For more than a year, the most downloaded app has not been Facebook, Instagram or Youtube but TikTok, a burgeoning social network with more than 1 billion active users, many of whom are under 18.
And it has another distinction: TikTok is the first Chinese social media app to crack the western market. ByteDance, the Beijing company that owns TikTok, has succeeded where other Chinese internet giants have failed and won a $US75 billion ($110 billion) valuation as a result.
For the first time, one of the major structural social influences in Australian children’s lives might come from China rather than the United States or Britain.
But for Ricky Chainz, a TikTok star from Sydney’s northern suburbs with more than 3.3 million followers, TikTok is a way of achieving a level of stardom once all but unattainable to a 31-year-old retail worker.
“If I stand back and think, ‘eight months ago I was just making silly videos’ and now look where I am, yes, it’s mind boggling,” Chainz says.
He has just quit his job to work full-time on the platform, where his videos feature his whole family reacting to strange and eclectic stimulus including glow-in-the-dark face paint and memes — short, easily replicated humorous formats that span web platforms.
But Chainz’s most popular videos feature his elderly grandmother. One in which she mimics the audio from popular online videos has amassed 128 million views.
“My grandma loves it, man,” Chainz says. “She’s even more enthusiastic than I am. She calls me up and demands that I go over to her house and make videos. She really wants to contribute to the channel.”
At the same time, Chainz says his grandmother has no understanding of how the platform works, and she’s not alone in that: TikTok is a platform dominated by young people.
Jim Louderback, general manager at VidCon, the world’s largest series of events for video creators and their fans, says the platform has evolved a long way from its roots as Musical.ly, an app ByteDance bought in 2017.
“Musical.ly was a bit of a one-trick pony, it was lip-syncing to music videos,” Mr Louderback says. “It was karaoke-esque. It was short, but it was just one thing.”
TikTok is not. Music is a big part of the platform, but it isn’t mandatory. Users can re-use the spoken audio from others’ videos and react to them in musical duets, creating a frenetic remix culture in which meme formats spread rapidly.
That has seen the app become the top download on the App Store for five consecutive quarters, according to analysis firm Sensor Tower.
Memes on TikTok are often centred around “challenges” like the cowboy challenge that saw millions dance to Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road during that song’s run atop the charts.
But the real core of TikTok is artificial intelligence.
“Because it learns about what you like, TikTok is different for everybody,” Mr Louderback says. “It attempts to serve you more things you like.”
If you watch videos about magic tricks, you will get more videos about magic tricks on the app’s home screen. If you watch stunt videos and pranks, then you will keep receiving similar content. It’s part of what makes TikTok easy and addictive to use.
But it has downsides: if you watch young girls striking sexualised poses in their bedrooms with anime-esque makeup on — a popular format on the platform — then TikTok will send you more of those, even if you don’t actively follow the users who post them.
That has sparked deep concerns about the risks of TikTok for younger children. In February, ByteDance settled allegations from the US’s Federal Trade Commission that it “illegally collected personal information from children” for $US5.7 million ($8.3 million).
TikTok has a mirror app parents can use to see what their kids are watching and uploading, and users can lock down the privacy settings on the app. Louderback’s advice to concerned parents is to “Just use it, just go up there [on the platform] and watch video so you really understand what it is,” he says.
Nadia, mother to TikTok star Mariam Star, manages her daughter’s account with its 2.5 million fans and says that method has ensured Mariam has “never ever had a problem” on the platform.
In real life, Star’s stardom prompted bullying at the school she attended in Sydney, which led to homeschooling. But Nadia says TikTok has been “incredible” for her daughter overall.
“Mariam has only become so much more confident ever since she started and she’s more open with herself,” she says.
TikTok’s Chinese ownership has also caused concerns. Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, is heavily censored along with the rest of the country’s internet.
Fergus Ryan, a cyber analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said there had been incidents in which videos on TikTok had been removed for unclear reasons.
“There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence of that happening that needs to be more systematically put together into a piece of research to to figure out exactly what’s happening,” Mr Ryan says.
“When you look at how much effort Beijing puts into trying to control media that other people own, it would be very surprising to me if at some stage they didn’t lean on ByteDance in some way to try to control the messages being spread on TikTok.”
Sydney Morning Herald