Amid all of the tumult, uncertainty and – frankly – anxiety that the coronavirus era has brought, it’s been easy for even some of the more eagle-eyed watchers of online consumption trends, to overlook the steepness of TikTok’s recent rise. Social media, as applies to almost all of the rest of us, really has been vaulted into a different world by this unassuming app.
One thing that the increasingly ubiquitous Chinese video-sharing platform certainly wasn’t until relatively recently, was cool.
While the app was once widely perceived as purely a ‘Generation Z’ oddity, even the cohort of Internet users born between around the mid-1990s and the early 2010s took a little while to make it central to their lives; a mere 12% of ‘Generation Zers’ used TikTok regularly as of 2019.
That figure has since blossomed to 35%. Furthermore, it seems that over the last few months, Millennials and other older generations have cottoned on to the ever-more apposite, absurdist appeal of the app’s 15-second clips set to music or soundbites, and sometimes overlaid with digital special effects.
While a mere 3% of Millennials used TikTok regularly last year, almost a fifth apparently did so in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, with that figure having reportedly jumped still further in more recent weeks and months.
So, what’s causing all of the fuss?
Where do we even begin? Many cultural forces and circumstantial developments have been cited as fuelling TikTok’s staggering rise, including the sense of community engendered by its truly jaw-dropping download numbers (the two billion milestone having been passed back in April), and the app having effectively filled the gap left by the long-departed Vine.
But really, so much of the reasoning for a seemingly unstoppable level of momentum that has even drawn the ire of US President Donald Trump, comes back to the peculiar circumstances brought upon us all by the coronavirus crisis itself.
Writing for The Observer in late April, London-based journalist Sirin Kale noted how lockdown conditions that had left the British public hunkering down “at home, alone, in some cases literally returning to the bedrooms of its youth”, helped to create a captive audience for an app like TikTok that combined a communal vibe with “the sublime and the serious, the silly and the strange”.
In many ways, the unrelenting pressure of the ongoing COVID-19 situation has sent many of us retreating to a more childlike sense of wonder – and in the process, also throwing off much of our previously well-preserved ego and hubris.
In a world that has been as bizarrely and comprehensively upended as it has by a pandemic with no scheduled end, it doesn’t seem like such a leap anymore for many of us to... well, leap across our bedrooms in front of a camera to a jaunty soundtrack, as if were teenagers again.
But what’s the longer-term trajectory? Is TikTok here to stay?
That’s the question on so many of our lips. Could the TikTok phenomenon – at least as we have come to know it in such a short bracket of time – sweep out of view of the popular consciousness as swiftly as it arrived?
Or will the anarchic app’s very fleet-footed unpretentiousness help to make it a sustained part of the social media furniture, especially as the platform’s expanding communities of older members gradually smooth its countercultural rough edges?
So much of that remains to be seen – especially as we don’t even yet know whether the platform could soon be in Microsoft or Twitter’s hands, so convinced is the Trump administration that it represents a national security threat while in Chinese ownership.
There is nothing in any of the above, however, to suggest your brand should be ignoring TikTok, or treating it as a fad that will leave no indelible imprint on the longer-term social media landscape.
After all, the app’s addictive snippets have unleashed new forces of positivity, creativity and humour around the globe, when many of us have been in such pressing need of all of these things.
No one can say for sure exactly where TikTok will be by this time next year, much like we cannot say so for the world in general. But its success holds lessons that both brands and individuals should learn in the months and years ahead, whether or not they become actively involved on the platform themselves.