a lockdown eating disorder found her For You page full of #thinspo accounts from people promoting anorexia and bulimia. My daughter decided she was better off not knowing.
Compared with some social media platforms, which have allowed such “pro-ana” content to sit around for months, TikTok’s trying hard to tackle these issues. When I search for #thinspo I’m sent straight to a page for an eating disorders helpline. But even as a digital dinosaur, I’m instantly able to subvert this and find page after page of ultra-skinny girls celebrating their weight loss (the headphones challenge is still out there, even if many such videos are scorned with #bullshit).
“We do not allow content that would either promote or glorify or even normalize eating disorders or eating habits that will lead to harmful behaviors,” says Alexandra Evans, TikTok’s head of child safety, Europe. “TikToks are very short, so we already have built that diversity into the platform for business reasons instead of safety reasons and we give people quite a lot of agency about what they’re seeing.”
A friend who’d suffered from a lockdown eating disorder found her For You page full of #thinspo accounts from people promoting anorexia and bulimia.
Evans points out there’s a “not interested” button you can click to remove any dodgy content, but how many teenagers are sensible enough to do this? Anyway, very often this isn’t about teenagers. TikTok’s 13+ rating means children shouldn’t be able to download it – but that’s only if parents have put filters on their phones. TikTok also has a “detection strategy” in place to bust those who’ve lied about their age when registering; during the first three months of the year it removed 7.3 million underage users. But many young children will remain there with parents delighted by their electronic babysitter – not great when content such as a live streamed suicide (which many reposted after it appeared last year) occasionally busts through the barriers.
Others worry that, like other social media, TikTok is an ideal vehicle for fake news. Memes supporting, for example, the Nazis, the IRA and the antivax movement have all at various times been posted and held some sway. In TikTok’s defense, however, most are quickly removed. More troubling were previous complaints that #protest throws up demonstrations from around the world, but almost none from Hong Kong. Yet when I check, there’s plenty of footage of tear-gassed protesters being led away by police.
Still, these are problems for all social media firms, not just TikTok. Meanwhile, my 16-year-old has just texted demanding I go to Marks & Spencer to pick up cocktail sausages and tzatziki for dinner, inspired by a TikTok video headlined, “When it’s picky bits for dinner but you’re painfully middle class.” No matter how thorny the underlying issues, for now this app looks set to control my life – until the next one comes along.
Julia Llewellyn Smith is a regular contributor to The Times of London