What Is TikTok? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

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Those crazy kids. All they do is sing and dance and shoot videos of themselves in full-tilt karaoke. The latest video craze is TikTok, a free app for iOS and Android that specializes in 15-second, musically oriented videos. Previously known as Musical.ly, this lip-syncing music app’s updated name is infinitely more catchy.

TikTok videos can feature musical genres like hip-hop, EDM (electronic dance music), pop, rock, rap, and country, in video categories like Dance, Comedy, Vlog, Food, Sports, DIY, Animals, and … you name it. And just to keep it weird, some videos have no music at all. TikTok is not designed to be like your big sister’s old Vine account. According to TikTok: “It’s raw, real, and without boundaries … It’s from the gut, ‘come as you are’ storytelling told in 15 seconds.” Got it.

In many ways, TikTok is similar to other personal video apps out there — you capture whatever you’re doing, slap on some other elements (filters, special effects, stickers, and music), and then post it online for all to see. When you create an account, the app algorithm starts curating a personalized video feed targeted specifically to your tastes, based on what you watch, like, and share.

There’s plenty to choose from. The app hosts literally millions of videos gathered from a worldwide corps of creators that are selected specifically for you and designed to keep your eyeballs glued to your screen. And it’s also got some commercial content from the corporate world. So far, the formula seems to be working. You may not like every video, but it’s easy to just slide your finger on the screen to move on to the next one, and it’s hard to look away once you get started.

Videos are compelling because they are short: They last only 15 seconds and replay in a continuous loop. You can add sound effects and music to your videos, and edit them with millions of royalty-free music clips and sounds. Editing tools allow you to easily trim, cut, merge, and duplicate video clips, as well as add face stickers, emojis, and beautifying effects. The app continuously updates its livestreaming filters with creative new designs. That said, the results are all over the place, from showcasing obvious talent and precious moments — which can be a lot of fun — to videos so dumb as to be nearly unwatchable. My favorite was this older guy playing a ukulele and singing Over the Rainbow to his cat — but that’s just me.

Pro accounts

TikTok pro account

TikTok now differentiates between its regular and more prolific contributors by allowing interested users to view their performance stats via pro level accounts. These special accounts are designed to give contributors more insight into their performance online and how their audience is responding to their videos. Pro accounts provide an analytics tool to better gauge performance and audience engagement.

Privacy concerns

TikTok is targeted to users older than 13, and a large cohort of users appears to come from the Gen Z set — the middle school through college-age crowd, or anyone 24 years old or younger. Despite all the positive buzz about TikTok among the world’s youth, a dark underbelly emerged in the TikTok scene that caused the law to step in. Because the app is so popular among young people, children younger than 12 also flocked to it and inevitably saw content that their parents disapproved of. The privacy issue is what got TikTok into hot water with the feds.

In February, TikTok found itself staring at a record $5.7 million fine after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) judged that the app violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which regulates childrens’ privacy, by failing to get parental consent for users younger than 13. Besides illegally collecting information from kids, the app let all users send direct messages and interact via comments. There were even reports of adults contacting children through the app. And just this month, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in the United Kingdom launched an investigation into whether TikTok violated the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, the privacy law that mandates companies protect children’s personal data.

In response to the U.S. judgment, TikTok enacted a special privacy policy in a younger ecosystem for U.S. users younger than 13. It allows that age group to view and post videos, but limits information the app can collect from them to username, password, and birthday, as well as relevant metadata and location data. Kids can save their own videos, but not share them, and TikTok will not save them or allow the public to view them. Kids can’t exchange messages, comment on videos, or have a public profile or followers.

TikTok also established a Safety Center and a video tutorial series to explain community guidelines, its privacy settings, digital well-being tools, and more. TikTok also partnered with not-for-profit Internet Matters to help parents keep kids safe online and sponsored the launch of TikTok’s Safer Internet Day initiative.

Privacy settings let you decide whether or not you want others to find you, set your account to be private so others cannot view your videos, and choose who can send you messages, leave comments, and sing duets with you. The app’s Digital Well-being setting offers screen time management that can hold users to a 2-hour limit on the app per day and restrict inappropriate content.

The law

Given its numerous brushes with the authorities around privacy issues, TikTok has also posted a detailed road map on how it deals with law enforcement. The online document makes it clear that TikTok is ready to cooperate with law enforcement, but within reason and with presentation of appropriate legal documentation to give out private information, private video content, direct messages, and log data. It agrees to preserve user information for 90 days on formal request by law enforcement to its legal department — but from no one else, like parents. It evaluates emergency requests on a case-by-case basis and is open to not alerting the users who may be under investigation.

Bottom line

TikTok is a bustling marketplace bursting with creativity that has a specific appeal to musical young people. It’s purely an entertainment vehicle for anyone, free of charge. New privacy procedures set in place this year should help all users better control their environment and interactions with the rest of the TikTok community, and specifically protect children younger than 13 from inappropriate content and predatory behavior.

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