by Chris Girardi
Unless you’ve been living in complete isolation, you’ve heard of the friction between the U.S. government, and the social media platform called TikTok. Over the last year, this tech unicorn has come out of nowhere and very quickly became the most used app in the world by young adults. The app has now been downloaded over 800 million times to date and 41% of those downloads are by people from ages 16 to 24. The cause of its rapid success can be attributed to the death of the once-popular social media platform – Vine.
In 2014, Vine, once the most popular short video platform in the world, found itself suddenly outdone by Snapchat’s new video feature. It allowed more customization, longer videos, and had a higher quality that Vine could not match. Snapchat also used the common tactic of paying influencers to switch to their platform, bringing their followers and media with it. In 2016, Instagram released its new video feature and began using similar tactics to recruit Snapchat’s influencers. When Vine finally shut down in 2016, it still left an enormous gap in the micro-entertainment industry.
Although Snapchat and Instagram gave people the ability to make videos, it didn’t give them the constant flow of content they found entertaining, like comedic videos and challenges. This lack of value left the door wide open for another app to swoop in and fill the highly desired void. In 2018, the Chinese company ByteDance released TikTok for downloads in the US and it was exactly what young adults were craving. On the news feed, users can view countless videos that are comedic, challenging, and relevant to their interests.
With minimal interaction, the app’s algorithm can bring just the type of video’s you find entertaining, and continuously put them on your feed. It also allows users to create, edit, and share videos they made with a multitude of easy-to-use tools. Needless to say, this is why so many users find the app addicting.
Where there is success in the tech world however, there is always someone trying to match and outdo it. Very recently, Instagram released its own version of the short video app called Reels. In it, the app allows users to watch and upload videos in the same manner, with the only difference being that Instagram is an American owned company. So why then is TikTok in danger of being overtaken?
To understand TikTok’s situation, we need to look at the relationship between the US, and the app’s country of origin. In recent years, China has been the focal point of several espionage scandals and cyber-attacks against the US. When cyber breaches and major hacks were reported by companies like Equifax, Marriott, and Anthem Health, the US government was able to trace the attacks back to Chinese nationals. Recent revelations have also come to light about China’s effort to recruit westerners as spies in order to obtain American trade secrets.
To top it off, TikTok itself has also come under major scrutiny. In early 2020, there was a major concern about the app’s outdated HTTP connection, citing that it was very hackable, and made it easier to access user’s information. In order to prove the ease of this, researchers posted a YouTube video of them successfully hacking the app and sending out false information to users. Then again in April, Apple found that TikTok was recording data from user’s clipboards. Anything that was being copied and pasted, regardless of where it was going, TikTok was able to see. Apple could not say for sure why this was being done or where this information was going. The reports were so alarming, that the US government and Military personnel were blocked from downloading the app on their work phones.
In response to each of these revelations, TikTok quickly announced fixes, saying that the vulnerabilities were originally the result of using older technologies in order to speed up the launch. Even if all these issues were purely coincidental, TikTok has not fully disclosed where it’s user data goes and what they use it for. The research firm, Penetrum, has also concluded that the app was constantly fingerprinting, data harvesting, and tracking throughout the user’s entire interaction. They also concluded that its algorithms were very detailed and meticulously embedded to the point where the apps intentions had to be questioned.
So, is TikTok truly benign and trustworthy? According to the experts – probably not. Tons of information is being used by a country that we do not trust, in ways of which we have yet to understand. Even if the app were truly innocent and well-intended, the damage appears to have already been done. Given the recent announcement of a potential ban, numerous influences have already left the app for Instagram’s Reels and with them, many of their followers. Even though TikTok might be on a downward slope, it still brought to light the serious power of micro-entertainment and help highlight the gap that has been missing in the industry. With the advent of this technology, the competition for users and features will likely be a heated one for years to come.