On 9 November 2017, TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, spent up to U.S.$1 billion to purchase musical.ly, a startup headquartered in Shanghai with an overseas office in Santa Monica, California, U.S. Musical.ly was a social media video platform that allowed users to create short lip-sync and comedy videos, initially released in August 2014. It was well known, especially to the younger audience. Looking forward to leveraging the U.S. digital platform's young user base, TikTok merged with musical.ly on 2 August 2018 to create a larger video community, with existing accounts and data consolidated into one app, keeping the title TikTok. This ended musical.ly and made TikTok a worldwide app, excluding China, since China already has Douyin.
TikTok and Douyin have almost the same user interface but no access to each other's content. Their servers are each based in the market where the respective app is available. The two products are similar, but features are not identical. Douyin includes an in-video search feature that can search by people's face for more videos of them and other features such as buying, booking hotels and making geo-tagged reviews. Since its launch in 2016, TikTok/Douyin rapidly gained popularity in East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the USA, Turkey, Russia, and other parts of the world. As of October 2020, TikTok surpassed over 2 billion mobile downloads worldwide.
Douyin was launched by ByteDance in Beijing, China in September 2016, originally under the name A.me, before rebranding to Douyin (抖音) in December 2016. ByteDance planned on Douyin expanding overseas. The founder of ByteDance, Zhang Yiming, stated that "China is home to only one-fifth of Internet users globally. If we don’t expand on a global scale, we are bound to lose to peers eyeing the four-fifths. So, going global is a must." Douyin was developed in 200 days and within a year had 100 million users, with more than one billion videos viewed every day.
TikTok, known in China as Douyin (Chinese: 抖音; pinyin: Dǒuyīn), is a video-sharing focused social networking service owned by Chinese company ByteDance. The social media platform is used to make a variety of short-form videos, from genres like dance, comedy, and education, that have a duration from fifteen seconds to three minutes. TikTok is an international version of Douyin, which was originally released in the Chinese market in September 2016. Later, TikTok was launched in 2017 for iOS and Android in most markets outside of mainland China; however, it only became available worldwide after merging with another Chinese social media service, Musical.ly, on 2 August 2018.
The app was launched as TikTok in the international market in September 2017. On 23 January 2018, the TikTok app ranked No. 1 among free app downloads on app stores in Thailand and other countries.
After merging with musical.ly in August, downloads increased and TikTok became the most downloaded app in the U.S. in October 2018, which musical.ly had done once before. In February 2019, TikTok, together with Douyin, hit one billion downloads globally, excluding Android installs in China. In 2019, media outlets cited TikTok as the 7th-most-downloaded mobile app of the decade, from 2010 to 2019. It was also the most-downloaded app on Apple's App Store in 2018 and 2019, surpassing Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. In September 2020, a deal was confirmed between ByteDance and Oracle in which the latter will serve as a partner to provide cloud hosting. Walmart intends to invest in TikTok. This deal would stall in 2021 as newly elected President Biden's Justice Department put a hold on the previous U.S. ban under President Trump. In November 2020, TikTok signed a licensing deal with Sony Music. In December 2020, Warner Music Group signed a licensing deal with TikTok.
In the United States, many celebrities including Jimmy Fallon and Tony Hawk began using the app in 2018. Other celebrities, including Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Alba, Will Smith, and Justin Bieber joined TikTok as well and many other celebrities have followed.
Many countries showed concerns regarding the content of TikTok which is thought to be obscene, immoral, vulgar and encouraging of pornography. There have been temporary blocks and warnings issued by countries including Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan over the content concerns. In 2018, Douyin was reprimanded by Chinese media watchdogs for showing "unacceptable" content, such as videos depicting adolescent pregnancies.
Some users may find it hard to stop using TikTok. In April 2018, an addiction-reduction feature was added to Douyin. This encouraged users to take a break every 90 minutes. Later in 2018, the feature was rolled out to the TikTok app. TikTok uses some top influencers such as Gabe Erwin, Alan Chikin Chow, James Henry, and Cosette Rinab to encourage viewers to stop using the app and take a break.
Tencent's WeChat platform has been accused of blocking Douyin's videos. In April 2018, Douyin sued Tencent and accused it of spreading false and damaging information on its WeChat platform, demanding CN¥1 million in compensation and an apology. In June 2018, Tencent filed a lawsuit against Toutiao and Douyin in a Beijing court, alleging they had repeatedly defamed Tencent with negative news and damaged its reputation, seeking a nominal sum of CN¥1 in compensation and a public apology. In response, Toutiao filed a complaint the following day against Tencent for allegedly unfair competition and asking for CN¥90 million in economic losses.
