TikTok: Internet sensation, an information station or a privacy invasion?

TikTok is a video-sharing social networking service based in China that was launched in 2016. (XanderSt/Shutterstock)TikTok is a video-sharing social networking service based in China that was launched in 2016. (XanderSt/Shutterstock)

Miranda Prescott, Correspondent

Throughout the history of the Internet, many websites have aimed to perfect the idea of a social construct on the World Wide Web. While many have been successful in this method, such as Facebook and Instagram, others have wielded popularity but ultimately fade away, such as MySpace. However, as of recently, no social media app or website can compare to the widespread popularity of a slightly new app on the market known as TikTok.

TikTok is typically described as a lip-synching app. Here, content creators can upload videos of themselves dancing or performing comedy sketches to dubbed voice clips saved onto a database in the app. Users can also use their own sounds and upload them for others to use in their videos.

The implications of “slightly new” come from the origins of the app itself. Even though it is the most popular app of its description, TikTok was certainly not the first of its kind. According to an article from Vox, the app is considered a “second iteration of Musical.ly.” The article goes on to say that Musical.ly was absorbed by TikTok in August 2018, after being acquired by the developers in the previous year.

Despite not being original in the idea, TikTok has surpassed its predecessor in terms of popularity. According to LiveMint, the app has been downloaded approximately 1.65 billion times since its initial release and users in the United States rose “to 37.2 million in 2019.” This makes TikTok the second most downloaded app on the market in Apple and Google stores.

So just what is making this app such a sensation across the globe? Why are college students, teenagers and celebrities alike jumping so heavily on the bandwagon for TikTok instead of anything else that is similar on the market?

In the LiveMint article, there is an answer: “To many users, what’s special is TikTok’s goofiness and sense of genuine fun. To use, just download the app and start swiping through videos. You don’t have to friend anyone or search for anything to watch.”

Because of the lighthearted energy on the app, more people than ever are flocking towards it. With the basic principles of the app itself, there is no need to seek out specific content on your own. All a user must do is download and start watching. The content comes to them, instead of other sites where you must ‘like’ specific things to see that content.

The app is also being used in ways other than just making original content that has the potential to go viral. People are using the app to spread awareness of certain topics that are needing the exposure to younger audiences. Users are presenting simplified explanations for economics, judicial processes and even subjects such as reproductive health.

Even major organizations are jumping onto the app for awareness. According to Business Insider, the World Health Organization is using the app to spread information about the coronavirus, or COVID-19.

“In the first of two videos posted to the WHO TikTok page, Bendetta Allegranzi, the technical lead of infection prevention and control, explained different ways to prevent the spread of coronavirus,” said the article.

TikTok has also helped many musicians and artist gain notoriety online with the app. Songs that are used in viral videos on the app have helped claim them massive success in the commercial world.

According to an article from CNN, “The success of these tracks, both old and new, highlights the impact that social media platforms – even a relative newcomer like TikTok – have on arts and culture… As a result, emerging and established artists sometimes get to watch as their music takes off organically as part of a trend or challenge on the social network.”

However, even with this general sense of user-specific content and those doing some good with the app, there comes a risk of privacy being invaded with such an algorithm. Many people who work within other social media apps have taken note of how TikTok’s privacy rules work, and they are very critical of it. In an article from USA Today, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman called the app “fundamentally parasitic.”

“Maybe I’m going to regret this, but I can’t even get to that level of thinking with them,” said Huffman. “Because I look at that app as so fundamentally parasitic, that it’s always listening, the fingerprinting technology they use is truly terrifying, and I could not bring myself to install an app like that on my phone.”

In fact, the privacy issues have caused many American government agencies to completely ban the use of the app on any government-issued device. According to the New York Times, the United States Army has banned the app from being used on military-issued smartphones, and even discourages its use on personal devices.

One of the biggest concerns the United States government holds with the app is the idea of censorship. In a similar article from Business Insider, “US Lawmakers have also been critical of TikTok as a potential security risk. In October, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida asked the Trump administration to investigate the app based on what he called ‘ample and growing evidence’ of censorship at the request of China.”

In the article, it also tells that the US Senate held a meeting in November 2019 about data security. They asked for representatives from major technology companies, including TikTok, which declined to send someone. They also scheduled meetings with lawmakers only to later cancel.

This poses the question as to what the app is hiding in terms of its privacy settings and why they are not willing to work with lawmakers in America over the issues they have with the app. However, that has not stopped the app from becoming a global sensation with teens and college students across the country. Until the privacy threat becomes too much for the younger generations to handle, TikTok will continue to grow in popularity and set the trend for other social media sites that follow in its digital footsteps.

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