As the world starts to slowly reopen from the Pandemic of the last year, I’ve found myself travelling more. It was during these travels that one day I was sat in a coffee shop, waiting for my order to arrive. I took a moment to take in my surroundings. The coffee shop was busy, a queue worming its way from the counter to the door. The tables were also packed with customers at various stages of waiting, drinking and leaving.
It was as I looked around that a pattern seemed to emerge: Almost every customer under the age of 30 was on their phone. Not just checking email or reading the news but all staring at the same app. TikTok. Having finished my food and drink some time later, I left the coffee shop with a slight sense of unease. As I left, those I had spotted on their phones earlier were unchanged, a transfixed look on their faces as the next video scrolled into view.
A few days later I was at a family bar with some friends where, as I looked around during a lull in the conversation, I spotted some kids propping their phones up against a spare chair. They were filming something on their phone. They were filming a TikTok.
The idea of TikTok started gnawing at me. Although I’d never used the platform personally I’d encountered many that did. Unlike other social media apps I had dabbled with over the years, TikTok seemed different. For those that used the platform, TikTok seemed more like a lifestyle. Barring Silicon Valley, it was a novelty to see someone wearing clothing emblazoned with a social network logo, yet here I was seeing t-shirts, hats, and hoodies featuring the distinctive TikTok distorted musical note with considerable frequency.
Then one day I stopped by a local book shop while I was out and got to scouring the shelves for something of interest. It didn’t take long before there, in the new releases section, I found just what I was needing.
TikTok Boom by Chris Stokel-Walker. I immediately bought a copy and got to reading.
TikTok Boom is the first publication by Journalist Chris Stokel-Walker and poses a profound guiding question in it’s opening pages:
With increasing amounts of our lives being transacted online, does it matter if our data stays within control of a few firms in Silicon Valley or [migrates] to companies ultimately ran out of China?
What follows is an incredibly detailed look at the meteoric rise of TikTok, setting out to comprehensively analyse the company behind it, the impact TikTok is having not just at the user level but across society, and where TikTok might take us in the future.
To make such a lofty claim that the previous 20 years of American dominance in the social media space is about to be, or is in the process of being, upended speaks to the impact that TikTok has had in its short life span. As Chris points out, it took YouTube and Facebook around 15 years to gain 2 billion monthly users, if TikTok keeps up its current trajectory of adding millions of users per month then it will likely reach parity with, and perhaps even eclipse, that of its American competitors in just a quarter of the time.
Boiled down to its bare elements, TikTok is essentially just the epitome of the old business adage of ‘give the customer what they want’. It’s hardly a novel approach to building an app but it’s one that TikTok seems to have perfected like no one else. Chris spends several chapters building a timeline of TikTok’s creation, most of which is focused on the central goal of reducing friction in every aspect of the app - all to make the process of creating, publishing, and finding videos as seamless, and as addictive, as possible. In that regard TikTok looks to have succeeded, the algorithm which powers its For You page is often lauded for its uncanny ability to accurately determine what best to show you next. The algorithm is so good in fact that it has prompted numerous investigations into trying to figure out how it works.
I was initially sceptical of the quote ascribed on the front cover saying the book “reads like a thriller” but in reflection this rings true. Chapters are short meaning that topics are presented, explored, and analysed at a rapid pace without feeling disorientating. There’s a clear connection between what came before and what comes next that is hugely beneficial in building a nuanced view of TikTok. The occasional chapter is also appended with a brief interlude looking at a specific TikTok creator. These short sections offer a much more intimate look at how a given creator came to be but also the effect that TikTok fame has had on their life - and the work they have to put in to maintain it. It’s these quieter, more personal, moments in the book, amongst the discussions on potential threats to national security, fearsome legal battles, and international disputes, that help put into perspective just how ingrained TikTok has become.
The penultimate chapter of the book begins with a simple reminder:
TikTok is big. TikTok is here to stay. We need to pay attention to TikTok.
My trip, and the book, both coming to a close, I packed my bags and left the rented apartment. I passed a family on the way out. Their child was wearing a TikTok shirt.
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