If you have a smartphone, you've (at the very least) heard of TikTok. Gen Z loves the social media app as much as Donald Trump hates it.
TikTok and its short–form videos have gained incredible momentum over the last couple of years and have contributed to changes in pop culture, social activism, and users’ lifestyles. But TikTok hasn't always been so influential. The app has been witness to numerous dance trends, cult recipes, and celebrity drama. But when did it become the monumental influence we know it as now?
At its conception, TikTok was about music.
TikTok was created from the ashes of what was once Musical.ly, a social media app used to share short lip–sync videos. A Chinese tech company, ByteDance, acquired Musical.ly in 2018 and merged it with Douyin, an app also used for lip–syncing, to create what is now known as TikTok, which now boasts over 1 billion active users per month.
Going back to its roots, TikTok was made to share lip–syncing videos, which are still popular. But the app took that purpose to the next level, as users shared short videos of themselves dancing, and when thousands of people learned a series of body movements and shared it on the app, it became a trend that was recycled over and over.
Some of the most emblematic dance trends that have definitely graced your For You page include the 'Renegade,' created by Jalaiah Harmon but made viral on the app after then–15–year–old TikTok sweetheart Charli D’Amelio shared her own rendition. Another dance trend sensation includes the one made to Doja Cat’s song “Say So” by teen Haley Sharpe (known as @yodelinghaley on TikTok), who was even featured in the artist’s official music video performing her viral dance.
Then, it became a massive source of income.
Not only did people gain fame from their viral videos—they often earned money, too. TikTok introduced its Creator Fund Program in July 2020 where TikTokers, if qualified, could earn money based on their number of views and engagement with their videos. But the Creator Fund is only the tip of the iceberg for many creators. TikTokers with large followings have the chance to be sponsored by brands both big and small. TikTok paralleled Instagram and YouTube when the app became more than just a content–creating platform but, for some lucky TikTokers, also a day job that makes a lot more money than most other jobs. Addison Easterling (known as Addison Rae) earns an estimated $5 million a year, two–thirds of which comes from merchandise and sponsorships from brands such as Reebok and American Eagle.
We don’t give it enough credit for changing marketing.
Businesses always follow where their customers are going online. But when big name brands such as Chipotle, Hulu, and L’Oreal participate on the app and actually boost sales by doing so, it shows the massive effect TikTok has had on the marketing strategies in the age of social media.
For brands, TikTok became a platform for customer engagement, which has served as a new form of advertising. Chipotle launched the “Chipotle Royalty” contest asking their fans to submit TikToks about why their custom Chipotle order is the best. Many challenge entries, vying for the $10,000 grand prize, went viral and appeared on people’s For You Pages to advertise Chipotle’s online ordering app. For Chipotle, this social media challenge was more effective than many other forms of advertising.
But TikTok didn't only serve as a platform for large brands. Small businesses found the app to be an effective way to reach larger groups of people internationally and boost their sales. Small business owners were able to engage with potential customers and share their production process.
When everyone was stuck at home, TikTok connected people.
As COVID–19 spread and governments mandated isolation and social distancing, people turned to other forms of entertainment at home. Some turned to Netflix and Disney+, but many people decided it was time to hop on the TikTok bandwagon.
When everyone was sitting at home, it made sense for the entertainment app to have a massive boost in downloads. But TikTok became a lot more than just a relief from boredom at home. It gave all of us in isolation a medium to connect with others.
TikTok is shaped to be engaging. Whether it’s through a simple like, comment, duet, or share to your group chat, the app encourages users to interact with the rest of the community.
By creating and watching TikTok videos, people were able to peek into the lives of others while in isolation. Whether it was people's daily routines or their recipes for banana bread and whipped coffee, TikTok videos provided people with a needed distraction through the unprecedented changes in their lives. And it made quarantine a lot more bearable for all of us.
From Quarantine Trends to Political Revolution and #BlackLivesMatter
It started in May 2020, when Black activists used their platforms to speak out about the injustices against the Black community and raise awareness. Activism surged following the police killing of George Floyd and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. TikTok became a center for political activism and a source of news and education, with people also voicing their thoughts on the issue through the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. The accessibility of the app made it the central platform for people to organize and share first–hand footage of protests that news channels neglected to show.
But for Gen Z, the political activism didn’t stop at raising awareness and going to protests.
Donald Trump, as part of his unsuccessful reelection campaign, scheduled an indoor rally in Tulsa, Okla. in June 2020. That decision was not well received on TikTok, where hundreds of Gen Z TikTokers and K–Pop fans collaborated to register for the Tulsa rally, giving the Trump team a false impression of the number of people planning to attend. Despite their age, Gen Z successfully flopped the former president’s rally with the use of a social media app, and they did it so well that Trump even attempted to ban the app in the United States.
Though TikTok opens its doors to people of all political views, it has contributed extensively to the growth of political progressiveness in young people.
But TikTok is still, and will continue to be, a source of entertainment.
The beautiful thing about TikTok is that, despite its vast size, it still allows users’ experiences to be nuanced. The numerous subcultures of TikTok, from ‘SkinTok’ to ‘BookTok’ to D’Amelio–sisters–dancing–Tok, the app personalizes everyone’s experience and keeps us scrolling. Whether you are on the app to live vicariously through others, develop a new aesthetic, or see some dark humor, TikTok has become an important source of entertainment for its users and is changing pop culture and politics while doing so.