For the past couple of years, the social media giants have felt smaller than they ever have.
For Facebook, the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed the company was barely paying lip service to protecting our personal data. And it’s far from over. Earlier this month, Federal prosecutors began investigating a deal between the company and two technology firms.
Advertisers are expressing concern that their commercials are being showcased alongside violent and abusive content. And in the wake of the live streaming of the massacre in Christchurch, governments are now threatening to hold social media platforms, and even their executives, to account for broadcasting extremist content.
At the same time, we’re also seeing signs that Facebook’s growth is slowing down. The platform added just two million users in North America and five million users in Europe in the last quarter of 2018. Nor is Mark Zuckerberg’s site the only platform that’s meeting headwinds.
Twitter is now better known for its streams of outrage, its bots, and its trolls than for the authentic branding opportunities that it promised in its early days. And Snapchat? It lost five million users in quarters two and three of 2018.
The Social Media Clock Is Ticking
It’s not all bad news though. While America’s leading social media platforms are feeling blowback from regulators and the public, one social media platform has been roaring ahead showing what is wrong with the world of social media.
TikTok is a short-form video app made by a Chinese artificial intelligence (A.I.) firm called ByteDance.
But Why the Sharp Growth?
While Facebook has barely limped ahead and Snapchat fell back, TikTok added 75 million new users last December, more than three times the 20 million users it added in December 2017.
#1—Machine Learning and A.I.
While the specific reasons for the sudden growth are varied, the majority of the growth correlates with the utilization of machine learning and A.I.. ByteDance emphasizes its machine learning which may make it better at suggesting more videos that users can enjoy.
New users don’t have to wait for their friends to join up before they have content to consume; the AI engine makes sure that they always have something to watch. The app has been described as “Instagram for the video mobile age.”
#2—Embracing the International Users
When TikTok purchased the US rival Musical.ly in November 2017, it took its first step into a much larger world. In August 2018, it merged the user bases, including the number of international users. Since then, the company’s growth has been rocket-fueled. With the large number of users in China and high rates of growth in India, it’s really no surprise the app is experiencing this high-level growth.
But of all the reasons TikTok has been doing so well, there’s one factor that sets it apart from every other social media app on the market—it’s genuinely fun. The videos that people upload tend to show teens lip-syncing or playing tricks on each other—or on their parents. Users can watch, laugh, then watch another. There are none of the bitter politics that have poisoned Facebook and Twitter, and so far at least none of the privacy and data issues either.
Potential to Succumb to Existing Market Security Issues?
It’s possible that that will change. As TikTok grows and accumulates more user data, it might well find itself succumbing to the same temptations that have harmed Facebook. The content that people upload may eventually come to include the same type of videos that have plagued YouTube.
China has a more sophisticated social media environment in which it’s possible to buy train tickets, pay bills, and even make investments without leaving the app, but is even more lax about privacy issues and applies much stricter speech controls. Americans might welcome the rapid removal of extremist content from platforms but they’re less likely to accept the censorship of all political content that characterizes China’s social media environment.
It’s not certain that TikTok will continue to be as successful as its recent growth suggests. But the rising popularity of a social media platform that offers nothing but user-generated, harmless fun reveals what much of today’s social media has lost, and shows what it needs to regain if it’s going to find new growth.