Inside the rise of TikTok, the viral video-sharing app whose ties to China are raising concerns in the US

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TikTok/Business Insider

One of the most popular apps among teenagers at the moment is a short-form video platform called TikTok.

TikTok acts as a social network, where users share videos covering a wide range of categories, from lip syncing to comedic skits to viral challenges. But even if you’ve never heard of the app, it’s worth getting to know it. TikTok has over 1.5 billion all-time downloads, and its popularity and influence has only continued to spread.

TikTok is the product of a major Chinese company, and has only been on the scene for a few years. The app has gone through name changes and gotten new features throughout its history, but it’s all only helped to spur its popularity to new heights. However, TikTok’s burgeoning popularity in the US has also raised questions regarding its roots in China, and how much access and influence the Chinese government has to TikTok’s user data and content moderation.

Here’s how TikTok rose to become a platform launching a new generation of influencers and loved by teens:


To trace the history of this incredibly popular short-video sharing app, it’s important to note that TikTok didn’t start as TikTok.


TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese tech company that runs several popular social networking apps.

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Reuters/Stringer

Think of ByteDance — headquartered in Beijing, China — as China’s Facebook. Both companies own families of popular social networking apps used by billions of people a day.

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Beijing, China.
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Wikimedia Commons

ByteDance is run by CEO Zhang Yiming, who founded the company in 2012. Zhang’s name is relatively unknown outside of China, but the 35-year-old CEO comes from a background in software engineering.

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VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Source: Bloomberg


Zhang and ByteDance’s first product was a news aggregator app called Toutiao. Zhang wanted to create a news platform whose results were powered by artificial intelligence, separate from China’s search engine Baidu.

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An ad for Bytedance’s news feed aggregator app Toutiao.
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Reuters/Stringer

Source: Bloomberg


Since 2012, ByteDance has expanded as an umbrella company for several popular Chinese social apps. In 2019, ByteDance released a WeChat-competing chat app called FlipChat, and a video-messaging app called Duoshan.

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ByteDance product director Xu Luran stands in front of the logo for Duoshan, the company’s video-messaging app.
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Reuters/Stringer

Source: TechCrunch


ByteDance is now worth $75 billion, making it the most valuable private company in the world. It’s received investments from some of the biggest VC firms globally, including SoftBank, Sequoia Capital, and General Atlantic.

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ByteDance founder & CEO Zhang Yiming.
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Liang Zhen/VCG via Getty Images

Source: PitchBook


In September 2016, ByteDance launched a short-video app in China called Douyin. Short-form video creation was nothing new for China’s market, but Douyin’s popularity skyrocketed. Within a year, Douyin had 100 million users and 1 billion video views each day.

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Douyin, the version of TikTok in China.
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Bytedance

Source: WalktheChat


A year later, Douyin expanded outside of China to select international markets under a new name — TikTok. The platform quickly rose to top of the charts in Thailand, Japan, and other Asian markets.

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AFP/Getty

Source: KrAsia


But as TikTok started to gain traction globally, another short-video app was already buzzing in the United States: Musical.ly. Its focus was 15-second lip-syncing music videos.

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Musical.ly

Source: Business Insider


Musical.ly was first created in 2014 by Alex Zhu and Louis Yang. It was born from an idea for short-form education videos, but Zhu said in the original idea was “doomed to be a failure.”

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Musical.ly cofounder Alex Zhu.
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Greylock Partners/YouTube

Source: Business Insider


The app hit the No. 1 spot in the App Store in the summer of 2015, and never left the charts. From Musical.ly, a new generation of stars was created, including Jacob Sartorius.

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Musical.ly star Jacob Sartorius.
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Instagram/jacobsartorius

Source: Business Insider


When the popular video app Vine closed in October 2016, many of the fresh class of young influencers who found fame by posting videos turned to Musical.ly to continue their work.

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App Annie

Source: New York Times


Then, in November 2017, ByteDance purchased Musical.ly in a deal valued at $1 billion. The Chinese company operated its two short-form video apps, Musical.ly and TikTok, as two separate platforms: Musical.ly in the US, and TikTok in other foreign markets.

