Everyone is talking about TikTok. The short form video app is a belated successor to Vine and is incredibly popular with children and teenagers.
It has over 1.5 billion downloads, tops the app charts almost every month, and has unparalleled interaction and daily use rates. TikTok users have the app open 52 minutes a day, a startling number if you consider even Facebook can only claim 35 minutes. I first wrote about TikTok in 2018, when it became clear that Facebook had noticed TikTok and was scared.
Recently, I’ve noticed some amazing Medium articles extolling the virtues of using TikTok, either as an individual looking to build a following or as a company looking to display brand values and engage fans through short videos.
TikTok does have many virtues. First and most importantly, it is fun. I haven’t enjoyed using an app this much since Vine shuttered. It’s also great for making friends or distributing a message quickly. For brands, it can be one of the only ways to reach teenagers who by default block ads in every other channel.
However, it is only with extended use that some of the pitfalls of TikTok become visible. And the importance of these pitfalls should not be underestimated.
TikTok has four key issues that need to be addressed prior to using the platform in a business context.
First: user age.
The comscore user statistics often cited regarding TikTok user age are, unfortunately, inherently flawed: most likely for privacy reasons, the demographic survey only dealt with users over age 18.
So while on paper it might look like TikTok has a large base of adult users, the vast majority of faces on TikTok appear so young that a chill of shock and fear will run up the spines of childless Millennials who have first opened the app and discovered that kids that young are allowed to post videos to an open forum on the Internet.
Some users are under 8. It is unclear if their phone use is ever supervised.
For that reason, brands must be aware that their content will inevitably reach incredibly young children. Further, they must monitor the comments and other reactions to their content to shield users from unexpected sources of hatred, violence, or sexuality inappropriate to their audience.
While I could go down a dark road of privacy and espionage conspiracy theories due to the origin country of TikTok’s parent company, I will leave that to other publications, largely since I believe our greatest concerns are likely domestic (Amazon Ring, for example).
But it is worth mentioning that if your customers work in government, military, NGOs, law enforcement, or similarly sensitive industries, this is probably not your ideal channel as these individuals are likely already barred from using TikTok.
For example, this is a warning not to install TikTok on government-supplied phones posted to an Air Force Facebook forum. Close reading of the memo in the photo suggests the audience is actually wider than the Air Force alone.
TikTok is also currently under investigation by Congress and by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), a branch of the U.S. Treasury.
The outcome of these investigations are unlikely to be good for ByteDance, and Bloomberg reported that the Chinese company is already lining up potential buyers for the app.
Third: TikTok doesn’t understand bullies.
As much as covert mobile data gathering should be alarming, it is possible that the greatest Chinese threat to American children isn’t related to state secrets but instead to a cultural difference in sheltering the feelings of youth.
In traditional Chinese culture, the most polite response to a compliment is to deflect it — the response “哪里哪里 / nali nali” literally means “where?” almost as if you’re looking around for the other person that might be worthy of such praise.
This doubly extends to children of impressionable ages. If a parent is given a compliment of their child, a common response is either to downplay the importance of their ability or even to deny their child possesses that skill at all. To Americans, this might seem hurtful, but this is meant to teach modesty and humility, values that are incredibly important in collectivist cultures such as China’s.
(It is also highly uncommon in China to praise children the way American parents and teachers do. Many Chinese parents are startled when a child returns home with proof of subpar or half-hearted efforts at school that the teacher has effused over.)
So when Chinese moderators are called in to handle social issues in the American cousin of the DouYin app (TikTok), they are culturally unprepared to coddle American sensibilities. TikTok is notorious for being as likely to ban the person raising a complaint as the aggressor. And sometimes banning can come out of the blue, seemingly without cause.
One symptom of this type of misunderstanding was recently revealed to the horror of most TikTok-using Americans: TikTok moderators, possibly stressed and a little confused by the rampant bullying of Americans (bullying is less common in collectivist cultures but very much a timely concern in China), did about the worst thing we could imagine them doing.
To protect vulnerable people from bullying, TikTok’s moderators flagged user accounts prior to complaints of bullying.
Moderators were asked to preemptively and visually judge if users were at risk of bullying: if the person was fat, gay, or admitted to a mental illness, TikTok then shadowbanned their account.
Without notifying the vulnerable individual TikTok moderators barred accounts from appearing in search or surfacing in any of the usual discovery channels afforded to straight/healthy/thin TikTok users.
This type of “protection” should naturally alarm brands wishing to use TikTok, as it is unacceptable and clearly discriminatory.
Aligning a brand with a company that openly silences LGBTQ+ or overweight users could prove an unwise decision over time, even if TikTok ends their policy due to public censure. That this decision was ever approved has revealed TikTok’s poor judgement and lack of empathy.
Four: you’ll need to understand bullying, too.
The final risk is that by producing ads or content on TikTok a brand unwittingly begins to oversee interaction between users, many of whom are underage, within comments or video duets and reactions.
While some of the onus to moderate these responses will fall to TikTok, any screen captures taken by users will include your brand name. Therefore, not only for ethical reasons, if a brand delves into TikTok, they should have a 24-hour crisis response planned.
Hatred, bullying, and threats of self-harm are all plausible within TikTok comments, and a brand’s social media team should have written policy responses to each of these events.
Brands should also be aware that by publicly censuring users they might unwittingly cause mob reactions against the initial offender. So while it might seem as if chastising someone for an offensive comment might uphold brand values, it can quickly spiral out of control with unintended consequences.
The ocean is huge and shark attacks are rare.
While these pitfalls are important and must be discussed prior to using TikTok to promote a brand, they shouldn’t be enough to dissuade every brand from using it.
Brands whose users might be identified by TikTok as vulnerable to bullying are the companies who need to approach this app with the most caution. For other brands, most of these pitfalls can be solved with preparation and educating the team in procedure and safety measures.
If your brand is considering using TikTok, have all the members of your social media team download the app and create a profile at least a week before discussion starts on its use.
TikTok is more complicated than it might seem. Your team might not fully understand its culture until they’ve posted a few videos. Delving into the app themselves will give your team empathy for your customers going forward.
Good luck. TikTok is a great opportunity to engage one on one with your customers. Just be prepared to keep them safe and happy.