Media platforms

TikTok is a unique mix of social media platforms – here’s why kids love it


TikTok, a social media platform aimed at young mobile phone users, was the second most downloaded app in the world in 2019. It was the most downloaded app in July 2020.

Like a political scientist who studies social media, I looked at what makes TikTok unique and why young people have flocked to it. In short, the phone-only app allows users to record themselves dancing or having fun to music or a spoken word clip and then edit the videos using a wide range of… ‘effects. Despite its superficially frivolous nature, young people use the platform to send political messages, coordinate political actions and hang out in a largely adult-free online space.

How it works

Each tiktok is a 3-60 second video that loops when finished. The majority of the screen is occupied by the video uploaded by the user. The app offers a wide range of options to customize and combine these videos, including videos taken with the user’s smartphone, photos downloaded from the web, emojis and other text overlaid on the video, and special effects. The app’s library of filters and video distortion effects are similar to Instagram filters, but for video.

The bottom of the screen contains information about the “sound”: the audio file that accompanies the video. These “sounds” can be uploaded by the user or chosen from a library of popular sounds. This library contains both snippets of songs by professional musicians and silly recordings of people talking. The “sounds” had a huge impact on the music industry: “Old Town Road”, one of the most popular songs of all time, first gained popularity like a TikTok “sound” with an associated dance.

When you open the app, you come across a tiktok that starts playing. This is the “For You” page, which plays tiktoks that TikTok’s algorithm recommends for you. To move to the next tiktok, you swipe up. To see the account that downloaded the current tiktok, swipe right.

Comedian Sarah Cooper’s TikTok page displays thumbnails of her videos, or tiktoks, on the social media platform.
Photo illustration by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

How it compares

Comparing TikTok with other digital media platforms shows what makes it unique. Like YouTube, TikTok consists entirely of videos. Like Facebook and Twitter, the primary mode of consuming tiktoks is browsing through a “feed” of short, digestible posts.

Like Netflix, the default way of meeting content is through the recommendation algorithm, not building networks of “friends” or “followers.” And like Snapchat and Instagram, TikTok can only be produced on mobile phones, favoring younger users who are more proficient with smartphones than computers.

TikTok is the first social media platform to combine these characteristics. The result is a unique way of transmitting and consuming information.

Information density

The combination of video and “stream” media makes TikTok particularly information-dense. There’s a lot going on with every tiktok, and there’s an endless stream of tiktoks.

Unlike text, video media operates on two parallel paths, conveying explicit information (those found in speech or writing) and implicit information (social cues like the TikToker’s clothes and hairstyle, or the emotional affect of music) at the same time.

The “feed” allows a social media consumer to sift through multiple bite-sized chunks of content per minute, extracting information much more efficiently than from a TV show. Combined, these trends make scrolling through the “For You” page a swirling experience, a significant advance in information density.

If you spend a few hours on TikTok, you’ll see how it works. Other media are starting to feel “slow,” even previously compelling products like a YouTube video or a Twitter feed. Young people tend to like intensity — loud music, bright lights — and it’s no surprise they find TikTok compelling.

Different costs and benefits

TikTok is also changing the costs and benefits of posting. On the cost side, because TikTok is designed for smartphones, it’s easier for some people to use and harder for others. Generally, the more years of your life you spend using a technology – and the earlier those years are in the life cycle – the more adept you become at using that technology.

TikTok also encourages videos shot in the vertical orientation inherent in smartphones, so they can be created wherever the user goes, whenever they have a spare moment.

In terms of benefits, the importance of the recommendation algorithm on “friends” networks means that everyone is guaranteed to get at least a few views, even on their first tiktok. On Twitter, for example, you can log in and tweet dozens of times before getting likes because of the importance of “follower” networks in determining what people see.

TikTok’s “For You Page” varies between showing the user extremely popular tiktoks and tiktoks with only a handful of views, promoting greater equality than on traditional social networks. Overall, TikTok offers an online platform for young people who feel unusually disconnected from the adult world, one in which they are sure to get some attention.

Common Sounds, Unique Movements

Finally, the “sounds” that users combine with their personalized videos represent a new way to categorize and navigate a social media platform, a feature unique to TikTok. If you click on the “sound” at the bottom of a tiktok, you can see all the other tiktoks that are using that sound file.

The most common example involves a specific dance routine coupled with the “sound” that accompanies it. The audio is constant in this group of tiktoks, but each user provides a unique video of themselves performing the dance.

These dances are examples of TikTok memes. “Memes” on more text- or image-based platforms involve a fixed “meme format” which is then remixed by users modifying the image or text to create a given “meme”. On TikTok, however, the raw material being remixed is the user’s body, as the user performs the behavior associated with the meme format, what I call “embodied memes.”

[ Follow The Conversation U.S. on TikTok: @TheConversation. ]

This makes the body much more visible on TikTok than on other platforms. While clever pun goes a long way on Twitter, TikTok rewards conventionally attractive or otherwise striking bodies to an even greater extent than Instagram.

It also means that identity categories that are increasingly at the center of politics play a major role on TikTok. Embodied memes often play with the TikToker’s race, gender, appearance, or physical location.

More conventional picture memes can seem anonymous or disembodied when shared across the web. With TikTok, it is impossible to separate the individual from the meme.

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