TikTok: The Devil’s In The Details

black smartphone displaying Tik Tok logo

If you are mobile creator or a parent to teens or tweens, you’ve almost certainly heard of TikTok, a rapidly growing viral video app which relies heavily on licensed music. Lately, TikTok has been getting a lot of press over claims that it presents a potential national security risk.

With over one billion users, no mobile creator can afford to completely ignore TikTok. So, let’s explore what the app does and why it’s popularity is exploding. Then, we’ll talk about the concerns being raised about it.

What is TikTok?

Remember Vine? It was the first major viral video app and experienced inital growth much like we’ve sen from TikTok. Vine was acquired by Twitter and it seemed the sky was the limit. It was not. Eventually, Twitter shuttered Vine and rolled the technology into Twitter.

With the death of Vine, content creators turned their attention back to YouTube until Musical.ly came along. Musical.ly set itself apart by solving one of the biggest problems creators had with both Vine and Youtube: music licensing. Even with rules for fair use, especially regarding works of parody, creators had a very difficult time using any licensed music in the work. Algorithms for all of the major content platforms automatically detect licensed music and take videos containing it offline. If a given account violated this rule too often, the creator could lose their account all together.

To solve this problem, the Musical.ly team negotiated a licensing deal with many of the major record labels to allow their creators to short clips… 15 seconds to one minute …. in their videos. As part of their EULA, TikTok also made all content generated by their users available for use by all of the other users on the platform.

With these agreements in place, Musically set the table for creators to do content mashups in ways that had not been possible before. Creators took notice and the app exploded. Eventually, like many great startups, Musical.ly was acquired:

On November 9, 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported that musical.ly Inc had been sold to Bytedance Technology Co., which operates the program Toutiao, for as much as US$1 billion.[15] However, Recode estimated that the sale would be for around US$800 million. On August 2, 2018, Bytedance consolidated the user accounts of musical.ly and TikTok, merging the two apps into one and keeping the title TikTok. — Wikipedia

Today, savvy professional musicians have started seeding their music on TikTok to help it gain an audience and, perhaps, go viral. The most famous case to date is that of Lil Nas X, who used TikTok to spread the word about his song “Old Town Road”. His “little” viral song went on to smash Billboard records.

Clearly, mobile creators should not dismiss TikTok out of hand.

Rising Controversy

Like most content apps, teenagers were the bulk of TikTok’s early adopters. As a result, the app and its community had detractors almost immediately. Parents complained it was addictive and fertile ground for sexual predators. Content creators dismissed it as “kid’s stuff”, which was further fueled by a run of memes from the youthful community declaring no one over the age of 30 belonged on TikTok. Despite of this, TikTok grew. And, grew. And, grew.

In 2019, TikTok was declared the 7th most downloaded mobile app of the decade, from 2010 to 2019.[13] It was also declared the #1 most downloaded app on the App Store in 2018 and 2019. — Wikipedia

Late last year, complaints about TikTok took an entirely new direction, now involving the U.S. government, specifically the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS).

At the center of the controversy is the fact that ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, is based in Beijing, China and owned by a Chinese entrepreneur. Like most, if not all, Chinese start-ups, ByteDance has indirect ties to the Communist party which governs China. In an increasingly global economy, such ties while often scrutinized, are not usually cause for such alarm. Even massive US tech companies like Google and Apple have to establish relationships with the Communist government in order to do business there.

What then, makes TikTok different? Big data and artificial intelligence (AI).

Like most media platforms, TikTok gathers loads of data on every single user on the platform. TikTok then uses AI, specifically machine learning, to analyze that data and develop a profile of each user. In turn, this data is used to populate the user’s “For You” page, which suggests content from other users which TikTok thinks they might like.

minimalist photo of soccer field
Red Flag?

On the surface, this seems benign. But, the data is certainly used for driving advertising, usually in the form of product placements, on the network and is almost assuredly sold to third party users as well.

Red flag? Not necessarily.

Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter and every other social media company collects the same data and uses it precisely the same way. So does Amazon and every other enterprise whose primary customer touch point is the Internet.

Almost all social media apps are 100 percent free … to use and to view. Too often, consumers do not question the reason why these apps are free.

We should. And, would do well to remember the following maxim as we adopt the latest “free” app:

“If an app is FREE, the user is the PRODUCT, not the app.”

This does not necessarily mean social media apps have no value. Clearly, they are powerful tools for helping people stay connected in a world which is increasingly hectic and fast-paced. And, as we slog through the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, social media is yet again proving its value as a form of social “glue”.

But, one should always understand that these free platforms have a very real price: your data and, depending on the platform, your privacy. The only way to not pay that price is not to participate in social media.

Should One Be Concerned about TikTok?

Maybe. The obvious concern here is the relationship, however ephemeral, between TikTok and the Chinese government. While not “enemies” per se, the U.S. and Chinese governments do not see eye-to-eye on lots of issues. And, unlike America, China does not have as robust a legal “firewall” to keep data collected by its corporations out of the hands of its government; particularly its intelligence agencies.

The presumptive concern is that Chinese intelligence agencies will use this data to develop intelligence resources to use against the United States and other countries with which it finds itself at odds. However, as we learned with the 2016 election cycle and the related scandal involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, our social media usage data can be “weaponized” by our allies and countrymen as well as foreign governments.

Still, in some cases, this presumption merits and abundance of caution. For example, the Department of Defense and the TSA have banned their staff from using TikTok. Period. Full stop. This makes perfect sense because location data alone could definitely present a national security risk.

If your livelihood depends on a security clearance, uninstall TikTok. Right now. Have your spouse and kids do the same.

If that is not the case, the choice is really up to you. To help with your decision, I’ve compiled a Youtube playlist of most of the media coverage of these concerns regarding TikTok.


The audience is massive; so to is the opportunity. Each creator will have to weigh the risk vs. the reward and come to an informed decision that suits their own goals and aspirations.

Whatever you decide, I wish you the best of luck.

Image Credits: Kon Karampelas.

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Doug Daulton

Doug’s career has been invested in leveraging emerging technology to tell stories that interest him and helping others do the same. His work includes ground-breaking, high-profile live streams and independent feature films.

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