The app has spawned numerous viral trends, Internet celebrities, and music trends around the world. Many stars got their start on musical.ly, which merged with TikTok on 2 August 2018. These users include Loren Gray, Baby Ariel, Kristen Hancher, Zach King, Lisa and Lena, Jacob Sartorius, and many others. Loren Gray remained the most-followed individual on TikTok until Charli D’Amelio surpassed her on 25 March 2020. Gray's was the first TikTok account to reach 40 million followers on the platform. She was surpassed with 41.3 million followers. D'Amelio was the first to ever reach 50, 60, and 70 million followers. Until now Charli D’Amelio remains the most-followed individual on the platform. Other creators rose to fame after the platform merged with musical.ly on 2 August 2018.
In January 2019, the Chinese government said that it would start to hold app developers like ByteDance responsible for user content shared via apps such as Douyin, and listed 100 types of content that the Chinese government would censor. It was reported that certain content unfavorable to the Chinese Communist Party has already been limited for users outside of China such as content related to the 2019–20 Hong Kong protests or Tibetan independence. TikTok has blocked videos about human rights in China, particularly those that reference Xinjiang internment camps and abuses of ethnic and religious minorities such as the Uyghurs, and disabled the accounts of users who post them. TikTok's policies also ban content related to a specific list of foreign leaders such as Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, and Mahatma Gandhi because it can stir controversy and attacks on political views. Its policies also ban content critical of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and content considered pro-Kurdish. TikTok was reported to have censored users supportive of the Citizenship Amendment Act protests in India and those who promote Hindu-Muslim unity. On 27 November 2019, TikTok temporarily suspended the account of 17-year-old Afghan-American user Feroza Aziz after she posted a video, disguised as a makeup tutorial, drawing attention to the internment camps of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China. TikTok later apologized and explained that her account was suspended as a result of human error, and her account has since been reinstated. In July 2020, TikTok suspended the account of another user whose viral video called attention to human rights of the Uyghurs.
In February 2019, the United Kingdom's Information Commissioner's Office launched an investigation of TikTok following the fine ByteDance received from the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Speaking to a parliamentary committee, Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said that the investigation focuses on the issues of private data collection, the kind of videos collected and shared by children online, as well as the platform's open messaging system which allows any adult to message any child. She noted that the company was potentially violating the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which requires the company to provide different services and different protections for children.
On 27 February 2019, the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined ByteDance U.S.$5.7 million for collecting information from minors under the age of 13 in violation of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. ByteDance responded by adding a kids-only mode to TikTok which blocks the upload of videos, the building of user profiles, direct messaging, and commenting on others' videos, while still allowing the viewing and recording of content. In May 2020, an advocacy group filed a complaint with the FTC saying that TikTok had violated the terms of the February 2019 consent decree, which sparked subsequent Congressional calls for a renewed FTC investigation. In July 2020, it was reported that the FTC and the United States Department of Justice had initiated investigations.
In 2020, digital media companies such as Group Nine Media and Global used TikTok increasingly, focusing on tactics such as brokering partnerships with TikTok influencers and developing branded content campaigns. Notable collaborations between larger brands and top TikTok influencers have included Chipotle's partnership with David Dobrik in May 2019 and Dunkin' Donuts' partnership with Charli D'Amelio in September 2020.
Trends are shown on TikTok's explore page or the page with the search logo. The page enlists the trending hashtags and challenges among the app. Some include #posechallenge, #filterswitch, #dontjudgemechallenge, #homedecor, #hitormiss, #bottlecapchallenge and more. In June 2019, the company introduced the hashtag #EduTok which received 37 billion views. Following this development, the company initiated partnerships with edtech startups to create educational content on the platform.
On 3 September 2019, TikTok and the U.S. National Football League (NFL) announced a multi-year partnership. The agreement occurred just two days before the NFL's 100th season kick-off at the Soldier Field, where TikTok hosted activities for fans in honor of the deal. The partnership entails the launch of an official NFL TikTok account, which is to bring about new marketing opportunities such as sponsored videos and hashtag challenges. In July 2020, TikTok, excluding Douyin, reported close to 800 million monthly active users worldwide after less than four years of existence.
In October 2019, TikTok removed about two dozen accounts that were responsible for posting ISIS propaganda on the app.
