By Ian King, business presenter
Unless you have a child in, or approaching, their teenage years, you may not have heard of TikTok. You will, though, be hearing a lot more about it in future.
TikTok is the biggest social media phenomenon of the last year. Sometimes likened to Vine, the now-defunct short-form video app, it allows users to upload 15-second video clips of themselves dancing, jumping about, singing or lip syncing along to pop songs or other snatches of music.
The videos can be enhanced using filters or other special effects, including a “split screen”, one of its most popular features. By March this year, it had already been downloaded more than one billion times, while the number of active users at that time topped more than 500 million. That was more than twice as much as Vine ever achieved.
The real significance of TikTok is its ownership. Owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, TikTok is the first Chinese-devised and owned app to have taken the world by storm. Other Chinese apps, such as WeChat, have also been downloaded more than one billion times but have never succeeded in attracting a big following outside their domestic market.
TikTok is different. Part of its success, in terms of building a huge audience, has come from cracking India. During the first three months of the year alone, the app was downloaded 188 million times via Google Play or Apple’s App Store, with India accounting for nearly half of that.
But perhaps the key ingredient in that success stems from ByteDance having shrewdly come up with two versions of the app. The original, called Douyin, was launched in September 2016 exclusively for Chinese users.
TikTok was launched a year later on the international market and, while powered by the same software as Douyin, it operates on a different network. This has prevented China’s stringent censorship rules, nicknamed “the great firewall of China”, from stifling TikTok’s growth.
That expansion has made ByteDance one of the planet’s hottest companies. Its latest fund-raising round in September last year, led by the ubiquitous Japanese investor Softbank, saw it valued at $75bn. This for a business that was only two years old at the time.
What has been extraordinary about TikTok’s growth is its genuinely global appeal. It is popular not just in emerging markets but also in developed markets, such as Europe and the US, where its growth has been even stronger than its global average.
As long ago as November last year, TikTok was downloaded more times by Americans than any of the big US social media apps such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram or Snapchat.
That may be because those platforms are well-established in the US, while TikTok is coming from a lower base, but it has got some of the big American players watching. Facebook, for example, has launched its own lip-synching app, called Lasso, although at present it is only available in the US.
On that basis it is hard to see, given the Trump administration’s current onslaught against the Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei, how TikTok’s ownership will not cause it difficulties at some point down the line.
The assumption is that the US president has singled out Huawei because it encapsulates all the egregious Chinese trade practices he is trying to counter with his tariffs, specifically the erosion of American intellectual property rights in technology.
Many believe the trade war is at least as much about technology as it is about America’s trade deficit with China. If that genuinely is the case, it would not be a surprise to see Mr Trump trying to stifle TikTok’s growth in order to protect the position of American social media platforms, despite his past criticism of the likes of Facebook. It would be entirely in keeping with his stated policy of ‘”America First”.
And that moment may be fast approaching. The Financial Times reported earlier this week that ByteDance is now working on a move into hardware and, specifically, developing a smartphone pre-loaded with apps such as TikTok.
In doing so, it will not only be looking to take on established US business titans like Apple, but also looking to succeed where deep-pocketed US rivals such Amazon have failed.
It may also find itself facing the same restrictions as Huawei which, after the White House banned American companies from supplying it, now finds itself denied access to much of Google’s Android operating system.
This is where TikTok’s international popularity comes in. Any TikTok-branded smartphone could conceivably by targeted at other markets, like India, without necessarily having to target the US.
But trying to circumvent America’s tough rules may not be TikTok’s only challenge. The app was banned for a week in July last year in Indonesia amid accusations that it was spreading child pornography and material that was blasphemous.
In November last year, it was banned in Bangladesh while, in the most painful such instance so far, it was outlawed briefly in parts of India by the high court in Madras/Chennai, again amid allegations of encouraging child pornography and cyber-bullying. Those concerns are now increasingly being raised elsewhere.
No one under the age of 13 is supposed to use TikTok but, in Britain, the age verification process is not as stringent as in other countries, notably the US, where the government has told it to improve its processes.
Primary schools across the UK have been writing to parents, highlighting the risk of letting young children access an app in which they may be exposed to inappropriate song lyrics, videos that promote anorexia, porn, self-harm or violence, dangerous challenges and, of course, potential predators.
Young users also face financial risks as TikTok also enables users to buy “coins” to purchase emojis with which they can display their approval for a certain video. These coins can be bought at the rate of 10,000 for £97.99.
Most sinister of all, there have been reported instances of schoolgirls being set a challenge on the app to remove their shirt, while the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has warned that such live-streaming apps are a “hunting ground” for abusers.
America is ahead of the UK in having hardened its attitude towards TikTok. In December last year, the New York Times published an article approving of TikTok, headlined “Simple, silly and safe – TikTok returns fun to social media”.
But earlier this month, the same newspaper published an opinion piece headlined “We should worry about how China uses apps like TikTok”, arguing the app – which is reckoned to harvest data aggressively by industry standards – has potential to be used by China for surveillance purposes.
So it is clear TikTok faces a number of battles, on a number of fronts, in the coming months. And perhaps the most fascinating of all will be this…
The “American century” was forged by so-called soft power – Hollywood’s film studios and brands like Ford, Coca-Cola and, later, McDonald’s, selling the “American dream” to the rest of the world. TikTok has given China its first opportunity, in the digital age, to exert soft power itself. The response to this from key markets like India, which is as unfavourably disposed towards China as the US itself, will be fascinating.
Sky Views is a series of comment pieces by Sky News editors and correspondents, published every morning.
Previously on Sky Views: Martha Kelner – It’s time for sport to talk about the things that make men uncomfortable