In recent years, TikTok has become one of the most popular, impactful, and influential social media platforms in the world, and it became so popular that it already had 2 million mobile downloads by October 2020. Moreover, TikTok became the most popular website of 2021, surpassing Google in the rankings.
What made TikTok popular for different generations of people? And how has it affected pop culture? Let us know the answers to these questions as we take a look at the history of TikTok and its impact on pop culture.
The Origins of TikTok
TikTok started as “Douyin,” a mobile app that was launched by a Chinese tech company called ByteDance in September 2016.  The platform was originally named “A.me,” but it was rebranded to “Douyin ” in December 2016. The Douyin app is similar to TikTok in terms of features and user interface, but Douyin has exclusive features like an in-video search function that allows users to search people’s faces to view more videos of them. In addition, Douyin also enables users to book a hotel and do geo-tagged reviews through the app.
The founder of ByteDance, Zhang Yiming, wanted to expand Douyin overseas, as China was just one-fifth of Internet users worldwide. So, in order to gain more users, ByteDance decided to launch Douyin worldwide, although the worldwide platform would be separate from the Douyin app.
The separate app called TikTok was officially launched in the international market in September 2017. In just a few months, TikTok was already one of the most downloaded mobile applications in Thailand and other countries.
Acquisition of Musical.ly
On November 9, 2017, in order to expand TikTok and make it incredibly popular worldwide in a short period of time, ByteDance purchased Musical.ly, a startup company that was based in Shanghai, China, but had an overseas office in Santa Monica, California. 
Musical.ly was a social media platform that became popular for allowing users to create short comedy and lip-sync videos and upload them on their accounts for millions of people to see. Musical.ly was launched in 2014 and became very popular in the mid-2010s.
After purchasing Musical.ly, ByteDance combined the accounts and data that already existed in the database of Musical.ly into TikTok’s database, and this explains why there were already many users and data that were present on TikTok during its first few months of operation. By August 2018, TikTok became the most downloaded app in the United States, and this is thanks to the elaborate marketing of the app and its merger with Musical.ly.
Expansion of TikTok
In September 2020, Oracle and ByteDance made a deal so that the former would serve as TikTok’s partner for cloud hosting. Then, ByteDance created licensing deals with numerous music companies, including Sony Music and Warner Music Group, so that various popular songs could be utilized by TikTok users for their videos. 
Although TikTok doesn’t have a staggering number of users compared to Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook, the app was able to reach one billion active monthly users faster than any of the three social media platforms mentioned. Threatened by TikTok’s surprisingly fast growth in recent years, Facebook and other social media apps were prompted to adapt to the trends by creating their own platforms that enable users to create and upload short vertical videos like the ones uploaded on TikTok. Facebook created the Reels service for Instagram, while YouTube created YouTube Shorts for short-form videos.
In October 2022, it was reported that TikTok was expanding into e-commerce in the United States after the successful launch of the TikTok Shop in the United Kingdom in the same year. TikTok began to post job listings in the US that are focused on e-commerce, and the team of employees was supposed to help in launching the live shopping business of the brand.
TikTok then launched a music streaming service called TikTok Music in July 2023. The service was supposed to compete with Spotify, as it has features that enable users to listen to, share, and download songs through the app. However, when TikTok was launched, it was available only in Indonesia and Brazil, but it was later made available in Singapore, Australia, and Mexico. 
TikTok’s Impact on Pop Culture
Because of the massive popularity of TikTok in different countries around the world, numerous celebrities have begun to know more about the app and use it for promotion or for just sharing stories. Some of the first celebrities to use TikTok were famous skateboarder Tony Hawk and late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon, who both began using the app in 2018. Soon after, other celebrities like Justin Bieber and Will Smith created their own TikTok accounts.
Social media influencers and celebrities who became famous on musical.ly didn’t have difficulties transitioning to TikTok because of the similarities between the two apps. These social media celebrities included Zach King, Jacob Sartorius, and Loren Grey.
TikTok was also influential in the music scene, as it helped make several songs become famous around the world. A few of the songs that TikTok made popular were “Old Town Road” by American rapper Lil Nas X and “Cupid” by K-pop group FIFTY FIFTY. These viral songs were used by millions of users as background music for the videos they uploaded on TikTok.
TikTok was instrumental in popularizing short-form food recipes and food trend videos, and this phenomenon would later be known as “FoodTok.” The short-form food recipe videos helped people get multiple recipes by simply watching these short videos for a few seconds or minutes. The food trends that were popularized by TikTok made food products marketable through social media.
Dance crazes or dance challenges also became quite popular on TikTok, although the concept of an online dance craze has already been around since the “Harlem Shake” dance challenge that was uploaded on YouTube in 2013. Some of the most popular dance crazes on TikTok are the Renegade dance, the Cannibal dance, and the WAP dance. These dance crazes share the same names as the songs that inspired them, such as Lil Massive’s “Lottery (Renegade),” Kesha’s “Cannibal,” and Cardi B’s “WAP.”
Reaction videos, which first became known on YouTube, experienced a resurgence in popularity through TikTok. These reaction videos show users reacting to a specific viral video or clip that was uploaded on TikTok. What’s great about the TikTok app when it comes to reaction videos is that it allows users to show the viral clip on their video while also enabling their phone’s camera to see their face or their reaction to the clip with no editing needed.
The “react” feature was also useful in the “duet” function, wherein a singer can perform one part of a song while another user can sing the next part. This function first became popular on musical.ly but was later adopted by TikTok and became a viral trend in the late 2010s.
The AI (artificial intelligence) or NPC (non-playable character) is a weird TikTok trend that picked up steam in the early 2020s. This particular trend has users acting like NPCs during live streams. In case you don’t know, NPCs are characters in video games that are usually stuck doing one or two particular activities like walking, standing, and selling items.
In order for the so-called NPCs to move in a TikTok live stream, a user can “donate” or send “tips” in the form of emojis. These emojis, which are also known as “gifts,” would have different prices, with some being as cheap as $1, while others may be as expensive as $500. So, in order to send gifts to an NPC live stream on TikTok, you would need to pay money, although you would first have to exchange your money for “coins,” as these coins are the actual form of currency used to buy gifts or emojis. 
Once a gift is given to an NPC live stream, the NPC would then perform a move that is connected to a gift sent to them. For example, if a dog emoji or gift was sent, the NPC may perform dog-like actions like barking or tail wagging. This weird trend has been getting more and more popular in the 2020s, as many TikTok users are transitioning to being NPCs on the app in order to earn money through gifts or donations.
TikTok is arguably one of the fastest-growing social media platforms today, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it would eventually topple other big social media companies in the near future because of its impact and influence on pop culture and various industries around the world.
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 Staff Writer. (2021, January 7). Warner Music signs with TikTok as more record companies jump on social media bandwagon. The Music Network. Retrieved October 4, 2023, from https://themusicnetwork.com/warner-music-tiktok-deal/
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