In November 2019, a class action lawsuit was filed in California that alleged that TikTok transferred personally identifiable information of U.S. persons to servers located in China owned by Tencent and Alibaba. The lawsuit also accused ByteDance, TikTok's parent company, of taking user content without their permission. The plaintiff of the lawsuit, college student Misty Hong, downloaded the app but said she never created an account. She realized a few months later that TikTok has created an account for her using her information (such as biometric) and made a summary of her information. The lawsuit also alleged that information was sent to Chinese tech giant Baidu. In July 2020, twenty lawsuits against TikTok were merged into a single class action lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. In February 2021, TikTok agreed to pay $92 million to settle the class action lawsuit.
Several users have reported endemic cyberbullying on TikTok, including racism and ableism. In December 2019, following a report by German digital rights group Netzpolitik.org, TikTok admitted that it had suppressed videos by disabled users as well as LGBTQ+ users in a purported effort to limit cyberbullying. TikTok's moderators were also told to suppress users with "abnormal body shape", "ugly facial looks", "too many wrinkles", or in "slums, rural fields" and "dilapidated housing" to prevent bullying.
TikTok has allowed many other bands to gain a wider audience, often including foreign fans. For example, despite never having toured in Asia, the band Fitz and the Tantrums developed a large following in South Korea following the widespread popularity of their song "HandClap" on the platform. "Any Song" by R&B and rap artist Zico became number one on the Korean music charts due to the popularity of the #anysongchallenge, where users dance the choreography of "Any Song". "Any Song" was on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 17 weeks, breaking the record for the longest time a song was number one on the charts. The platform has received some criticism for not paying royalties to artists whose music is used on their platform. In 2020, more than 176 different songs surpassed 1 billion video views on TikTok.
In January 2020, Check Point Research discovered a security flaw in TikTok which could have allowed hackers access to user accounts using SMS. In February, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman criticised the app, calling it "spyware," and stating "I look at that app as so fundamentally parasitic, that it's always listening, the fingerprinting technology they use is truly terrifying, and I could not bring myself to install an app like that on my phone." Responding to Huffman's comments, TikTok stated "These are baseless accusations made without a shred of evidence." Wells Fargo banned the app from its devices due to privacy and security concerns.
In January 2020, Media Matters for America said that TikTok hosted misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic despite a recent policy against misinformation. In April 2020, the government of India asked TikTok to remove users posting misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. There were also multiple conspiracy theories that the government is involved with the spread of the pandemic. As a response to this, TikTok launched a feature to report content for misinformation.
TikTok announced a "family safety mode" in February 2020 for parents to be able to control their children's digital well-being. There is a screen time management option, restricted mode, and can put a limit on direct messages.
In March 2020, internal documents leaked to The Intercept revealed that moderators had been instructed to suppress posts created by users deemed "too ugly, poor, or disabled" for the platform, and to censor political speech in livestreams, punishing those who harmed "national honor" or broadcast streams about "state organs such as police" with bans from the platform.
In April 2020, TikTok officially cooperated with mainland China's Internet censorship mechanism and began to prohibit the use of overseas versions of Douyin in mainland China. Different from general blockade, TikTok adopted an IP lock zone, mainly for mainland China; Hong Kong and Macau were not affected. The direct consequence of the lock zone is that Chinese users cannot log in to TikTok using a VPN. Officials have also restricted the numbers of China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom. The phone numbers of the above three cannot log in to TikTok. Even so, there are a large number of cracked versions of TikTok on the Chinese Internet. The cracked version of TikTok can watch videos normally, but the phone number restriction has not been cracked and users cannot log in.
In May 2020, the Dutch Data Protection Authority announced an investigation into TikTok in relation to privacy protections for children. In June 2020, the European Data Protection Board announced that it would assemble a task force to examine TikTok's user privacy and security practices.
In June 2020, The Times of India reported that TikTok was "shadow banning" videos related to the Sino-Indian border dispute and the 2020 China–India skirmishes.
In June 2020, The Wall Street Journal reported that some previously non-political TikTok users were airing pro-Beijing views for the explicit purpose of boosting subscribers and avoiding "shadow" bans. In July 2020, the company announced it was pulling out of Hong Kong responding to the Hong Kong national security law.
In June 2020, TikTok users and K-pop fans "claimed to have registered potentially hundreds of thousands of tickets" for President Trump's campaign rally in Tulsa through communication on TikTok, contributing to "rows of empty seats" at the event.