Source: Business Insider


A little under a year later, in August 2018, ByteDance announced it was shutting down Musical.ly and merging it into TikTok. All Musical.ly profiles were automatically moved over to the TikTok platform. “Combining musical.ly and TikTok is a natural fit given the shared mission of both experiences — to create a community where everyone can be a creator,” Musical.ly cofounder Zhu said at the time.

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TikTok/Business Insider

Source: Variety


Since the merger, TikTok has only risen in popularity in the US. In September 2019, TikTok rose to become the No. 1 free non-gaming iOS app in the US for the first time. TikTok’s popularity in the US peaked in December 2018 with 6 million installs that month, according to app analytics tracker Sensor Tower.

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-/AFP/Getty Images

Source: Sensor Tower


TikTok has expanded to more than 400 employees just in the US. Currently, Vanessa Pappas oversees TikTok’s US operations from its new, five-floor office in Los Angeles.

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Jerod Harris/Getty Images

Source: TikTok


Because of TikTok’s music-centric set-up, TikTok has become a launchpad outside of the traditional industry for budding artists who could see their songs go viral for uses in dances and challenges on the app. That includes Lil Nas X, whose song “Old Town Road” first gained momentum on TikTok, where the song was used for countless videos and memes ahead of its ascent to the top of the Billboard charts.

Source: Complex


TikTok has also become the newest platform to turn regular users into viral sensations and successful influencers. Currently, the most popular star on TikTok is Loren Gray, who first launched her account on Musical.ly. At the time of writing, Gray has 38.1 million followers.

Source: Seventeen

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TikTok’s popularity has skyrocketed not only in the US, but around the world, in countries like India and the UK. In November 2019, TikTok hit 1.5 billion downloads worldwide across both iOS and Android devices. The app has been quickly gaining ground in a social scene largely dominated by Instagram and Snapchat.

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AFP/Getty

Source: Sensor Tower, Business Insider


But the rising popularity of TikTok in the US has also come with some controversy. TikTok has found itself regularly the focus of concern of US lawmakers, who take issue with the relationship between ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese-based parent company, and the oppressive Chinese government.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping.
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Damir Sagolj/Reuters

The US government has questioned whether TikTok could be a threat to national security, and it officially started investigating the app in November 2019 after pressure from lawmakers. Officials have raised concern about how TikTok handles and stores user data, leading to some government entities, including the Army, to ban the app from their government-issued phones.

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Reuters/Dado Ruvic

Source: Business Insider


The app’s young user base has also gotten it in trouble with children’s privacy officials. TikTok paid out a $5.7 million fine to the Federal Trade Commission in 2019 over allegations it illegally collected personal information from children under age 13 without parental consent, in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. In another COPPA-related lawsuit, TikTok settled for $1.1 million.

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FTC Chairman Joe Simons.
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REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Source: FTC, Bloomberg Law


TikTok has also faced allegations of censoring content. Internal documents obtained from the Guardian found that TikTok censored political content that would anger the Chinese government, brought on by the suspicious absence of videos of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests in 2019. TikTok has consistently asserted that none of its moderators are based in China, and that no “foreign government” asks the platform to censor content.

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A protester in Hong Kong, China.
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Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Source: The Guardian


It’s still unclear under what policies TikTok moderates its content. A Washington Post story found that TikTok censors “culturally problematic” content, including videos featuring vaping, “suggestive” dancing, and social issues. Another policy discovered by German outlet Netzpolik directed videos by disabled, queer, and fat creators to be suppressed, under the premise these people are more “susceptible to bullying or harassment.”

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TikTok/Business Insider

Source: Washington Post, Netzpolik


Amid the increasing scrutiny from the US, ByteDance has explored ways to distance its Chinese roots from TikTok operations. The app is currently headed up by Alex Zhu, the Musical.ly founder, who works out of ByteDance’s China headquarters. However, reports have emerged in 2020 that TikTok is searching for a CEO to run TikTok’s day-to-day operations out of its US office.

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Alex Zhu, TikTok head and Musical.ly cofounder.
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John Phillips/Getty Images for TechCrunch

Source: Bloomberg, Business Insider