A trip down TikTok’s rabbit hole

First-year biology major Maddie Terry checks TikTok for new videos daily. Photo: Mike Montero/University of Miami

By Ashley A. Williams and Janette Neuwahl Tannen

First-year biology major Maddie Terry checks TikTok for new videos daily. Photo: Mike Montero/University of Miami

A trip down TikTok’s rabbit hole

By Ashley A. Williams and Janette Neuwahl Tannen
TikTok’s rapid rise in popularity presents a business opportunity, as well as concerns about privacy and censorship.

University of Miami sophomore Aliya Redd was studying for her finals outside the Shalala Student Center last week when she decided to take a break.

She pointed her phone toward her and began doing “The Woah,” rotating her hands and pumping her shoulders to the beat of the song playing.

Redd wasn’t just dancing for fun though. She was recording a TikTok video. She recently downloaded the application, and like millions of other young adults, she was hooked.

“All of my friends and my sister have TikTok so they wanted me to make one—I gave in and downloaded the app yesterday and it’s kind of addictive,” said Redd, a biochemistry major.

In the past few months, TikTok has skyrocketed in popularity, especially among people under the age of 24, who make up more than 40 percent of the app’s estimated 500 million active users worldwide, reports from the analytics firm Sensor Tower indicate. It is also the second most downloaded free app among iPhone users, only currently surpassed by Disney+. 

TikTok users create 15-second lighthearted videos, often set to music, that will loop until the viewer decides to swipe to a new clip. Video creators can also use filters to add words or pictures that will appear on their video, as well as special effects. Or users can simply watch. 

Viral musicians such as Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown had their careers catapulted into stardom because of TikTok, and celebrities like Will Smith and University of Miami alumnus Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson use the platform as an expressive tool and avenue to connect with their fans. 

Started by the Chinese company ByteDance in 2017, TikTok is the successor to Musical.ly, a karaoke app. Yet, TikTok improved upon its earlier model by using artificial intelligence and machine learning to zero in on the types of videos each user prefers. That keeps users on the app longer.  

“Honestly, I used to hate it. It was something that I used to make fun of but then I starting watching,” said first-year student and biology major, Maddie Terry.

She blames her old roommate for her new pastime.

“I’ve even been featured in some of her videos dancing. Now, it’s a daily thing for me to toggle between TikTok and other social media apps,” she said.

Jacobo Salvarriaga, a senior mechanical engineering major, downloaded TikTok after a few friends had reposted videos on their Instagram.

“I was bored of the other social media apps because they lack creativity,” he said. “TikTok is more entertaining than other social media.”

Now, he has to limit himself from watching it too much. Salvarriaga tries not to use it every day because when he does, a few minutes turn into two hours.

“I love it,” he said. 

Biomedical engineering major Melissa Suarez also downloaded TikTok because her friends were posting videos from it. She now uses the app daily and admitted sheepishly that she spends hours on it unintentionally.

“You lose track of time,” she said. 

When asked what video hooked her, Suarez paused for a few seconds and then remembered the adorable dog videos that populate her feed.

“It’s the corgis that get me,” she said, referring to the Welsh Corgi breed.

TikTok’s fast growing success and the idea that it can reach so many people across the world makes it a fascinating business that is attractive to advertisers. It is also an alluring outlet for social media influencers who endorse products to their followers, said Michael Wilson, senior lecturer and faculty director of entrepreneurship programs at the Miami Herbert Business School.

“TikTok has perfected their algorithm,” said Wilson, who has worked with many application companies including the free ride-sharing app started by three UM graduates called Freebee. “It’s like a billboard that blinks.”

However, since TikTok’s parent company is based in China, many are questioning how users’ data is stored. Computer science and engineering lecturer Lokesh Ramamoorthi, who teaches cybersecurity, said those considering downloading the app should proceed with caution because hackers can manipulate the videos to create inappropriate content. Also, anyone with foul intentions could contact a TikTok user through the comments section below videos or in a message.

“People should be skeptical about the app before downloading it or uploading any content on TikTok because even though the company publicly denied that there is any spying by the Chinese government, as with any app, there’s no way to verify that they are not doing it,” he said. “Anything we upload is stored on the servers of TikTok, and if you do not manage your privacy settings, anyone can see the videos.”

Students do not seem to share the same concerns about privacy. 

“I feel like [apps] have a lot of control over most things anyway, so if it’s not TikTok, they could find some other source,” Suarez said.

Yet TikTok is the first social media app from China to catch the world’s attention. That has caused recent concerns about censorship from the U.S. government, which opened an investigation into the app after a video was taken down that criticized the Chinese government.

Tyler Walsh, a sophomore double majoring in broadcast journalism and psychology, understands the need for applications to limit hurtful comments. However, he also feels that TikTok users should have creative freedom.

“What damage is TikTok going to do in terms of furthering politics within the country?” said Walsh. “I don’t know everything that’s happening in China, but I do understand that they have to limit some things for security reasons, but it’s just an app for users to have fun.” 

To follow University of Miami’s official TikTok accounts, visit @miami.hurricanes, @um_sebastian, and @univmiami.