It’s the TikTok phenomenon: teenagers lip-syncing to well-worn radio hits, students pretending to reveal their darkest secrets, romances blossoming and failing, parent-shaming flourishing, pranksters pranking random innocents.
That seems, at first glance, to be the world of TikTok. It’s a video creation and sharing social network for Android and iOS smartphones that provides music tracks and special effects to spice up the material users put up.
Videos can last from three seconds to 60 seconds, which means they can be quick to create, quick to consume and quick to forget.
It was launched in China in 2016 as Douyin by a Beijing company called ByteDance, which then bought a company called Musical.ly, designed for sharing short lip-syncing videos.
The combined app, with numerous added features, was released to the world in 2017 as TikTok, and instantly took the youth market by storm. It arrived in South Africa last year, and the uptake was astonishing.
In less than two years, numerous TikTok creators have thousands of followers. The most popular SA creator, a magician who calls himself @WianMagic on TikTok, has 1.9 million followers. A young woman known simply as Chané, is second with 1.5 million followers of @chanegrobler.
These numbers tell us that the user base in SA must be well over five million, given that no single creator is likely to appeal to more than a third of the local audience.
The app is massively popular among all race groups, and is the country’s second most downloaded social app on the Android Play Store. Globally, it reached 1.5 billion downloads this month.
While it began in China, it’s biggest market is now India, which accounts for almost a third of its users. The US makes up 8.2% of its base, according to analytics site Sensor Tower.
It is about to overtake Instagram, and poses a major threat to Facebook. In fact, the world’s biggest social network had tried to acquire Musical.ly before it lost out to TikTok.
It is probably no coincidence that the threat posed to the dominance of iconic American companies has brought the US government into the fray. As it did with Huawei after the Chinese handset maker overtook Apple’s iPhone in global sales, lawmakers are calling for an investigation into TikTok.
Americans have also been warned that TikTok may use their personal data for nefarious purposes. However, given the limited amount of information that one needs to provide to sign up, it comes across as a scare tactic rather than a real danger.
American teenagers and youth are ignoring the scaremongering, and signing up in their millions. So are South Africans.
And it’s not just the follower numbers that are astonishing. Views and “likes” of videos make Twitter trending look tame.
Chané regularly records more than 100,000 views of her videos – and in some cases more than two million. A recent video, in which she enacted a tiff with fellow TikTok star Roberto attracted more than half a million likes and 1,600 comments.
TikTok can be used for any kind of content. Psychological tricks and business advice are common. Comedy sketches are hugely popular. Actors like Will Smith have chosen it as their preferred social sharing channel.
For my own TikTok feed (@arr2gee), I focused on short interviews with interesting people, ranging from entrepreneurs and executives to journalists and activitsts to TikTok stars themselves.
This last category told me just how crazy TikTok can get. My first interview, with @Witny8, who has over half a million followers, had more than 70,000 views and 3,500 likes. The interview with Chané has passed 60,000 views and 5,700 likes.
I’ve never seen such traction on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Instagram, no matter how famous, infamous or unknown the subjects of the content. TikTok has its own rules, and the first is that all the rules of social media have changed.