As TikTok grows in popularity, people are turning to the platform for more than dances and absurd content. The platform is becoming a hub for news and information which means, like other platforms, TikTok will need to address the fake news and misinformation. Like other platforms before it, they will need to do the Fake News Challenge.
Dances. Challenges. News. Tips.
Everyday, thousands of students are scrolling through videos of viral trends and interesting tidbits. Videos like stock market tips, easy-to-make cooking videos, or simply some sort of relatable moment are shared among friend groups every second. With so many people on the platform and high diversity of information available, the phrase “I saw on TikTok” is becoming more commonplace in the dialect of more people.
TikTok cultivated a really large audience that remains active past their initial account creation. Here in the United States, there are 100 million active users on a monthly basis. There are 689 million users on an international scale as well. The reach of the platform extends far beyond the United States as the platform’s largest base is in China, where the platform originated, as they are responsible for 600 million of the international users.
Within these large numbers that TikTok attracts, the majority of their audience is relatively young. The largest portion of their U.S. audience is between the ages of 10–19 with 32.5%. This group is followed by those within the 20–29 age bracket that features 29.5% of their audience.
TikTok’s success among young people is centered around the short duration of the videos. This allows for a constant feedback loop that traps users looking to take a quick break into an hour-long rabbit hole.
Trung Hieu, a junior from Roger Revelle College, is one of the many students that can testify to the addictive nature of TikTok.
“Sometimes, I pick up my phone for a quick study break and then next thing I know I have been looking at Tik Tok for 30 minutes,” Hieu told The UCSD Guardian. “Time flies going from video to video and I end up flying through so many because of how short they are and I stop to rewatch some every once and awhile.”
Along with rewatching the videos, the users creating the videos are simply using their phone to create the videos. This allows for people to not only consume content on TikTok, but also acknowledge the ease in which they can also create content. Whether coming up with an idea or attempting to do a challenge, users can have their own fun.
In an attempt to capture the qualities that render TikTok so accessible for any user to create content, Sorcha MacKenzie led a study to find out about the features of TikTok and what kind of platform the app created.
“Users have the option to upload or create videos through a fairly user-friendly video editing system. The possibilities are endless, unless those possibilities involve something the app, its algorithm or any one of a host of users deem inappropriate. The freedom within the platform is, undeniably, fragile and also, undoubtedly, controlled by unseen hands in ways users can only incidentally understand.”
The algorithm TikTok uses, based on machine learning, attempts to give users content based on what they have liked or the kind of the content they have seen for the most part. If someone is watching a lot of videos with Jason Derulo’s “Savage Love” song, then most of the videos recommended will feature that same song with a similar dance routine.
This kind of pattern creates a propensity for similar videos appearing in one’s feed and a lack of diversity in the feed relative to the whole platform.
The way users can overcome the stale nature of the algorithm is by sharing videos with each other. The more diversity within the videos users watch, the more diversity is present within one’s feed. If a user opens various kinds of TikToks, the algorithm will adjust to be more akin with the diversity of the videos opened.
A video is shared more often when it is interesting and different to other videos so that “the most simple, bizarre messages,” according to MacKenzie’s study, are the ones pushed to the forefront. One of the issues of pushing these unique messages is “its potential as a place to be ‘bad’, ‘subversive,’ and ‘ironic.”
The content that stands out the most carries more potential to go viral and the DIY nature of TikTok leaves the door open for anyone to go viral and this feasibility fosters more users willing to create content in a quest for attention.
The concept of virality originated during the early days of Youtube, but the more adjacent platform was Vine. Vine was a social media platform that featured 6-second videos composed of skits and random clips. The platform showcased the economy for quick, absurd content for people to consume and scroll through.
Similar to viewers on Tik Tok, people who watched Vines would share videos that “possess relatable content, intriguing lures, and ease of repetition,” according to a study done by Jennifer English in 2016. Her analysis stated that the ease of repetition and sharing created a large community of viewers who related to the video in an emotional way or ease of recreation from the average viewer.
The feedback loop between the creator and user is one that leads to so much time spent on the platform. English emphasizes that the viewers get a feeling of involvement and community through the sharing of content and the creators receive the satisfaction of a rise in views and comments.
