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What the Hell Is TikTok? A Look at the Top-Ranked App

Video-sharing app has teenagers trying to out-cringe each other

The top free app in the Apple App Store on Wednesday isn’t Instagram or Snapchat or Messenger. It’s TikTok, which has been blitzing up the rankings in the past few months. If you’re unfamiliar with the wildly popular video app, let’s get you up to speed.

First off, what the hell is TikTok? 

I’m glad you asked. It’s a social platform for making and sharing short-form videos. And “short form” is definitely the keyword here. The app specializes in clips that are 15 seconds or less — an evolutionary step up from Vine’s 6-second maximum length. Users can style their clips with a myriad of filters, including face filters similar to Instagram and Snapchat. Like Snapchat, videos are also shot vertically on TikTok.

Music is the backbone of the app: Users can add songs to their videos from pretty much any artist, from Kendrick Lamar to Lady Gaga, Slayer, you name it. You’ll quickly notice teenagers lip syncing is a common theme on the app. This clip of a high schooler singing and dancing to Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” has racked up nearly 500,000 views. That’s not out of the ordinary, with top videos routinely pulling in hundreds of thousands of views.

So… it’s just teenagers lip syncing? 

Nah. While Gen Z kids making their own music videos is a TikTok staple, there’s plenty of other stuff. There’s dancing. And parkour. And comedy — or at least, users lip syncing to comedy routines. And families doing Cardi B music parodies that would make Weird Al cringe. There’s also an entire cottage industry of pets doing cute things while music plays in the background.

It’s easy to get sucked into scrolling through a never-ending stream of videos when you open the app. And unlike Instagram, where vain, doctored pics are accompanied by trite captions in an effort to look “cool,” TikTok seems to go the other way. “Cringe,” as The Atlantic pointed out, is the lifeblood of TikTok, where clips are so lame they become endearing and hilarious.

What else should I know about the app? 

TikTok isn’t too complex. When you log in, your home screen hits you with a stream of clips from users you follow, or you can toggle over to seeing clips recommended for you. There’s a search option that also highlights trending hashtags. Users can send messages to other users, and at the bottom-center of the screen is a plus symbol for users to start making their videos. Once users have added their filters and music and finished recording, they can post their clips and get likes and comments, similar to Instagram. Users can also share their clips on several platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. There’s also a live video function.

How many people are using TikTok? 

A lot. The app hit 500 million global monthly active users over the summer. Twitter, for comparison, has about 326 million monthly users. TikTok was the world’s most downloaded app during the first half of 2018, according to data CNBC shared from analytics firm Sensor Tower, with 104 million downloads. The app had 150 million daily users, according to Fast Company, when it shared figures earlier this year. TikTok is looking to grab more fans, too, with an aggressive advertising push on YouTube and other platforms.

Data from AppTopia shows TikTok might not be as sticky as other social platforms, though. It’s engagement rate of 28 percent means users open the app about once every four days. Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram each have engagement rates greater than 94 percent.

Where’d it come from? 

TikTok launched in late 2016. It’s owned by ByteDance, a Chinese tech conglomerate that’s valued at $75 billion, The New York Times reported in September. Musical.ly, a similar app that allowed users to make music videos, was bought by ByteDance last year for nearly $1 billion and merged with TikTok in August, combining users of both apps under one roof.

Is there a major competitor? 

You won’t believe this, but Facebook recently launched its own version of TikTok, dubbed Lasso, just last week.

Are celebrities jumping on TikTok?

So far, it’s not overflowing with Hollywood stars or athletes like Instagram or Twitter. But there are signs celebs want to tap into its young demographic more. Jimmy Fallon, after calling TikTok a “really cool app” last week, launched the #TumbleweedChallenge, where users do their best impression of, well, a tumbleweed.