If you told my 14-year-old self about what TikTok was, I would have said that there were already apps like it and that it would be a waste of a download.
But the world has changed since I was a high school freshman. With billions of downloads and billions of users across the globe, the app is a phenomenon that transcends demographics and has enraptured us.
Yet the simplicity of TikTok–short-form videos fed to you by a seemingly all-knowing algorithm isn’t a new idea by any measure.
TikTok’s “father” for many young Americans, was Vine. Popular when Gen Z were tweens, it was an app where users could upload videos no longer than six seconds. Since its 2013 founding, it has fit right at home with the emerging rapid-fire meme culture. That Instagram, Youtube, and Snapchat added options to upload short videos during Vine’s height in the mid-2010s, confirmed that the market for content that didn’t require an attention span was in synch with the times.
If Vine was TikTok’s “father,” then its “mother” was Music.ly, which was founded just a year after Vine. This app allowed users to upload short videos of up to a minute duration, of them lip-syncing to different songs.
TikTok owes its existence more directly to this platform; the original TikTok merged with Music.ly into the app we know today. Modern TikTok’s birth occurred just before Vine was discontinued in 2016; it naturally became the go-to destination for former Viners, who were itching for an even more libertine environment for short form media.
The target audience for TikTok from the start was children, but the reason the app has become so popular is because it wasn’t the first of its kind. Today’s Gen Z’ers and even Millennials had plenty of exposure to apps like Vine and Music.ly that revolutionized the short-form marketplace. By the time TikTok had perfected that formula, it was only a matter of time before it truly took over the world.
Despite a bipartisan chorus of lawmakers expressing national security concerns, the key demographic of the app has grown so accustomed to what TikTok is selling that any desire to shut it down is doomed to fail.
The key is the app’s curtness. Videos selectively picked “for you” have odds of holding your attention, releasing dopamine, and encouraging you to go deeper. It’s a gamble with no stakes, since you could scroll endlessly looking for your next favorite TikTok. And when you find your favorites, you’ll send them to your friends, who are themselves scrolling endlessly and sending their favorites to their friends. The fact that it takes no investment to engage with a TikTok is why you hear of people with TikTok addictions. In a social media forum that is truly global, all it takes is one.
What does this mean for our attention spans? It’s hard to say if the trend of shorter and shorter media will be reversed any time soon. In many ways, TikTok is a blessing for the quick sharing of information: a recipe, a trend, a news story. But the way that some content can be filtered, and how quickly subcultures and echo chambers can develop runs the risk of erecting barriers between us that we’re hesitant to tear down.
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