Peter Jobes is a tech & blockchain writer. Featured in VentureBeat.
TikTok’s rise in popularity has taken the world by storm. Launched in 2017, the social network only reached world markets in the summer of 2018. Two years on and the video-based platform has amassed over two billion downloads globally.
Today, TikTok has become something of a cultural phenomenon. Recently, the social media channel had become subject to bans due to fears that user information could be shared with the app’s parent company, ByteDance, and the Chinese government.
As an app that has roots in China, fears over security and privacy at a time when US and Chinese relations are at a low have led to the Trump administration handing the app a 45-day ultimatum to switch to US ownership or face a ban nationwide - the ultimatum expired on the week beginning September 20th 2020.
Despite its controversy about privacy, TikTok has already left its mark on 2020. The platform has been a popular form of escapism for users during the difficult period of global lockdowns, where recording pranks on housemates and choreographing elaborate dances with family members has helped bring joy in adverse circumstances.
We’re living in an era that’s dominated by memes and viral content, and TikTok’s been at the heart of some of 2020’s biggest trends. The ability for users to discover emerging viral videos and contribute their own takes on it have really complemented TikTok’s sense of community. However, not all trends have been harmless to indulge in.
Despite the app’s community guidelines stating that content that encourages physical harm and risks the safety of others is strictly prohibited, rules have been difficult to effectively implement on the 800 million user-strong network.
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest trends to arrive from TikTok in 2020, and look at their wider impact for users:
In the Reddit and Facebook-fuelled heady days of meme culture, our interactions with memes would be fairly limited. Today, TikTok has turned memes into big business for content creators.
Even for musicians, having a song turned into the soundtrack to a new meme dance craze can propel their music into the stratosphere. Take Old Town Road by Lil Nas X, a song that received a huge boost in popularity after going vital on TikTok with users creating video-based memes to match the music and encourage others to do the same.
Old Town Road went on to win a grammy thanks to the pulling power of TikTok.
The effect that memes have on the TikTok community has led to plenty of successful influencer campaigns too, with the VSCO Girl meme springing into life and helping to improve the marketability of certain sustainable products.
‘VSCO girl’ is a reference to a subculture that’s developed on TikTok that relates to girls who frequently use hydro-flasks, reusable straws, Kraken backpacks, Birkenstocks and scrunchies. Working with clients, Influencer Marketing Hub has seen the influencer-inspired meme receive over 251k views and over 37k hearts.
(Image: Business of Apps)
The fact that such a refined group of users can be converted into highly successful memes is a testament to the way that TikTok allows likeminded-individuals to connect.
The chart above illustrates that, despite having a reputation as a platform for Gen Z users, both significant numbers of males and females are using the app throughout adulthood, with only age 50+ adults really showing widespread disinterest at the app.
This has meant that viral content and memes can be created and appropriated to a range of subcultures online, with good results - allowing influencers and content creators alike to really make their mark while upholding their values.
We find ourselves living in increasingly divisive times. Where polarising politics, societal and financial issues have lead to more of us feeling less connected to our friends, and echo-chamber networks like Parlour are beginning to champion exclusivity, TikTok has found itself standing as a tool for bringing people together.
Users anywhere, of any background, can interact with, respond to and communicate with each other using TikTok’s video platform. The emergence of wholesome memes on TikTok has further underlined its power for bringing people together.
In the springtime, the trend #GonnaBeFriends empowered creators to tell the story of how their relationships with their friends blossomed. Set to the popular White Stripes song, ‘We’re Going To Be Friends’, users created montages of old videos and pictures throughout their friendships with their best friends - and in some cases, partners.
2020 has been a turbulent year for everybody, and TikTok has performed admirably in helping users to take to social media in order to remember the finer things in life. Where 2020 has become the year where other networks like Twitter has seen users questioning the levels of toxicity on the platform, TikTok - although not quite perfect - has flourished in generating levels of positivity and camaraderie among many of its userbase.
One of the most significant ways in which TikTok differentiates itself from other popular social platforms is that it possesses the ability to mimic television shows.
We’ve seen plenty of examples in which TikTok has mirrored the ways in which TV shows keep us entertained and hooked, and 2020 has been the year that creators have really gotten to grips with its potential and created trends that mimic our old TV viewing habits.
The content on TikTok is made discoverable to the masses via hashtags primarily, offering users the ability to follow new content over a period of time, just like how we used to watch episode after episode of our new favourite series on TV.
This has helped creators and influencers alike to build content that can help to compel users to find out more and navigate on to profiles to help build on their interest.
The episodical nature of TikTok has meant that creators no longer have to necessarily conform to popular trends in order to interact with more audiences. Instead, more generalised content can lead interested viewers into a rabbit hole of more purposeful content.
In 2020, we’ve seen more influencers effectively create their own series of interlinked short clips that can continue running themes. Their content has progressively mimicked that of a short Netflix series, with established narratives and even an element of acting.
The televisualization of TikTok could lead to a social revolution in how content is delivered to viewers on networks. While platforms like YouTube, Twitch, and Instagram are great platforms for users to create interlinked video content, TikTok is a platform that can really take the delivery of social videos a step further.
