Claire Lee, a stay-at-home mom based outside Chicago, downloaded TikTok “out of boredom” a few weeks into the coronavirus lockdown. She loved it way more than she expected.
“Every time I open it I marvel at the sheer number of brilliant, creative people out there,” she says. “It‘s been a bright spot for me during such a dark time for all of us.”
By all accounts, the pandemic has sent TikTok’s growth into overdrive: Downloads in Apple’s App Store grew 154% from the same time last year. A recent survey found that kids in the U.S., U.K., and Spain use social apps, including YouTube, twice as much in 2020 as they did four years ago — a trend driven primarily by TikTok adoption. Children and teens now use TikTok almost as much as they watch YouTube.
What explains the appeal? Why is a social media app that doesn’t even really seem to feature much social networking suddenly so popular, especially among young people? I talked to over a dozen internet communication experts and TikTok fans, and though there was a wide variety of answers, the bulk of them comes down to one thing: TikTok understands its users better than any other major social network seems to. Instagram Reels, which launches August 5, may seem like an easy shoe-in to replace TikTok as it faces a potential American ban and/or Microsoft acquisition. But Facebook’s products historically lack what makes TikTok so unique: a fun, carefree environment where users feel free to let loose, whatever that means to them.
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“TikTok’s ingredients are not new; rather, its recipe and timing are,” says Raian Ali, a professor of technology and behavior at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar. “You do not need to have friends on TikTok or commit to groups and reciprocate attention and social interaction to start seeing interesting and personalized content. I think it also came, coincidentally, at the right time where the…