In May 2021, TikTok appointed Shou Zi Chew as their new CEO. He assumed the position from interim CEO Vanessa Pappas, following the resignation of Kevin A. Mayer on 27 August 2020. On 3 August 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to ban TikTok in the United States on 15 September if negotiations for the company to be bought by Microsoft or a different "very American" company failed. On 6 August, Trump signed two executive orders banning U.S. "transactions" with TikTok and WeChat to its respective parent companies ByteDance and Tencent, set to take effect 45 days after the signing. A planned ban of the app on 20 September 2020 was postponed by a week and then blocked by a federal judge. President Biden revoked the ban in a new executive order in June 2021. The app has been banned by the government of India since June 2020 along with 223 other Chinese apps in response to a border clash with China. Pakistan banned TikTok citing "immoral" and "indecent" videos on 9 October 2020 but reversed its ban ten days later on 19 October 2020. Then in March 2021, a Pakistani court ordered a new TikTok ban due to complaints over "indecent" content.
TikTok has banned Holocaust denial, but other conspiracy theories have become popular on the platform, such as Pizzagate and QAnon (two conspiracy theories popular among the U.S. alt-right) whose hashtags reached almost 80 million views and 50 million views respectively by June 2020. The platform has also been used to spread misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic, such as clips from Plandemic. TikTok removed some of these videos, and has generally added links to accurate COVID-19 information on videos with tags related to the pandemic.
TikTok was banned completely in India by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on 29 June 2020, along with 223 other Chinese apps, with a statement saying they were "prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of state and public order". The ban was made permanent in January 2021. In February 2021, TikTok announced that due to the ban it will cut more than 2,000 jobs in India.
Globally, 44% of TikTok users are female while 56% are male. TikTok's geographical use has shown that 43% of new users are from India. TikTok tends to appeal to younger users, as 41% of its users are between the ages of 16 and 24. Among these TikTok users, 90% say they use the app daily. As of July 2020, there were over 90 million monthly active users in the United States alone.
On 27 July 2020, Egypt sentenced five women to two years in prison over TikTok videos on charges of violating public morals. The court also imposed a fine of 300,000 Egyptian pounds (UK£14,600) on each defendant.
In August 2020, The Wall Street Journal reported that TikTok tracked Android user data, including MAC addresses and IMEIs, with a tactic in violation of Google's policies. The report sparked calls in the U.S. Senate for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to launch an investigation.
On 10 August 2020, Emily Jacobssen wrote and sang "Ode To Remy," a song praising the protagonist from Pixar's 2007 computer-animated film named Ratatouille. The song rose to popularity when musician Daniel Mertzlufft composed a backing track to the song. In response, began creating a "crowdsourced" project called Ratatouille The Musical. Since Mertzlufft's video, many new elements including costume design, additional songs, and a playbill have been created. The trend has been even been noticed by Lou Romano, who voiced Alfredo Linguini in the original film; Broadway performer Kevin Chamberlin; and Disney Channel actor Milo Manheim. On 1 January 2021, a full one-hour virtual presentation of Ratatouille the Musical premiered on the TodayTix. The production featured elements created via TikTok. It starred Titus Burgess as Remy, Wayne Brady as Django, Adam Lambert as Emile, Chamberlin as Gusteau, Andrew Barth Feldman as Linguini, Ashley Park as Colette, Priscilla Lopez as Mabel, Mary Testa as Skinner, and André De Shields as Ego.
On 14 August 2020, Trump issued another order giving ByteDance 90 days to sell or spin off its U.S. TikTok business. In the order, Trump said that there is "credible evidence" that leads him to believe that ByteDance "might take action that threatens to impair the national security of the United States."
On 6 August 2020, then U.S. President Donald Trump signed an order which would ban TikTok transactions in 45 days if it was not sold by ByteDance. Trump also signed a similar order against the WeChat application owned by the Chinese multinational company Tencent.
On September 18, TikTok filed a lawsuit, TikTok v. Trump. On 23 September 2020, TikTok filed a request for a preliminary injunction to prevent the app from being banned by the Trump administration. U.S. judge Carl J. Nichols temporarily blocked the Trump administration order that would effectively ban TikTok from being downloaded in U.S. app stores starting midnight on 27 September 2020. Nichols allowed the app to remain available in the U.S. app stores, but declined to block the additional Commerce Department restrictions that could have a larger impact on TikTok's operations in the U.S. These restrictions were set to take place 12 November 2020.
