New Platform, Old Problems: How TikTok Recreates the Regulatory Challenges that Came Before It

CENTRE FOR INTERNATIONAL GOVERNANCE INNOVATION (CIGI)(*)

TikTok’s rise has been meteoric. The fast-growing platform, simply described as an app for posting and sharing short videos, has been downloaded more than 1.65 billion times globally since 2016 and currently has more than 800 million monthly active users. Some industry leaders speculate that it could eclipse Instagram. When it comes to total cumulative users, ByteDance, the Chinese company behind TikTok, now ranks third, behind Facebook and the Chinese multinational Tencent (which owns WeChat, China’s largest platform, and QQ). With a valuation of US$75 billion, ByteDance is also the world’s most valuable start-up.

Not surprisingly, regulators haven’t been able to keep up. TikTok reproduces many of the problems associated with other social media giants, and after less than three years of existence, it brings an entirely new complexity to the challenge of platform governance.

To get a sense of those complexities, it’s important to first understand the app itself.

TikTok started as an app called Musical.ly, which was launched in 2014 and focused on lip synching and dance videos. In 2017, ByteDance created a similar app, called Douyin, in China and then, to reach markets outside of China, purchased Musical.ly. The two products merged and became TikTok in 2018.

TikTok, used mostly by people aged 16–24, gained much of its popularity from a few key features: it makes high-quality media production and publishing accessible. Where Facebook’s success relies in large part on its frictionless design and the addictiveness of its interface, TikTok combines frictionless design with advanced automated tools and filters to make it easy for users to create remarkably advanced videos and media.

At its core, ByteDance is an artificial intelligence (AI) company, and TikTok is an AI app. TikTok’s rise offers a glimpse into the larger global AI “arms race,” and China’s growing ambitions and abilities. In addition to offering automated tools to help users create media, the app relies heavily on a recommendation engine to keep users on the app and engaging with content.

A number of existing social media apps focus on the user’s connections and contacts, but TikTok focuses on what users are interested in. The default feed of content that a user sees is an endless stream of looping videos. As the user engages with this content, it adapts to their interests and attention. If a user spends more time watching videos of dogs, more videos of dogs will be offered to the user. Where other platforms focus on likes and comments, TikTok places greater emphasis on views and repeated views. The algorithms employed by TikTok can recognize objects, people, pets, sounds and places, enabling the service to quickly serve up content that users are interested in and, as a result, to hold their attention. TikTok seems far more responsive and able than its counterparts to cater to a user’s interests with minimal personal information.

The emphasis on attention and interests, rather than on who a user is following or whether a creator is already popular, has enabled a more level playing field for those who seek fame. Many TikTok users are attracted to the platform because they believe they have a chance to be famous there, more so than on any other available platform.

TikTok’s unique mix of characteristics — a strong user experience, impressive in-app features, advanced algorithmic ability, a focus on interests over the user’s network and that (somewhat) level playing field — came together to enable the app’s rapid growth. But that’s where the platform’s ability to stand out from the crowd ends. So far, TikTok has acted just as irresponsibly as the other social media platforms that came before it. The platform is currently seeking a US-based chief executive and faces a growing list of concerns from regulators, officials and researchers.

(*) See the complete article published by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), copyright, 2020, at www.cigionline.org