Are You Ready for TikTok’s Tipping Point?

The video sharing sensation should be on your radar


 Lifewire / Ashley Nicole DeLeon

When I was a child, I was super-into Wacky Packages, trading cards and stickers featuring twisted humor and artwork based, in part, on popular brands. Crest, for example, became garlic-flavored “Crust.” I had a pack in my bedroom and brought them to school each day to trade with other kids. My parents knew nothing about this obsession. They were adults, leading grownup lives and following grownup interests.

Nowadays, the carefully cultivated separation between children, tweens, teens, and adults is far more porous. Our digital lives make it almost impossible for adults to ignore or shield themselves from popular digital activities. Many (but not nearly enough) adults know they do so at their own risk.

Wacky Packages
Weren't Wacky Packages the best?.  Wacky Packages

Look at TikTok. The popular social content-sharing platform has rocketed to the top of both the Apple Store (#1) and Google Play (#2) free app download lists. It’s where mostly young people share 15-second videos of themselves lip syncing to popular songs, popular film clips, and doing silly, funny, heartfelt, and sometimes dangerous stunts.

The app has been on my radar since it was called and used almost exclusively to post lip-sync videos. At the time, did a poor job of protecting its incredibly young user base from predators who could reach them all too easily through the messaging side of the app and from children stumbling on explicit content that quickly proliferated on the platform

ByteDance cleaned up much of that when it bought and launched TikTok in the U.S., but its lax approach to age restrictions still earned it a huge fine in 2018. New users can’t join without entering their age, which must be over 13. Based on what I’ve seen, I still assume there are a good number of kids lying about their age on TikTok.

Getting to Know TikTok

Before I go any further. Here are some things you should know about TikTok:

  • The app is free
  • You don’t have to join to watch TikTok videos
  • Joining lets you create videos, follow accounts, like, and comment
  • Most videos are 15 seconds long
  • You swipe up to watch the next video
  • Videos are often connected to a meme or challenge
  • Videos featuring music, short lip syncs are popular
  • Videos can incorporate visual gags
  • It includes powerful, easy-to-use video enhancement tools
  • Messaging only works between those who follow each other
  • It does have ads

Put simply, TikTok is about to become inescapable.

If I’m being honest, I think I’m too old for TikTok, though one TikTok marketing exec insisted to me earlier this year that I could find many adults and, yes, even people my age using the app.

I haven’t seen much of that, but TikTok’s similarity to one of my favorite social media platforms—the long-dead Vine—is unmistakable. It's why I keep returning to TikTok, trying to get a handle on the growing phenomenon.

It Feels Familiar

Like TikTok, Vine started as an obscure social media platform that was propelled into the broader public consciousness after a larger social media company—in Vine’s case, Twitter—purchased it.

Vine’s limitations (6 second videos) and unusual visual creation tools (touch the screen to record, let go to stop), sparked an unprecedented wave of creativity on social media. A year into the launch, there were Vine stars (known as Viners). I was especially intrigued by the comedians, visual effects artists, and singers, including Shawn Mendez, who found fame and fortune through Vine.

For a time, Vines were everywhere. Popular Viners had millions of followers and (because every video automatically looped) countless more views. Then it all went away.

Viners and wifi
This is a GIF conversion of a Vine I made featuring a bunch of then Vine stars (and one Property Brother).  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

In truth, Vine’s perception was larger than its actual footprint. Vine’s 200 million users were mostly consuming the relatively small amount of content created by its popular creators. TikTok’s combination of easy-to-use creation tools and even easier to use consumption platform have, on the other hand, helped it grow to 1 billion users (globally) and, I’m guessing, far more amateur creators.

Many of the Viners I followed, like King Bach and Zach King, moved easily to Instagram, which, during Vine’s run, added video without the six-second limitation. I could tell that many of them found the ability to post longer videos freeing. Instagram has also just launched its own Creators account to help guide Instagram creators. I think it’s a direct response to TikTok’s growth.

We're TikToking

Now many of these creators are on TikTok, too, creating 15 second clips with the notes of Vine, but in the key of TikTok.

Former Vine comedians Bach and Brittany Furlan are on TikTok (Furlan "caved" and joined this month). Bach, for instance, makes sure to include music interludes in his bits. Zach King does visual effects, but also adds behind-scenes videos in the 60-second clips. As on Vine (and other social media platforms), TikTok now has verified accounts, another sign that’s it’s transitioning from an all-teen and totally random digital playground to a more grown-up space.

One guy who doesn't necessarily fit the platform's youth mode is  Brittlestar. I met the social media personality, whose real name is Stewart Reynolds, back when we were both doing a lot of Vines. Now, not only is the 40-plus funny man on TikTok, he's listed as a "popular creator."

"I think TikTok is exciting," Reynolds told me, via Twitter direct message (DM). "It feels like Vine in 2014 with one notable difference. There are WAY more up and coming creators on TikTok. Where people used to just get Vine to watch, there is a larger percentage on TikTok who actively create."

Inspired by Reynolds and what these veteran creators have built, I decided to dive back into TikTok to try and master it. I’ve started investigating the visual effects side and have created a handful of TikToks, but it’s slow going. I’m not a singer and find lip syncing embarrassing.

Lance Ulanoff on TikTok
One of the first things I ever created in TikTok. I can't say it was very good.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

So What?

By now I assume you’re wondering what TikTok has to do with you. TikTok is on the cusp of a broad cultural moment. The New Yorker thinks this is TikTok’s moment, and it may be right. Celebrities and brands are starting to flood in and, in the space of a couple of weeks, I’ve watched actor Ken Jeong demonstrate TikTok live on The Emmys and then actress Reese Witherspoon get an entertaining lesson in TikTok creation from her clearly embarrassed son.

Put simply, TikTok is about to become inescapable.

Now, I’m not arguing that you should download TikTok and start posting 15 second videos. However, if you have children or it's your job to keep your cultural literacy up to date, you have to understand TikTok, which means you should at least download and watch (be careful, TikToks are like Lay's potato chips: You can’t watch just one).

Gone are the days when you can afford to let kids be kids and ignore their Wacky Packs. Youthful interests, especially the digital ones (are there any others?), should become your interests... before they become your problem.