- With TikTok, China has achieved global social media superstardom for the first time.
- Chris Stokel-Walker’s “TikTok Boom” explores the company’s explosion and ponders its future.
- TikTok is a technological marvel, political battlefield, and cultural driver with growing ambitions.
TikTok isn’t just one of the biggest breakout hits in social media app history.
Birthed from Chinese entrepreneurs and engineers, TikTok is the first social media app from outside the US (and Silicon Valley) to beat its direct American competitors. TikTok is a technological marvel, journalist Chris Stokel-Walker argues in his new book “TikTok Boom,” out Thursday, but it’s also so much more.
The first 100 pages of “TikTok Boom” tell a fast-paced behind-the-scenes story of how the app came to dominate phone screens around the world. Stokel-Walker interviews the power players behind ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, and Musical.ly, the app’s predecessor. He marvels at the technological implications and cultural clairvoyance of TikTok’s creators while investigating the fears some Americans have of China’s runaway hit.
“To a Western world, used to dealing in absolutes, there’s no way to separate China’s authoritarian control over digital firms operating within its borders from its lack of control over everything that company does,” Stolkel-Walker writes.
While TikTok has been centered in major political debates over censorship and data security, the eyes of TikTok’s audience are glued to an endless stream of quick videos. Even if the average TikTok user overlooks China’s tech-superpower ambitions, the platform is way more than just a path to stardom for Charli D’Amelio, “TikTok Boom” argues.
‘TikTok Boom’ takes a microscope to the app’s technology and its implications
TikTok has already surpassed YouTube’s growth in its first few years of existence. The platform has ambitions to rival streaming services like
and social-media behemoths like Facebook, Stokel-Walker says.
TikTok is known for serving up content it knows you’ll like because it tracks everything you do while you use it and feeds your data into an AI-powered algorithm that can seemingly predict with astonishing accuracy what will trigger a dopamine release.
The app also tracks how much you use the app. Some people use TikTok in short spurts throughout the day, while others binge it for hours at a time, letting a wave of curated short video content wash over them. Successful TikToks, which are mere seconds long, have a familiar set-up, punchline, and resolution — not unlike newspaper comic strips.
But on Douyin, the censored version of TikTok available in China, Stokel-Walker says that videos can be minutes longer, and TikTok is now experimenting with videos that are meant to sink in and resonate with viewers more. Livestreaming is also built into Douyin as a key function, as streaming is more engrained in Chinese influencer culture. The latent power of TikTok’s livestreaming capability is just emerging.
Though TikTok and Douyin are still quite separated by their users’ cultural norms and political rights, the app’s cultural sway over the American music industry — launching the careers of stars like Lil Nas X, reshaping Billboard’s Top 100, and turning old singles into new hits — demonstrates the Chinese app’s global power and potential.
While YouTube is known for having a loose grasp on its rowdy creators, TikTok has a more ironclad approach to its business model and talent, which it controls in-house. It also gives less money to its creators than YouTube does, though it is trying to avoid the problems faced by Twitter’s now-defunct short video platform Vine, including when Vine’s top creators attempted to unionize and demand $1.2 million each from the platform.
TikTok wants to learn from Vine’s mistakes: it “wined and dined” former creator-partnership leads at Vine and sought direct feedback from users at every stage of its expansion, Stokel-Walker says — even from him, when he visited TikTok’s UK headquarters to interview executives.
“I said ‘I don’t know, I’m a journalist,'” he told Insider in an interview. “But that goes to show they cared what even I thought.”
Stokel-Walker reports on TikTok’s Chinese influence and American cultural implications out of Newcastle in northeast England. His work appears in WIRED, the BBC, The New York Times, and Insider.