TikTok is a unique website that could only exist in today’s era of high-speed data streaming and widespread high-quality digital cameras. Despite the difficulties of navigating copyright law, popular music is scattered across videos. Users argue back and forth via stitches, debunking and re-bunking arguments into infinity. Vendors host livestreams that are always on, demoing their wares. Small businesses get snarky, get personal, and get sales by showing their methods online. Oceans and oceans of content, more than anyone could ever watch, live at your fingertips on TikTok.
TikTok is pretty profitable, something its predecessors Vine and Musical.ly can’t say. TikTok’s incredible hybridization of sponsored content on top of ads and a token system is truly something to behold! The best is the token system: TikTok does livestreaming, and livestreamers can earn money from ‘gifts’ which are bought with tokens, which are bought with real non-imaginary money. Once the livestreamer gets the gift, it’s converted into ‘diamonds’ (not tokens) which can then be converted into cash or more tokens so the streamer themselves can buy gifts for other streamers. If that sounds confusing, it’s supposed to be! Tokens are imaginary money. TikTok scrapes a little bit off the top of each conversion because that’s the entire point of imaginary money. Twitch does this too, with bits, but because the bits themselves go directly to the streamer, it’s easy to track what the conversion rate is. 100 bits is about 0.70$ – how many ice cream or cowboy hat gifts does that same 0.70$ buy? Every extra step wards off the buyer thinking too hard about it.
And then there’s the sponsored content. To advertise a product you’ve been compensated to review in the US legally, you must have a disclaimer somewhere in your content saying that you were sponsored to make it. The more obvious the disclaimer is, the less likely the person making the video is to get sued. Platforms are motivated in a roundabout way to do the right thing and help creators make these connections or sponsorships as obvious as possible, because if it’s hard to make money, the big creators who bring in ad revenue will leave, and that’s no good. TikTok handles this pretty well and allows multiple levels of disclaimers to be applied to videos. Businesses promoting their own stuff on their own channel can use the ‘promotional content’ disclaimer. Businesses promoting their stuff via influencers on other channels can use a ‘sponsored content’ disclaimer. TikTok will even let them link directly to their own shops within their videos and channel descriptions once they’re past a certain follower count. What it lacks in customization, it makes up for in sheer opportunity to pitch product.
Not to mention the ads. Because ads on TikTok can be skipped immediately, the average user’s relationship with the ads is not nearly as adversarial as it is on a website like Youtube, where unskippable 15 second ads deter people from even clicking on videos they aren’t certain they’ll like. Some people download adblockers specifically to make Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, etc. more enjoyable while they browse. Instead of trying to innovate some way to stop adblockers, TikTok just made the ads skippable. If a user can leave any time they want, they may stick around and watch a bit instead of spending the mandatory 5 or 15 seconds frantically tapping the ‘skip’ button. People like buying things! They like shopping! They just don’t like walking through the perfume section and being forcibly sprayed with a perfume they don’t like in order to access the mall.
The Bad Parts
Such a website comes with downsides, however. The full extent of TikTok’s data harvesting is concerning, but nobody seems really sure how much should be illegal – especially since many American-based companies are also harvesting comparable amounts of data, sometimes from people who don’t even have accounts on the relevant platforms, like Facebook and Google. If another website with a track record like Facebook tried to introduce such a data-gobbling app themselves, it might not have seen so much success. Until TikTok has a big conspiracy blow up in the states the way Cambridge Analytica did, though, users are inclined to enjoy the product and not think too hard about how well it knows them.
TikTok is also terribly addictive. Their algorithm is very quick-footed when it comes to figuring out what will keep users scrolling. It’s ingenious. Users can scroll for hours and feel like they’ve only been on five minutes. It’s constantly learning, too. If you stop engaging with videos for a certain fandom, it will notice, and show you less of it. If you start engaging with conspiracy videos, TikTok itself will do nothing to steer you away from videos offering genuinely dangerous advice. TikTok is especially riddled with people selling incorrect or dangerous health tips as fact: there’s an entire cottage industry trying to get their viewers to eat only meat, or only organic vegetables, or only the keto diet, or only bone broth, or only 800 calories a day. The worst part of clickbait articles saying ‘eggs will kill you’ is now combined with the worst part of algorithmic content. There are videos on TikTok right now trying to sell colloidal silver as a cure-all. The only thing colloidal silver does is turn you blue. It has no known health benefits, but the people selling it are allowed to keep selling it in spite of this.
To be fair to TikTok, this is a problem every website has (even non-algorithmic ones like Tumblr), but to be unfair, TikTok is uniquely equipped to get people addicted to conspiratorial thinking because it will never stop showing those people videos that tell them how smart they are for seeing poison in everything.
What If I Didn’t Want TikTok
It’s really no wonder everyone else is trying to keep up with TikTok.
But the question none of these sites want to answer is: what if you don’t want TikTok? What if you joined Twitter or Instagram or Tumblr on their own merits, and not because you somehow couldn’t access TikTok, which is a free app and webpage, and only needs a phone number or an email to use for credentials?
What if you didn’t want TikTok because it is TikTok?
Is there any way to avoid it? We’ll see. Video is a much more data-rich medium than text or images, but at the same time, hosting data has gotten a lot cheaper. If videos don’t turn a profit, users will see their social media platform of choice start to quietly discourage videos. If they do turn a profit, if they generate more clicks and engagement, then the videos will stay, and the web will evolve, leaving small pockets of picture- and text- heavy websites living on the fringe for the users who don’t like TikTok.