Inside the rise of TikTok, the video-sharing app with 1 billion downloads that’s owned by a massive Chinese internet company

source
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 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.

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.

source
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.

caption
Beijing, China.
source
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.

source
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.

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

Source: Bloomberg


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

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

Source: TechCrunch


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

caption
ByteDance founder & CEO Zhang Yiming.
source
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.

caption
Douyin, the version of TikTok in China.
source
Bytedance

Source: WalktheChat


Then 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.

source
AFP/Getty

Source: KrAsia


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

source
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.”

caption
Musical.ly cofounder Alex Zhu.
source
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.

caption
Musical.ly star Jacob Sartorius.
source
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.

source
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.

Source: Business Insider


A little under a year later in August 2018, ByteDance announced it was shutting down Musical.ly and merging it with 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.

source
TikTok/Business Insider

Source: Variety


Since the merger, TikTok has only risen in popularity in the US. Together, TikTok and Musical.ly have more than 1.2 billion all-time downloads around the world. TikTok’s popularity in the US peaked in December 2018 with 6 million installs, according to app analytics tracker Sensor Tower.

caption
The short-form video app TikTok has taken off in a big way.
source
-/AFP/Getty Images

Source: Sensor Tower


TikTok has helped to launch some users to celebrity level of fame among Gen Z. That includes Lil Nas X, whose song “Old Town Road” gained popularity in part because of TikTok, where the song was used for countless videos and memes.

Source: Complex


Currently, the most popular star on TikTok is Loren Gray, who first launched her account on Musical.ly. At the time of writing, Gray had 31.8 million followers.

Source: Seventeen