How TikTok has conquered the world without state efforts

March 01, 2019 18:35
Short-form mobile video app TikTok, also known as Douyin in mainland China, has become a monster hit among millennials. Photo: AFP

The promulgation of the Outline Development Plan for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area is seen by many as a milestone in the course of promoting a sense of recognition of identity among the people of Hong Kong.

In the cyberworld, a similar and even more profound paradigm shift has already taken shape.

If Facebook is the most popular social media platform for Hong Kong people who were born in the 1980s, and Instagram for the post-1990s, then TikTok, also known as Douyin in the mainland, a social media app developed by a Beijing-based tech company, is undoubtedly a monster hit among millennials these days.

TikTok was designed specifically for users to share online short video clips that span 15 seconds.

As far as the new generation teens are concerned, they often view reading text as a tiresome task, find the still pictures on Instagram not entertaining enough, and consider watching long footage as one that requires extra effort -- which explains why TikTok, with its short videos, has become a global sensation. The short videos on the app are easy to watch, and can cater to the shared needs of millennials worldwide.

Another contributing factor to TikTok’s global success, apart from the jaw-dropping pace with which information technologies have been advancing in recent years, is China’s enormous demographic dividend, which virtually allows anybody who uploads video clips onto the app to stand a chance to become an online sensation overnight.

The sheer size of the mainland market can allow TikTok to easily dwarf any other local social media platform.

Mimicking TikTok memes has already become part of the everyday life among many primary and secondary school students in Hong Kong. Not being an active TikTok user could mean a kid may no longer have any common topic for conversation with his or her classmates.

It’s been merely two years since the initial version of TikTok was first launched in China, but according to its first-time market survey report, the total number of its users already exceeded 500 million across the globe.

Although there has never been any state-supported campaign to promote TikTok, it didn’t stop the mainland mobile app from conquering the hearts and minds of teenagers worldwide.

Today TikTok has beaten both Facebook and Instagram at their own game fair and square, among the communities of the new generation.

As an online entertainment and social media platform, TikTok wasn’t intended as a vehicle to spread many political messages in the first place.

And since TikTok was developed by a mainland tech company, its video contents are by all means politically correct, although there have been some occasions when bad or obscene material was found on the app.

Compared to Facebook, whose major users are rapidly aging and tend to be highly pan-politicized, what TikTok presents is a completely different world.

Moreover, TikTok has also achieved another result: as many big-time influencers on the app have become common icons among teenagers in Hong Kong and the mainland, it has helped reduce the sense of cross-border alienation between the youth, not to mention that it has also increasingly facilitated Putonghua proficiency among Hong Kong students.

The megatrend of TikTok reflects an objective reality: when the demand and push for integration truly begins to gain momentum, no government policy can stop it, and vice versa.

Let’s take the drive for homeownership as an example.

When property prices in Hong Kong have become so ridiculously high, it is inevitable that potential young homebuyers in the city would switch to the housing market in the Greater Bay Area, thereby giving rise to the increasingly popular “weekly property tours”.

Cross-border ideological differences won’t stop young Hong Kong homebuyers from entering the property market in the Bay Area anymore, just like the land border between Hong Kong and China didn't stop mainlanders from flocking to Hong Kong for a better life decades ago.

The symbolic significance of the success of TikTok might be a lot more profound than the one emanating from the Greater Bay Area project.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 20

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal