The viral short-video app TikTok has shot from obscurity to the top-downloaded app in the world in the space of two and a half years.
While gaining a cult following among teenagers it has also garnered fierce opposition among China hawks in the Trump administration, who are suspicious of the app’s Chinese parent company, the Beijing-headquartered ByteDance.
TikTok is one of the few Chinese tech brands to have a truly international audience.
Others, such as social-messaging app WeChat, have a large following but are mostly used by residents of China and that country’s diaspora.
Whereas TikTok is now the world’s fastest-growing social media app, with more than 620m downloads since the start of the year — 50m of these in the US — according to figures from Sensor Tower.
However, the company now faces the prospect of losing its US presence, as the government considers a ban on Chinese social media apps.
It would not be the first time ByteDance has suffered as a result of geopolitical tensions — TikTok was one of 59 popular Chinese-made apps that India banned last month, as retaliation for border clashes with Chinese troops in Kashmir. India was TikTok’s biggest market by total downloads since January 2018.
TikTok’s overseas success was helped by merging with Musical.ly in 2018, vitally securing its predecessor’s American teenage userbase.
Global lockdowns have been another boost, with many users spending more than an hour on the platform, drawn to its easy-to-use interface for creating lip-syncs and music videos.
Its recommendation algorithms, which create an addictive feed of video content customised to the user, are seen as the app’s greatest asset. It has helped TikTok break the powerful hold of social media platforms such as China’s Tencent as well as Facebook.
But they could also prove to be its biggest liability.
Bytedance’s recommendation algorithms only require the previous history of what someone watches as input data — and are not based on what their friends recommend or like.
This means that the app can take off in a new region without having to rely on the network effect of all of one’s friends using it, as long as it can connect you to content you want to watch.
However, some US commentators fear that ByteDance could quietly censor this content without obviously deleting it, or promote content with a political agenda.
For now, there has been no proof that the company has done so and TikTok continues to thrive. However, time will tell whether mounting political tensions between the US and China will derail this growth and ultimately lead to it being deleted.