The Rise of TikTok During the Covid-19 Pandemic

It’s no secret that Covid-19 has had devastating economic consequences for businesses and individuals. However some companies, like Amazon, Zoom, Netflix and several social media platforms, have profited greatly from government imposed quarantines. Yet, in my mind, no business has reaped the benefits of isolation more than TikTok. 

With everyone trapped inside since March, TikTok has been able to grow from being a sizable yet often overlooked platform to the most downloaded application in Q1 of 2020. Previously known as and often dismissed as a bastion of superficial Gen-Z dance crazes, it is now an essential tool for business owners, artists, digital marketers and anyone looking to make a name for themself on the internet. 

TikTok’s biggest upside is that it offers its content creators the potential for massive organic reach. On most social media applications, a large following is almost always a necessary precondition for having a post go viral. However on TikTok, users spend the majority of time scrolling through their algorithm generated “For You Page” instead of viewing posts from pages they follow, making it possible for accounts with few followers to still rack up views. 

The For You Page functions like a refined version of Instagram’s Explore Page, showing content specifically curated for you based primarily on your watch time and engagement with earlier posts. This eerily personal aspect of TikTok makes it more absorbing for its users and gives creators the opportunity to go viral and accumulate large amounts of followers in a relatively short time. Personally, I admit I have spent copious amounts of time glued to my own For You Page since reluctantly downloading the app in March. 

The deeply personalized nature of TikTok means there is an audience for virtually any content, however niche it may be. This allows TikTok creators to express themselves more authentically than on other apps. Content creators can trust that if they make content they enjoy with adequate production quality, their videos will naturally find their intended audience. With sound strategy, they can then direct new followers to their personal websites and other apps like YouTube where their content can be more effectively monetized. In my experience running Without Warning, a hip-hop focused media outlet, I have found TikTok to be an incredibly valuable asset. Having accumulated just under 1,000 Instagram followers in our first year, we have been able to gain 170k followers since first posting original content at the end of May.

Owned by the Chinese based tech company ByteDance, TikTok has caused great controversy in the United States due to its user data collection practices and association with the Chinese government. President Trump has dramatically threatened to ban its use in the U.S. several times, citing “credible evidence” of a security threat. While it does collect user data at a scale no larger than Facebook, TikTok maintains that it stores all data on Americans in the U.S and has never been requested information by Chinese authorities. To me, the widespread outrage over TikTok’s data collection seems hypocritical given the relative silence over the robust collection done by American owned companies.

TikTok’s larger issue is its cloud of secrecy. While its For You Page function allows smaller accounts a better chance at success, the details of its algorithm are not known to the public and seem to change often. This can be a significant source of frustration for content creators. TikTok also has a strict yet vague community guidelines policy, arbitrarily enforced by its moderators who are inconsistent and sometimes downright discriminatory. The Intercept previously reported that moderators have even been instructed to interfere with the algorithm and suppress videos from “unattractive, poor or otherwise undesirable users.” This order has been shown to favor white creators, as biased moderators suppress content from Black creators and other people of color, making it harder for their videos to reach the For You Page. The idea that anyone can find their audience with sound content is therefore not as certain for Black creators as it is for white ones.

Still, it is clear that TikTok is now a force to be reckoned with. Its effect on the music industry in particular has been profound, helping stars like Doja Cat, Megan thee Stallion and DaBaby become household names while introducing rising artists like Don Toliver and Baby Keem to many. In turn, the app has become an important marketing tool for artists who now often pay influencers to incorporate their songs into videos or make original content themselves. 

TikTok recently announced a $1 billion “Creator Fund” to pay the owners of its popular accounts. However, with over 800 million active users worldwide, the payouts from this program pale in comparison to the amount that can be made from merchandise sales and brand partnerships. The largest influencers can make up to tens of thousands of dollars from single posts and sometimes live together in “The Hype House,” centering their lives around the app. As more businesses begin to see TikTok as an essential market, smaller and mid-sized accounts are starting to accumulate more modest sums as well, which will only grow as TikTok continues expanding and likely borrows features from other social media platforms. Although I have not yet been invited to The Hype House, TikTok has brought Without Warning in contact with several artists and labels and helped us increase merchandise sales. 

With all the misery that Covid-19 has imposed, it is inspiring to see people find creative ways to remain connected and engaged with one another remotely. Despite its flaws, TikTok has given a voice to many talented young people and fostered unique experiences for each of its users. Because of this, it has quickly transitioned from being seen as a generationally confined fad to perhaps the most important social media platform today. While it may not be able to sustain its growth rate from the pandemic’s height, I expect to see TikTok continue rapidly expanding and further impact popular culture in the U.S. and around the world.