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My boss doesn’t know what TikTok is. So I wrote this story

U.S. lawmakers accused TikTok of threatening national security. That’s right, TikTok.

In this Feb. 28, 2018 photo, Matty Nev Luby holds her phone and logs into the lip-sync smartphone app Musical.ly, in Wethersfield, Conn.
In this Feb. 28, 2018 photo, Matty Nev Luby holds her phone and logs into the lip-sync smartphone app Musical.ly, in Wethersfield, Conn.
Jessica Hill, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — There’s a good chance that you don’t use TikTok. It’s really popular among American high schoolers searching for viral success and, of course, The Washington Post guy who brings Americans everywhere into newsrooms. But it’s still under the radar for young adults, older Americans and pretty much anyone sick of social media.

But TikTok might be the social media app you’re looking for, as long as you’re OK with the app’s widespread controversies. The app is full of comedy, lighthearted skits and popular videos that play off of meme culture. It’s an escape from the news, the advertising world and everything else we see on our phones.

Let’s breakdown what TikTok is before we go deeper.

  • Most videos on TikTok last about 15 to 60 seconds and are often set to music.
  • The music includes popular and classic tunes, as well as songs from unknown artists.
  • The videos feature fast, quick cuts.
  • Sometimes someone in the video lip-syncs or dances over music.
  • Some users will shake their head or nod as text overlays ask questions.

The videos are fun. They’re cool. They’re hip. And they’re not in anyway associated with the Ke$ha song. The only way to understand TikTok, truly, is to use it.

“Watching too many in a row can feel like you’re about to have a brain freeze. They’re incredibly addictive,” wrote Taylor Lorenz in a piece for The Atlantic.

TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based Bytedance, has become one of the only social media apps owned by China to gain popularity in the United States. The owner bought a similar app called Musical.ly in August. Since then, TikTok has appeared everywhere in ads on Instagram, Snapchat and more social media.

And it has shown tremendous results. In fact, TikTok surpassed Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat in terms of monthly installs — partly because it’s a newer app, — and it was downloaded more than 1 billion times in 2018, according to Vox. Of course, it has fewer users than Facebook, but it has more than Twitter and Snapchat. And it has 26 million users in the U.S. alone.

The app is partly like Vine (for those who don’t remember, Vine was an app that released six-second videos to play in quick succession) or Snapchat (quick videos). The app is its own unique beast, offering “cringe” material, Lorenz put it, or even helping singers go viral (see: Lil Nas X, singer of “Old Town Road,” who got his start on TikTok).

But the app has been plagued by questions on data, its connection to China and some questionable content included inside. Still, the app may be one of the few places of solace left in a buzzing social media world.

Why do you use it?

The app is popular with teenagers. It’s the typical new social media app. Teens start using, adults try to adapt to it and then the next app comes along to displace it.

The act of scrolling through TikTok will transport you into the worlds of regular American teenagers whose videos have thousands of likes and hundreds of supportive comments,” according to Vox.

Adults, for the most part, don’t really fit into the TikTok playbook, mostly because it’s become filled with high school teens making videos.

“Adults are just learning what it is and getting on there,” Jack Wagner, a popular Instagram memer and internet personality, told Lorenz in The Atlantic piece. “I haven’t seen one piece of content on there made by an adult that’s normal and good. To be a grown adult doing a cute karaoke video on an app and trying to make it go viral is odd behavior.”

But there is one adult who has gained popularity in the media. The Washington Post guy — aka Dave Jorgenson. He’ll record clips from inside The Washington Post newsroom, involving other Washington Post reporters and staff members.

Other celebrities have started to jump on the app. Professional video game star Ninja recently joined, for example.

Reese Witherspoon went viral a few weeks back for using the app. Witherspoon posted a video on social media that shows her learning the tricks of the trade with the TikTok app, which is a short-form video platform that combines music, audio and videos.

“Deacon, this is very important. I’ve brought you here because I have questions for you,” she said in the video, asking, “What is TikTok?”

From there, Witherspoon and her son worked through some dance moves, hoping to create a video that they could post on the TikTok app.

@deaconphillippe tries to teach me how to TikTok I think I nailed it ...” she captioned her video.

So even those who don’t normally use it are beginning to understand it.

Why is it controversial?

TIkTok faces backlash in the United States, especially among lawmakers.

Just this week, U.S. lawmakers expressed concern that TikTok might be a national security risk and have called for intelligence agencies to investigate the app to see if it has ties to China, CNN reports.

Sens. Chuck Schumer, Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio want the intelligence committees to look into the security risks associated with the app and any others that are owned by Chinese companies, according to CNN.

The senators suggest the apps could be used to spy on Americans or influence American politics in much of the same way Russia used Facebook to influence the 2016 presidential election.

TikTok fired back against the attacks from Congress, which has also accused the company of blocking content that counters Chinese propaganda, according to Gizmodo.

In a blog post, TikTok state it doesn’t censor content that China wouldn’t like and it doesn’t hold itself to Chinese law, according to The Verge.

“At TikTok, we take these issues incredibly seriously,” the blog posts reads. “We are committed to transparency and accountability in how we support our TikTok users in the U.S. and around the world. In light of recent claims, we believe it is critical to set the record straight on some specific issues.

“We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period,” the blog post reads.

In October, Rubio called on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to review TikTok’s decision to purchase Musical.ly after a Washington Post story revealed that there weren’t a lot of posts about Hong Kong on TikTok.

“There continues to be ample and growing evidence that TikTok’s platform for Western markets, including those in the United States, is censoring content that is not in line with the Chinese Government and Communist Party directives,” Rubio said in a statement at the time, per CNN.

What about data?

TikTok previously made headlines for exposing data. The Federal Trade Commission hit the company with a $5.7 million fine for illegally collecting data on children younger than 13 years old (it was technically Musical.ly hit with the fine), which is a clear violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which was established in 1998.

The FTC said in its complaint that TikTok was aware that a significant number of its users were younger than 13 and received complaints from parents of those children. But the app didn’t require people to enter their ages until later in the year, according to WIRED.

The app changed its tune and required people enter their ages — no one younger than 13 could create an account — but didn’t do anything to change the rules for those who already had accounts.

Every TikTok profile is public by default. But even when they’re private, users can still message you. Parents were worried that their teens would receive unsolicited messages from creeps, stalkers and pedophiles searching the app.

TikTok announced at the time that it would launch a separate portion of the app for those under 13 that “introduces additional safety and privacy protections designed specifically for this audience,” according to WIRED.

TikTok has a darker, sexual side as well. Teenagers will post videos of themselves tightening clothes around themselves or wearing little articles of clothing with music playing in the background — videos that could be deemed “thirst traps,” as the kids say these days.

The app doesn’t have a filter for explicit music either, as reported by Amy Iverson.

“The music library is gigantic, and users will likely find any soundtrack they want to put in their video,” Iverson wrote. “But parents should know there is no shortage of music with explicit lyrics and no way to filter it out. And the worst part is that there is no warning that the foul language is part of any given song. So while scrolling through to find a song you want to use, if you aren’t familiar with every piece of music, the language can catch you by surprise.”