The symbiotic nature of the relationship between creator and viewer allows for the platforms like Vine and Tik Tok to thrive and the high volume of content that can be consumed in a relatively short amount of time creates more stimulus for both parties over time.
“Sharing becomes an outlet for communication, outreach, and social acceptance,” Jennifer English published. “Sharing in the online community centers around a person’s desire to form relationships. With the click of a button, users publicly distribute and show something they are personally interested in. Other users comment on, like, or share the content, essentially approving or accepting the user who shared. The desire to be socially accepted — even if the acceptance takes place in an online community — resides in practically every user.”
The interesting nature of videos and the ideas shared present the ability to learn about new things that can serve as conversation starters or possibly drive a new hobby. Viewers are learning about different stock market tips and how Harriet Tubman is going to be on the twenty dollar bill.
With so much time spent on the platform, young people are found more often talking about interesting TikToks they saw. The platform also presents a space for news curation as well.
“I see so much information and fun facts on Tik Tok,” Hieu told The Guardian. “I saw some cool drinks that I can make and some quick meals that I will try to cook. Since most of my friends are also on Tik Tok, I bring up some cool videos I saw and some funny ones that caught my attention. There are so many memes on here so that gives me something to talk about. I even get some of my news from Tik Tok.”
The cooking video trend is one of the more popular facets of TikTok. From speciality drinks to easy to make desserts, the fast cut videos present the recipes for the dishes in a more simple and palatable way.
The creation of a new dish appears more feasible and within reach for the average person. There are also new twists to already existing ideas like “mac and cheese in a mug” or “P]pancake cereal.” Rather than making cooking seem like a chore, Tik Tok is rebranding cooking as fun and easy.
“Because when your parents tell you to cook, it’s kind of, you know … it feels like a big process,” Dominic Bool, an avid TikTok consumer, told the Guardian. “But if you are seeing a really pleasant video, it doesn’t seem so bad any more, not like you are being compelled to do it.”
Along with the cooking side of TikTok, the app features a financial faction of creators that relay potential tips on certain stocks to invest in, small business opportunities, and other ways to create more fiscal gain.
Some of the content creators attempt to educate viewers on terminology related to the stock market and business. There are users who claim to have started using investment apps due to watching a TikTok that explained how to invest and what are some of the options that present potential gain. An Earl Warren College freshman established a portfolio based solely on TikTok recommendations.
“I saw some Tik Tok that explained to me how dips work and what are some stocks that are good to invest in,” the student told The Guardian. “They are just basic ones like Apple and Amazon, but it allowed me to dip my toe in. Now, I check Tik Tok for penny stocks and other smaller stocks that can boom. While I have lost a good amount of money, it comforts me that I am not the only one out there that is losing, but I have enjoyed my wins as well. I invested in Sundial Growers and made 500 dollars!”
The losses that the student mentioned offer some of the downsides to trusting all of the information. Some of the information can be found on a less researched or strong basis without the necessary disclaimers.
Day traders, those who buy and sell stocks on a daily basis, are some of the more common content creators that offer potential monetary gain on a daily basis as they recommend buying certain stocks. These users offer tips to viewers about what to invest in and the nature environment of daily trading presents risk for all those involved.
With so much information to sparse through, the viewers are left taking the videos at face value with little fact checking available on TikTok. People can hold any idea or opinion and portray it as a fact and manipulate the viewer.
“We really don’t have conversations as much as we used to. The facts are not as clear on newer media. It’s not that people don’t have access to as many facts as before but it’s a lot harder for people to understand the differences between fact or opinion,” McClurg told the Daily Egypian.
The rise of Tik Tok places the platform on the same level of Twitter and Snapchat now. One of the key characteristics of the platform is the sharing of information through videos with an attempt to inform people of something interesting. Vine never helps a faction of the platform connected with cultivating news for others.
Twitter recently provided fact checking for trending events and information as they attempt to exert some control over misinformation and potential confusion generated by bad faith actors. The cross-roads came after the rise of misinformation during the 2016 election and their effects to avoid the scrutiny Facebook faced.
The day of reckoning for Tik Tok to regulate the potential for misinformation may come at some point, but until then, Tik Tok provides a space for all ideas and information to trend on their platform, for better or worse.
Art by Ava Bayley for the UC San Diego Guardian.