Who is behind the app?
This article is about the origin story of TikTok and who invented the app.
No TikTok without musical.ly
The history of TikTok is not complete without a small digression to the once popular social media app musical.ly. This was developed by the Chinese Louis Yang and Alex Zhu and published in 2014. The basic idea behind the app was to combine posting selfies and videos with music, as co-founder Zhu said in an interview with the New York Times. The lip-syncing of well-known songs in combination with dances was particularly popular among the predominantly very young users, also called musers. One peculiarity of musical.ly was its focus on the American market, not the founders’ home Chinese market. musical.ly Inc. had its headquarters in Shanghai as well as in Los Angeles. This was a tactically smart move, because otherwise the app would probably never have become so popular internationally due to the great Chinese firewall.
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A brief history of TikTok
In March 2012, Chinese Yiming Zhang founded ByteDance Ltd. In August of the same year, the company launched its first product, Toutiao. This is a news aggregator that creates individualised news feeds for its users.
Finally, in September 2016, the app Douyin followed, a short film platform in direct competition with musical.ly. But ByteDance did not only want to cover the Chinese market and so in May 2017, the clone of Douyin was created for all countries outside China: TikTok.
In November 2017, the Chinese digital group then absorbed its competitor musical.ly. According to estimates, the purchase price was between 800 million and 1 billion US dollars. However, as it now had two apps with a similar offering, the company decided to merge musical.ly and TikTok in August 2018. Musical.ly merged into TikTok along with its user base. This was a real boost for the app, bringing it several million new users virtually overnight.
Since then, the app has been on the road to success and is becoming increasingly popular with young people. Ordinary people can reach several million users around the world in record time with their videos and thus become superstars of a young generation.
TikTok is the international version of the app Douyin. It was invented by Yiming Zhang’s Chinese company ByteDance in 2016.
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Criticism of TikTok
Despite the app’s huge popularity, TikTok keeps hitting the press with negative headlines. In February 2019, for example, the US Federal Trade Commission uncovered some “questionable business practices”. This is because many of the users who transferred to TikTok during its merger with musical.ly were still minors. TikTok had not asked for age or parental consent to use the app during the move, which the company would have been legally obliged to do. As a result, the FTC and TikTok agreed on a penalty payment of 5.7 million US dollars. As a consequence, TikTok introduced a subsequent age check and deleted underage users and their content.
During the mass protests in Hong Kong in summer 2019 against a law on fugitive offenders and legal assistance in criminal cases, TikTok was also accused of censoring content critical of the government. According to the Washington Post, for example, no content on the protests could be found, although masses of first-hand accounts had been uploaded on Twitter. A short time later, The Guardin obtained leaked documents showing the app’s moderation guidelines. The sometimes vague wording certainly allowed for censorship. However, ByteDance explained that these were outdated documents that had already expired before the protests. It also said that the company wanted to be more open in its communications in the future and to follow local legislation in moderating content.
There are also recurring concerns about TikTok’s data protection. It is true that the app is operated in the USA or Europe by subsidiaries of TikTok Ltd. which, according to statements by ByteDance, do not share any data with the parent company (both companies are now headquartered in the Cayman Islands). Nevertheless, the European Data Protection Board has its own task force for TikTok, which is looking into their data protection practices. However, no results have been published so far. It remains to be seen what the investigations will reveal.