TikTok 2020 illustration Lily Blakely
Illustration: Lily Blakely
Life

Inside TikTok's Extraordinary 2020

The world spent 2.8 billion hours on TikTok in March alone, with COVID providing a captive audience looking for diversions from a draining news cycle.
December 16, 2020, 9:00am
A series exploring 2020's biggest app.

If there’s one statistic that demonstrates the way TikTok has become entwined in our lives in 2020, it’s this: in March, as the UK and the rest of the world locked down, users worldwide spent 2.8 billion hours on TikTok. That number is far greater than the previous year, when it was a comparatively stingy 726 million hours. It’s difficult to get a grasp on just how big 2.8 billion hours is, until you realise it’s as long as there’s been between today and the Stone Age.

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Far from a prehistoric tool, TikTok is a high-tech weapon, both for its creators, many of whom have become rich and famous because of popularity on the platform, and – if you believe the various governments worldwide trying to ban it – for the Chinese state (TikTok repeatedly denies any connection with the ruling Chinese Communist Party, including in testimony to multiple countries’ parliaments).

“TikTok and short-form digital media have become woven into the fabric of society in 2020,” says D. Bondy Valdovinos of Queensland University of Technology, who is studying TikTok’s rise. “TikTok offered a window into different lives, communities and cultures in much the same way as with other user-generated media platforms.”

TikTok is doing more than just offering a window into different cultures, reckon those on the app. The company itself has thrown its weight behind a slick marketing campaign, claiming “It starts on TikTok,” and its creators agree. “TikTok has come to a point where it is driving practically the entire entertainment culture for users in their teens,” says Joey Rogoff, an American creator on the app who produces comedic videos for 3.2 million followers. “The virality of the app has allowed anyone to become ‘famous’ and a relevant entertainer for viewers.”

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Rogoff was one of the millions who helped TikTok become what it is now. A film school student, he posted videos to Instagram regularly, until one day a friend told him to try sharing them on TikTok, too. He woke up the following morning with 100,000 views. “I figured I would continue to post similar videos and see where it goes,” he says. “Now, it’s my full-time job.”

Rogoff posts three to five videos on TikTok every day, as well as live streaming to build up his audience. He dropped out of film school in order to pursue fame and to chase success on the short-form video app. “To have that loyal fanbase of content consumers means everything,” he explains. “When it comes down to it, this has ultimately turned into a career, and in order for it to remain sustainable, the income must follow.

“TikTok has been the most organic and easiest social media platform ever to grow a fan base that translates into something larger,” he adds. “Anyone can hop on, create some viral videos and instantly be a hit for their audience demographics. The fanbase will follow you no matter what platform you are on.”

That’s true for the likes of Addison Rae Easterling, the world’s second-biggest TikToker, whose 70 million fans are likely to turn out to watch the remake of 1999 film She’s All That Rae is featured in when it’s released in cinemas. And it’s why everyone from Hollister to Dunkin’ have been willing to hurl cash at Charli D’Amelio – the Connecticut teenager with 100 million followers – to endorse their products.

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TikTok has certainly benefited from the coronavirus and a captive audience looking for diversions from a draining, demoralising news cycle. The app announced it had 100 million monthly active users in the United States earlier this year, and another 100 million in Europe. A quarter of British adults use TikTok frequently, according to leaked internal data, and spend 66 minutes on it every day. Two-thirds of users are women, and four in ten are aged 18 to 24, according to internal data.

We’ve become content-consuming machines, willing to take in as much information as the notoriously opaque algorithm can throw at us. For my upcoming book on TikTok, I studied how people interact with the app, looking at their usage data. One Canadian who shared his data with me opened the app 29 times in 24 hours, consuming 786 videos in a day. An average day on TikTok sees him watch 264 videos. His use is far greater than many: the average Brit dips in and out 13 times a day, according to internal data, but others use it more.

“There’s something for everyone on the app,” says Lily Rose, a British TikTok creator and member of the ByteHouse, one of many creator collectives on the app, where individual users decide to team up, live together in an often glamorous house, and pool resources and content to grow.

Rose has 1.2 million followers on TikTok, and moved into the ByteHouse the day after lockdown was announced. “2020 has been an absolute rollercoaster of emotions for me,” she explains. The queer Black creator says TikTok has been a lifeline for her during a difficult time. “The fact that I’m able to be myself and that people love me for it” is what she likes the most about the app: “TikTok has really given me a sense of identity that I struggled to find in the past. Seeing how accepting and supportive people are on the app has definitely helped me not be afraid to embrace who I really am.”

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For TikTok itself, embracing who it is – and where it comes from – is proving difficult. The app was born from a merger of two Chinese-owned apps, Musical.ly (which was popular in the west in the mid-2010s) and Douyin, a Chinese juggernaut developed by parent company ByteDance.

The merger, and its lineage in China, has proven problematic for US regulators, who are investigating the app and demanding TikTok divests itself to American owners. In India, TikTok’s roots in China are enough for it to be swept up in a politically-motivated ban of all Chinese-connected apps – the result of ongoing border skirmishes between the two countries – and ByteDance themselves now say they’re based in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven, rather than saying they’re a Chinese company.

That’s not the only headache the company has faced as it rapidly expands (if it keeps expanding at a steady rate of growth, TikTok will surpass 2 billion users, which it took YouTube 15 years to reach and Facebook 13 years). As well as Donald Trump spending tens of thousands of re-election campaign dollars on a Facebook advertising blitz, trying to convince people that TikTok is a tool of the Chinese state, the company has had to fight a summer-long lawsuit that imperils its future in the US, head off reporting that it’s biased against disabled and overweight creators, and try to counter conspiracy theories that it artificially suppressed the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag during the height of protests over the killing of George Floyd (TikTok says the hashtag issue was a coding error that quickly remedied itself).

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The app has also been dragooned into a fight it doesn’t really want to be part of: the future of tech. For decades, the way we live and work has been dictated by a cadre of tech bros based in Silicon Valley. Through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google, they’ve helped shape how we interact and engage with each other. But TikTok provides something different: the first fully global success story not to emanate from that small parcel of land on the west coast of the United States.

It’s doing things differently, too: by defaulting to a full-screen, always-on, never ending stream of short videos, it’s attempting to beguile users through brute force. The For You feed, which serves up videos based on a user’s past experience and interests, also demolishes the idea influencers have lived with for years, which is that people are connecting with personalities. It’s often said that it’s possible to become an overnight sensation on social media, but before TikTok and the vagaries of the For You feed, that was never really the case. Now, it is.

Other platforms have taken notice. Mark Zuckerberg, months after telling employees that TikTok was a threat to Facebook, instructed Instagram, which he owns, to roll out Reels, its version of TikTok. Snapchat, which has long been the app with the most innovative new features, ended up nicking the concept for its Spotlight feature in November. 

In the meantime, we continue to log on, and at ever greater rates. More than 690 million of us worldwide visit TikTok monthly, and the audience is getting older. “Particularly in the year of global lockdowns, TikTok was the right format at the right place at the right time, providing both a seemingly bottomless fountain of content for users and a much-needed creative outlet for content creators,” says Valdovinos.

“In 2020, TikTok provided a platform to continue the short-form digital renaissance that began in the west on Vine, with expanded features, new kinds of memes and a global population bored in the house.”

@stokel

Chris Stokel-Walker is the author of YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars. His next book TikTok Boom: China, the US and the Superpower Race for Social Media will be released in April 2021 via Canbury Press.