Late last year, I was in Mumbai talking to students at one of the city's top colleges. I asked if they had used TiKTok. Not one of them had even heard of the short video app. Now everyone is talking of TikTok… even a Mark Zuckerberg.
If you haven't heard about the new buzz in social, it's time you did. It is not just another platform. Given its influence on users, it could well be a social phenomenon with long standing impact. But to explain TikTok, which thrives on 15-second videos, you need to understand where this ByteDance app comes from. Though originally launched in 2016, the app gathered a lot of new users, and steam, when it acquired Musical.ly a year later. So it has a lot of lip-sync videos that remind you of Musical.ly, as well as Dubsmash. There is lot of creativity too, especially with the editing software that comes built into the app. Top Indian users have millions of followers and lot of influence. In a bid to reach the dizzying levels of social reach, millions of Indians push their limits of creativity and inhibitions to secure more likes for their videos. This is creativity at the scale we have never seen before.
These are not always the same users you will find on other platforms. But where TikTok has gone ahead of the competition is in opening up the app to users who would otherwise have encountered hurdles of language. No wonder TikTok capitalised more on the surge of new users thanks to Reliance Jio and not as much via the traditional social media platforms.
Since the app comes from China, English is not something you need to understand the app and its navigation. In fact, you can choose an Indian language. This is a video app in the true sense, and there is not much need to read or type anything beyond the trending hashtags. Also, as a senior ByteDance executive told me, their apps have never had a web version, and are, hence, not trying to offer a mobile take on something essentially created for a desktop experience. TikTok thinks and breathes mobile, that too for the new mobile users who won't have any context of desktops.
This makes TikTok the social video app that Facebook wants to be, the video destination Vine wanted to be and the video platform Instagram thinks it is. Unlike YouTube, most of the video is produced within the app only. For millions of TikTok users, the only video editing they know is within this app.
But video also comes with its own set of problems, especially in policing the content. And, this app has already been in the middle of some controversy in India and other countries over protecting children on the app, and was even offline for a while. It is much harder for systems to filter video content, and you need users to flag and others to review content on a real-time basis. We know that is easier said than done when you have the scale of a TikTok-over 200 million users in India alone.
The rise of TikTok has certainly been worrying for Facebook, given that it has been struggling to keep the young, engaging, user on the platform. As if the competition from Instagram was not enough, now it has to think of a whole new social app which it does not even own. While Facebook has to push more video into your timeline to push up time spent, TikTok users spending hours flipping from one video to the other. They have nothing else to do on the app.
TikTok's popularity has been such that even Google seems to be looking seriously at Firework, a very similar, but more elitist US-based app. The app is becoming popular but fades in comparison to TikTok-valued at $100 million against TikTok's $75 billion valuation. Google's interest, however, is a good indicator on how Silicon Valley thinks they seem to have found the next box formula for user engagement-at least till the users start getting bored of this type of engagement.
There is a lot to be learned from the success of TikTok, the fastest growing social network at the moment. To start with, the app has shown that the growth of Internet is de-linked from English. Also, maybe creativity at scale-whatever that might do to quality-could be the answer to making video the next big thing it was supposed to be.