Author by: Maia Lu
In my recent Classics lecture on Greek Civilizations, Professor Mario Telo purported that people are cyborgs — in the sense that we cannot survive without the use of prosthetics. He references the integration of the human body with the armor on the Greek battlefield, and applies this concept to the contemporary context of our relation to technological devices. This human dependency on non-human objects has never rung truer than under quarantine, where our social interactions are predicated on our access to technology. In particular, TikTok became the quintessential “lockdown prosthetic”, accumulating a record-breaking 67 million downloads in the first quarter of 2020.
An Existential Threat
Unfortunately, TikTok may be facing its demise as quickly as it experienced a rise to stardom. The US government threatened to ban TikTok under the guise of national security concerns, as it alleged that the Chinese Communist Party can access US data collected via TikTok. Most recently, TikTok was caught in a legal battle that resulted in Oracle acquiring a stake in TikTok Global, its US subsidiary.
There has been significant media coverage on the real-time progression of this tug-of-war over TikTok. However, less has been said about the context behind the political and corporate motivations to acquire TikTok. In order to fully understand these motivations, there is a need to unpack the qualities that make TikTok appealing to consumers, and consequently these larger organizations that serve these consumers.
Unpacking TikTok’s algorithm
The addictive appeal of TikTok stems from the unique qualities of its algorithm. The algorithm focuses on disseminating interest-based content from all across the platform, rather than connecting social networks. Moreover, it is primed for efficiency in a way that makes it possible for users to gain popularity more instantaneously than on any other platform. For instance, Angelica Song, a lifestyle influencer from UC Berkeley, mentioned how she was able to grow her audience exponentially through a few viral college-related TikToks. From Oracle’s perspective, this provides a rationale in its investment in TikTok as an extremely valuable database in examining Gen Z’s social media usage.
In examining the outreach propelled by TikTok’s algorithm, there is an interesting dichotomy worth examining further. Despite being known as an algorithm that focuses less on building social community, it appears that TikTok plays an integral role in rallying political communities and reforming community-building in brands.
Micro-communities on TikTok
TikTok is able to physically mobilize political communities. The most prominent instance is how TikTok users registered potentially hundreds of thousands of tickets for President Trump’s Tulsa campaign rally as a prank. Youtuber Elijah Daniel said that this trend spread “mostly through Alt TikTok”, which is known as the “good side” of TikTok where users are actively engaged in activism. TikTok’s potential for political mobilization reveals the multi-faceted utility of the app — not just as a “cringey” showcase of lip-syncing and dancing. However, its ability to start wide-scale opposition movements could be one of the incidents that catalyzed the Trump administration’s actions to limit its influence in the US.
Finding relatability on TikTok
While this potential to start political movements underlies political involvement in the TikTok saga, corporate motivations are more closely tied to brand identities on TikTok. TikTok is known for pioneering a new brand aesthetic — forming communities on the basis of ‘authenticity’. Brands have been able to leverage TikTok’s low-barrier video production technology to create content that panders to this scrappier aesthetic that feels more homely, more personal. For example, Chipotle’s witty video of their chips singing in chorus to Adele’s “Someone Like You” embodies this ideal of having low production level but high-quality humoristic content.
Compared to grids on Instagram which are often meticulously planned-out, TikTok videos are easy to emulate. This lower barrier of entry makes the connection between brands and consumers feel more visceral and the usability of products feel more integrated into our daily lives. Hence, TikTok’s ability to provide the corporate world with this novel branding tactic which combines community-building with quality entertainment explains its appeal to conglomerates like Oracle and Walmart.
TikTok: fashion or fad?
Ironically, the defining qualities of TikTok’s rise to power are also what has caused the threat to the app’s existence. The potential ban, as well as increasing controversy over its algorithmic bias shrouds TikTok’s future viability in the US market in uncertainty. Moreover, even if it were to retain its position in the US, Oracle’s involvement in TikTok raises the issue of TikTok’s rights over its product. There is also the risk of communities on TikTok being ephemeral, given that TikTok’s algorithm centers more on interests than accumulating social capital. Will competitors like the newly launched Instagram Reels take over as TikTok faced increasing uncertainty? Will TikTok disappear in the way Vine and Musical.ly did?
Undoubtedly, TikTok has become the embodiment of the minimal-effort, unfiltered Gen-Z aesthetic. The sense of community that feels less manufactured and more genuine is the underlying factor that has led to a legal scramble in the US market for a stake in TikTok. However, the volatility of US politics means it is too early to predict the longevity of TikTok’s reign. In the immediate context, its survival in the US market will depend heavily on its navigation of the recent deal with Oracle.