Arts & Entertainment Editor
From preteens, teenagers and college students to grandparents, medical professionals and even A-list celebrities, its popularity has become so intense that nearly every age group and demographic has taken a stab at finding internet fame. Each demographic is dancing, lip syncing and producing comedic videos in hopes of appealing to the masses.
What app could generate such a frenzy? TikTok, the social video sharing platform that has taken the world by storm.
Whether users are ranting about their annoying coworkers, giving a tutorial on how to make s’mores in a dorm microwave or grieving their most recent break up by dancing to a Lizzo hit, people can make it big on TikTok for doing just about anything.
“It has changed my life for the better and I wouldn’t change it for the world.” said Jake Bensulock, a 16-year old from Scotch Plains, NJ who has accumulated nearly 200,000 followers and over 3.6 million likes on his videos.
With 1.65 million downloads, over 500 million active users and 738 million installs in 2019 alone, TikTok has begun to outperform popular social media apps like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, according to DataReportal.
The app’s concept is simple — users create and share short video clips ranging from 15 to 60 seconds. The platform started as an outlet for mostly lip-syncing to popular songs and media clips, but as its popularity has grown, so has the breadth of its videos. Some of the most common videos are centered around comedic observations, obscure pop culture or geographic references, interesting talents, cooking or musical covers. The most popular and widest sweeping trend on TikTok? Dancing.
On the app, the videos are tall and rectangular, much like the popular ‘Stories’ feature on Snapchat and Instagram. You navigate through these videos by scrolling up and down, which differs from the left or right model popularized by dating apps.
When creating a video, users have a myriad of tools to help them in producing their content. The number of filters (a photo editing feature popularized by Instagram) and background sounds a user can choose from seem limitless. These soundbytes take from popular music, television, movies and other media, which users personalize by adding lip-syncing and humorous captions.
After you watch a video on TikTok, you can tap a button on the bottom of the screen to try and make a video with the same sound. The most popular videos become memes that you can imitate, or riff on, often having hundreds of thousands of people trying out the same sound in hopes of going viral.
Original themed dances are often created by popular creators and then attempted by the masses on TikTok, and dances that get especially popular often become dance trends in real life as well.
Some of the biggest trends have helped older singers have a resurgence and newer ones achieve massive success. Mariah Carey’s 2009 song “Obsessed” made a remergence on the Billboard Hot 100 charts this year after being widely used in TikTok videos.
Relatively unknown artists have achieved newfound fame through TikTok. “Say So” by Doja Cat, “Roxanne” by Arizona Zervas, “Lalala” by bbno$, “Stupid” by Ashnikko and “Yellow Hearts” by Ant Saunders are just some examples of widely-used sounds.
One of the features that keeps TikTok popular is the “For You” page, which tailors videos to users based on the content they interact with the most.
“I started scrolling through and saw people post cool videos with a lot of relatable content,” said Jill McGovern, a junior elementary education and iStem dual major. “There is something that is bound to match what you’re looking for.”
TikTok’s sweeping rise to mainstream media has left the world wondering what the big deal surrounding the app is.
For many users, TikTok acts as an escape from the ‘real world,’ providing an outlet for people to laugh, cry and dance.
“I like the sense of community it has created,” said McGovern. “I have met a bunch of different people through the app that I never would have. Being able to collaborate with a stranger in seconds is really awesome.”
The app seems to appeal to society’s growing need for instant gratification. The videos, which must be under 60 seconds in length, can go viral in the blink of an eye.
“After 60 seconds, we’ve reached the end and know the outcome,” said McGovern. “I think this is why it’s so addicting.”
The app’s popularity has turned everyday people into pseudo-celebrities. One of TikTok’s biggest stars is Charli D’Amelio, the teenage girl taking the dance world by storm.
Another star is Brittany Tomlinson, whose reaction to trying Kombucha led to her viral success.
There’s also Zach King, a video creator who uses impressive and unprecedented video editing skills to create optical illusions and magic tricks to intrigue his audience.
These content creators’ newfound fame has led to their roles, alongside more traditional celebrities, in one of this year’s Super Bowl advertisements
Many famous TikTok users have used the app to promote positivity.
“My first time going viral…I started doing compliments and gave a girl a compliment and it got 30,000 likes,” said Busulock. “The next day I did the same thing and it got 225,000 likes. I went from 6,000 followers to 35,000 followers in one weekend.”
Bensulock believe that the metrics of the app’s “For You” page is what helped his videos go viral.
“On Instagram, only the people that follow you will see what you post,” he said. “On TikTok, you don’t have to be someone to get a lot of likes. You can have zero followers and go viral.”
Gaining any type of fame or notoriety is one of the most addicting parts of the app, as users are constantly competing for the most views, followers and likes.
“At first it was just a hobby, but then I became thirsty for fame,” McGovern said.
However, this fame can oftentimes come at a cost, as cyberbullying and harassment have become abundant on TikTok.
“Sometimes you see things that shouldn’t be getting attention going viral,” McGovern said. “I’ve seen many videos that are straight up bullying with tons of views. TikTok tries its best censor offense content, but I don’t think they do it well.”
The pressures of ‘making it’ on TikTok can prove to be too much for some users, affecting their lives outside of the app.
“Originally going into school after it all happened—all of this happened over summer—I was scared and didn’t know what to expect,” Bensulock said. “It started with teasing but as of two or three weeks in people started to respect me for it.”
There has been controversy surrounding what TikTok chooses to censor and what to leave online. Some users reported that an excessive amount of LBGTQ+ centered videos were being removed from the platform. TikTok later admitted it had been taking videos down in order to prevent users from being cyber bullied, according to The Guardian.
TikTok has also faced controversy surrounding privacy, security and censorship, becoming a target among lawmakers who are suspicious of Chinese technology. Users have suspected that TikTok censors material that the Chinese government doesn’t approve of and allows Beijing to collect user data. TikTok denied both of these accusations, according to The New York Times.
One video that was removed featured a girl from New Jersey, who used her platform to expose the political turmoil in China. She introduced the video as an eyelash curler tutorial in an effort to grab the viewer’s attention, but quickly switched gears to talk to criticize the Chinese government and their use of detention centers.
Despite the public’s polarized feelings towards TikTok, there is no denying that this new social media platform is at the forefront of internet culture.
The community created around TikTok and its impact on American culture is undeniable. TikTok is here to stay, what that means for us is yet to be seen.
“I like it because it’s a really good way to pass time,” said McGovern. “You can really get caught up in the wonderful creativity that flows through people’s minds.”
Colleen Rushnak and Emmy Liederman contributed to this reporting.