The app expanded its parental controls feature called "Family Pairing" in September 2020 to provide parents and guardians with educational resources to understand what children on TikTok are exposed to. Content for the feature was created in partnership with online safety nonprofit, Internet Matters.
In October 2020, the ecommerce platform Shopify added TikTok to its portfolio of social media platforms, allowing online merchants to sell their products directly to consumers on TikTok.
On 11 October 2020, Pakistan became the next country to ban the social media platform after not complying with issues regarding the content on the platform brought up by their government. TikTok representatives are currently speaking with Pakistani officials in hopes of building better relations and allowing the people of Pakistan to create on the platform.
In November 2020, a former TikTok executive stated to a UK parliamentary committee that TikTok censored content critical of China and particularly content related to the Uyghur genocide.
In 2021 the platform revealed that it will be introducing a feature that will prevent teenagers from receiving notifications past their bedtime. The company will no longer send push notifications after 9pm to users aged between 13 and 15. For 16-year-olds and those aged 17 notifications will not be sent after 10pm.
In 2021, The New York Times reported that viral TikTok videos by young people relating the emotional impact of books on them, tagged with the label "BookTok", significantly drove sales of literature. Publishers were increasingly using the platform as a venue for influencer marketing.
In January 2021, TikTok banned Trump content deemed to be inciting violence.
In January 2021, the Great Firewall of China's blocking measures on TikTok were further upgraded, and the monitoring of the cracked version of TikTok was increased, and measures such as node blocking and IP blocking were adopted to interfere with the normal watching of videos by mainland users: that is, users watch normally, but after a few videos, the video cannot be refreshed, and you need to re-enter the software before you can continue watching.
On 22 January 2021, the Italian Data Protection Authority ordered the blocking of the use of the data of users whose age has not been established on the social network. The order was issued after the death of a 10-year-old Sicilian girl, which occurred after the execution of a challenge shared by users of the platform that involved attempting to choke the user with a belt around the neck. The block is set to remain in place until 15 February, when it will be re-evaluated.
Slowly turning into a hub of influencer marketing, Abu Dhabi (UAE) partnered with TikTok to promote its tourism, in April 2021. Under the channel name “Visit Abu Dhabi”, the Emirate aimed to engage with influencers who would showcase only the best of it to a worldwide audience. It came following the January 2021 winter campaign, initiated through a partnership between the UAE Government Media Office partnered and TikTok to promote the country's tourism. However, on the other side, the content creators in the country remained restricted. Under article 28 of Cyber-Crime Law, the UAE prohibits every person from publishing media content that violates its public image or poses a threat to its state security and to its highest interests. Many are often arrested or face charges for posting any photos or videos that are not in accordance with the country's image-building strategy.
On 3 February 2021, TikTok received a praise from Russian officials because social app's cooperation with them in deletion of "forbidden" content, mostly related to protest activity in Russia. In particular, as media censorship agency Roskomnadzor official Evgeniy Zaitsev stated that, "we need to highlight TikTok among other social media platforms because it has office in Russia and actively cooperated with us, which cannot be said about others". Also, the State Duma deputy Alexander Khinshtein said that TikTok new anti-fake news policies go well with the ideology of Russian content censorship law and edition of those "should be considered a very positive signal".
In May 2021, Canadian voice actor Bev Standing filed a lawsuit against TikTok overuse of her voice in a filter without permission. The lawsuit was filed in the Southern District of New York. TikTok declined to comment. She believes the company used recordings made for the Chinese government-run Institute of Acoustics.
In May 2021, Pidgeon Pagonis, an American intersex activist, reported that for the second time the intersex hashtag wasn't working on TikTok. They couldn't click the tag on one of their own posts and trying to search for "intersex" pulled up a "null" page. TikTok told The Verge that in both of the instances Pagonis noticed, the tag had been removed by mistake and was subsequently restored. However, because there was no public statement about the accidental removal, Pagonis and others were left to speculate about whether it was being intentionally censored.
In June 2021, President Biden signed an executive order revoking the Trump administration ban on TikTok, and instead ordered the Secretary of Commerce to investigate the app to determine if it poses a threat to U.S. national security.
In June 2021, the Netherlands-based Market Information Research Foundation (SOMI) filed a €1.4 billion lawsuit on behalf of Dutch parents against TikTok, alleging that the app gathers data on children without adequate permission.
In September 2021, the Ireland Data Protection Commissioner opened investigations into TikTok concerning protection of minors' data and transfers of personal data to China.