In 2020, the popularity of TikTok overtook social media platforms like LinkedIn, Snapchat and Twitter.
(Image: Revive Digital)
Sadly, for all of TikTok’s revolutionary social reach, the biggest trends emanating from the app haven’t all been positive, fun and engaging for online communities.
One of the most significant emerging problems in TikTok - as well as other networks it’s worth noting - is the regularity in which users can find themselves exposed to content that promotes unhealthy lifestyle advice like eating disorders to encourage extreme weight loss.
While TikTok is used by people of all ages, it’s predominantly a platform for young people, and teenage users are the most common age range for audiences. Because of this, there’s an increasing number of videos that offer unsafe beauty tips.
Content that promotes anorexia is rising in high volumes on TikTok. Videos that promote the idea of sleeping all day to avoid eating and fasting for multiple days attempt to glorify the notion of being slim, and are appearing too regularly for the app to remove them with much efficiency.
As well as pro-anorexia content there may also be pro-bulimia videos that can be found on TikTok. Plenty of trends on the app enable users to demonstrate how thin they are - such as comparing the width of their waist to various household items for scale, and other videos where creators show off their typical daily food intake and how low the calories are.
Mental health campaigner, James Downs, highlighted his fears over the rise of worrying trends within TikTok. "In my experience, having struggled with body image and eating problems for a long time, I try not to follow the accounts which I know will trigger me. Knowing your triggers is really important,” he explained.
Speaking out on the issue, Downs was eager to state how vital it was for users to report dangerous content in order to help TikTok deal with issues at a faster rate - even if the viewer themselves didn’t feel particularly affected by what they were viewing: "It's also important to have confidence to report content that you think is unsafe or could be harmful to someone, as well as talking to other people about what's worrying you.”
Naturally, video-based social apps like TikTok are rife with beauty-conscious content. Tips on how to ‘enhance’ the appearance of users have become hugely popular on the app. Sadly, some of the tips offered up by creators have been extremely hazardous.
One prime example has been the case of a creator videoing themselves rubbing bleach directly onto their teeth using a cotton wool bud in order to make them look whiter. Amassing over 15 million views, the video reportedly prompted a rise in sales of hydrogen peroxide - leading to concerns that the content has inspired others to undertake the dangerous procedure.
Doctors have acted fast in condemning the video, and Dr Kunal Patel of Love Teeth Dental Practice warned that “applying hydrogen peroxide, or bleach as it’s more commonly known, is likely to lead to painful tooth sensitivity at best.”
“In the worst-case scenario,” Patel continued, “a high concentration could bring about severe burns on the inside of the mouth, lips and gums. It could even result in the need for gum grafts and tooth loss, which can be tricky to fix. Even more worrying is the fact that bleach can be deadly if consumed.”
This case of backstreet dentistry promoted by TikTok points to a growing problem where social media users find them exposed to more content that encourages them to ignore safer approaches to cosmetic dentistry offered by companies like Crest, Oral-B and Holland & Barrett in order to try extremely dangerous DIY procedures that can cause irreversible damage.
To help combat the worrying effects of misinformation, a new TikTok trend is emerging where healthcare professionals are entering the fray to provide valuable information in their own engaging and viral videos.
The earlier trend of memes with more pulling power has empowered influencers and creators alike to create content that’s close to their own identities and values without having to adapt to creating more generalised videos in order to gain traction.
From this empowerment has risen two extremely popular niche hashtags on TikTok, that of #DoctorsOfTikTok and #TikTokDocs. With over 24 million collective video views, this professionally sourced content allows doctors to reach out to young people and provide them with professional medical advice.
The #TikTokDocs create engaging videos where music and dancing offers a fun backdrop to serious information, and it’s allowed various professionals to tackle the widespread misinformation that’s rife on social media sites like TikTok head-on.
One of the app’s most popular medical pioneers can be found in Dr Leslie (pictured above) and her engaging repertoire of videos. “I focus my content on topics I cover daily in the clinic, from coronavirus to contraception and I use my videos to combat medical disinformation with facts from medical literature. I use the app as a tool for health advocacy, addressing important topics like health equity, transgender healthcare, and the impact of global warming on health,” Leslie said.
TikTok stands as an app that has the power to truly highlight the greatest of user-created content online. The social network’s populated with silly memes, fun dance crazes and light-hearted pranks, as well as an increasing level of wholesome posts that have worked wonders in bringing people together in what’s been a difficult year for many. However, trends on the burgeoning app haven’t always been harmless, and the spread of bogus healthcare advice is a significant concern for many parents and impressionable users.
If TikTok is ultimately banned in the US, it will feel like a step backwards for the development of social media.
Emerging trends like the #DoctorsOfTikTok hashtag shows that there was genuinely potential for digital misinformation to be combated in a way that was bound to get the attention of many young people. With the loss of the hottest app of 2020, we may have to go back to the drawing board to find fresh ways of fighting fake news.
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