It has more than 500 million users worldwide and is currently the sixth most popular free mobile app in the charts, ahead of Instagram and Snapchat. In September, more people installed it than the Facebook app. But the chances are, you won't have heard of TikTok. If so, that's probably because you're too old – it appears to be teenagers who account for the majority of TikTok fans.
So what exactly is it?
TikTok is a video-sharing app that allows users to upload brief clips (up to 15 seconds) set to music, often with the creator lip-syncing along. These videos can then be enhanced by a range of editing features, such as Snapchat-like augmented-reality filters and the option to speed up and slow down the footage. There is also scope for collaboration between users – if you reply to a video, you can do joint videos on a split screen. Some creators have tens of millions of followers.
The New York Times has described TikTok, which launched in the UAE on New Year's Eve, as "a quirky hybrid of Snapchat, the defunct video app Vine and the TV segment Carpool Karaoke". And how do you see the videos? You follow people, just like you would on Instagram or Twitter, and then their videos will pop up on your feed. Privacy-wise, there are only two, quite restrictive, options: you can either make your videos private, only to you, or public to everyone else on the app. There is no option to open up your content to only a few of your friends. In terms of private messaging, you can share messages only with your TikTok friends, not with those who aren't a connection.
Why is it so popular?
In 2017, Chinese internet company ByteDance, the world’s most valuable start-up at $75 billion (Dh275 billion), bought Musical.ly, the music video-sharing app, for $1bn (Dh3.6bn), merged it with an existing video app, and relaunched it as TikTok. At the time, Alex Zhu, co-founder of Musical.ly and senior vice president of TikTok, said: “We want to capture the world’s creativity and knowledge under this new name and remind everyone to treasure every precious life moment. Combining Musical.ly and TikTok is a natural fit given the shared mission of both experiences – to create a community where everyone can be a creator.”
Lip-syncing videos account for much of TikTok’s output, but there are also videos of – among an almost endless selection of other things – people dancing, performing comedy, cooking and doing magic tricks. TikTok compilations are popular on YouTube and show that anything, from editing a video to look like the user has changed clothes instantly to synchronised dance routines, can be a hit. Challenges are also popular, such as #eatonthebeat, where users have to eat in time to the beat of a song.
TikTok's popularity has been attributed, in part, to the fact that there is – for now, at least – significantly less of the bullying and trolling that blights other forms of social media. "It's that rarest of internet creatures: a place where people can let down their guards, act silly with their friends and sample the fruits of human creativity without being barraged by abusive trolls or algorithmically amplified misinformation," wrote The New York Times.
What are its dangers?
This does not mean that TikTok is without problems, however. Because the videos are usually public, it also means that information about its users is often viewable, too. One newspaper investigation discovered that children as young as nine had revealed their full name, phone number and school address via their videos. Other investigations have found that paedophiles are using TikTok to try and elicit images from children.
There have also been problems with racist and sexist accounts on the app. A spokesperson for TikTok told Vice – which ran a story last month headlined: "TikTok has a Nazi problem" – that "such behaviour is not only abhorrent, it is prohibited on TikTok. We have a number of measures in place today to protect against misuse.
“TikTok doesn’t permit images or videos to be sent in comments or messages, and users can make their account private, block another user, report an account or content, and disable the ability to receive messages.”
Who knows if TikTok will succeed where other social media platforms have failed and effectively snuff out the nefarious sections of its user base. If it can it might just be the funny, joy-bringing destination the internet has been crying out for.