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The Big Read: Fuelled by the pandemic, TikTok boom unleashes the good, bad and ugly

The COVID-19 pandemic has turbocharged the growth of mobile application TikTok over the last two years, leaving rivals such as Facebook struggling to play catch-up. 

The Big Read: Fuelled by the pandemic, TikTok boom unleashes the good, bad and ugly

Social media experts told TODAY that while TikTok was already gaining traction when it launched internationally in 2017, it was boredom and isolation at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic that boosted the take-up rate of the Chinese mobile app around the world. (Illustration: TODAY/Anam Musta'ein)

SINGAPORE: Driven to “insanity and boredom” while being stuck at home during the COVID-19 partial lockdown in April 2020, Ms Nicole Liel turned to a social media app that was fast gaining popularity among her friends - and around the world - as a way to pass time and be entertained. 

The mobile application, TikTok, allowed her to watch and create her own short-form videos.

Downloading the app “changed (her) life forever”, said the 24-year-old. 

“I thought I’d (have fun) and post some videos. I woke up the next day, and my phone was just blowing up with notifications … Every time I refreshed my TikTok profile, I would just see the viewer numbers increasing in the thousands per minute,” she recounted to TODAY.

Two years on, Ms Liel, a self-professed full-time "TikToker", boasts more than 125,000 followers and has amassed over 10 million "likes" for her videos, which range from skits reimagining Stamford Raffles in modern Singapore, to product reviews and vignettes of her daily life. 

For someone who had toyed with the idea of being an entertainer when she was younger, the app has opened the door for Ms Liel to earn a living as one, as she began getting requests to do sponsored posts for brands earlier this year. 

Ms Nicole Liel, a self-professed full-time TikToker, boasts more than 125,000 followers and has amassed over 10 million "likes" for her videos, which range from skits reimagining Stamford Raffles in modern Singapore, to product reviews and vignettes of her daily life. (Photo: TODAY/Nuria Ling)

“I started thinking I could make (being on TikTok) a full-time thing … Brands were getting on TikTok last year, but I feel like it was this year where they truly started to use TikTokers as content creators," said Ms Liel. “I started getting some brand deals and it’s quite sustainable in the long run.”

She estimates that she earns, on average, “higher than a fresh graduate’s salary” of S$3,000 a month.

Her TikTok journey echoes that of many others who have shot to fame - both in Singapore and overseas - from posting short, quirky videos on the app.

Social media experts told TODAY that while TikTok was already gaining traction when it launched internationally in 2017, it was boredom and isolation at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic that boosted the take-up rate of the Chinese mobile app around the world.

According to market intelligence firm Sensor Tower, global downloads of the app surged from 200 million in the last quarter of 2019 to more than 300 million in the first three months of 2020, when the pandemic saw consumers “drawn to their mobile devices more than ever”. 

The figure also set a record for the most downloads for any mobile application ever in a quarter, said Sensor Tower in a blog post.

TikTok’s rapid rise has also forced its competitors, particularly Facebook, to play catch-up and introduce features that mimic those of the former.

In late July, Facebook tweaked its algorithm so that people scrolling through its home page can discover content that is “uniquely personalised to them”, said Meta, its parent company, in a blog post. 

This means that users will not only see posts from accounts that they follow, but also content from accounts that they do not.

This is similar to how TikTok’s algorithm recommends content based on users’ interests, rather than which accounts they follow.

Social media experts expect TikTok to grow further both globally and locally, changing the social media landscape with its low barriers to entry for users and content creators, and diversifying beyond its predominantly Gen Z user base.

American think tank Pew Research Center defines Gen Z as those born from 1997 onward.

How COVID-19 turbocharged TikTok's global rise

TikTok, which allows users to edit and share short-form videos, is the brainchild of Chinese tech company ByteDance. 

It was first launched in China in 2016 as the Douyin app, before it was launched internationally a year later as TikTok.

But it was the US$1 billion acquisition in 2017 of another Chinese application, Musical.ly, that shot TikTok to global prominence. Musical.ly allowed users to lip-synch to popular songs and dance. 

The deal gave TikTok access to Musical.ly’s 80 million users who were mostly based in the United States.

Following the acquisition, TikTok’s rise was meteoric: By 2020, it had knocked Facebook messenger off top spot as the most downloaded application globally, according to market tracker data.ai. 

Data from the market analysis company Business of Apps also showed that TikTok generated US$4.6 billion in revenue last year, which translated to a 142 per cent increase in revenue year-on-year.

While Facebook’s revenue last year was US$118 billion, its year-on-year growth was 37 per cent.

Likewise, the number of users on Facebook has been stagnating, stalling for the first time at 2.9 billion monthly active users in the fourth quarter of last year.

Meanwhile, TikTok’s number of monthly active users grew from 7.6 million to 1.2 billion during the same period. A majority of its users are under the age of 30, and come from China, the US, Indonesia and Brazil. 

Experts attributed TikTok’s rise globally to its unique algorithm, which unlike other social media apps, takes “centrestage” in the mobile application.

“(The app) successfully reads user preferences and suggests ‘perfect’ content. It also provides a wider reach for content generators because the algorithms prioritise content over the number of followers a user may have,” said Assistant Professor Saifuddin Ahmed from the Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

It was also a matter of timing, said Professor Lim Sun Sun, who heads the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

While TikTok already had its fans pre-COVID-19, it was only during the pandemic that the app “took off”, she said.

The app encouraged participatory engagement, such as dance challenges, more so than Facebook or Instagram and brought families and groups of friends together via such activities.

At a time when people were often isolated due to on-off lockdowns, TikTok had the edge over other social media platforms because it gave people the ability to bond with fun elements, Prof Lim said. 

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TIKTOK'S GROWTH IN SINGAPORE 

In Singapore, a survey found that TikTok made “significant gains” in the number of users in the last two years as the pandemic raged. 

The survey was conducted by the Centre for Information Integrity and the Internet at the Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information. 

About 13.6 per cent of the survey participants said they used TikTok in December 2020, compared with 25.3 per cent saying they did so a year later. 

The main users of TikTok were from young and middle-age groups aged between 21 and 50 years old. These groups made up 79 per cent of the total TikTok users in the survey sample.

The survey, which is conducted nationwide every six months, involved more than 400 respondents who participated in three surveys in December 2020, July 2021 and December 2021.

TODAY also previously reported that foreign workers quarantined in their dormitories during the pandemic turned to TikTok to entertain themselves and assure their families that they were okay.

Figures provided by data.ai, the market insights company, also showed that TikTok grew in Singapore over the pandemic period.

In Singapore, a survey found that TikTok made “significant gains” in the number of users in the last two years as the pandemic raged. (File photo: AFP/Loic Venance)

Between the second quarter of 2019 and the second quarter of 2020, the number of TikTok monthly active users experienced its biggest jump in Singapore, growing by 187 per cent from 334,000 to 961,000.

Speaking to TODAY, Ms Lexi Sydow, the head of insights at data.ai, said that TikTok has grown phenomenally in Southeast Asia. Over the last five years, the number of monthly active users in Singapore has grown by more than eight times as of the second quarter of this year, in line with Malaysia and faster than Vietnam.

Within the region, the rate of growth was the highest in Indonesia, where monthly active users grew 17 times between the second quarter of 2018 and the second quarter of 2022.

She also noted that while TikTok ranks fourth for social media apps in Singapore by total time spent on Android phones, behind WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram, its average monthly time spent per user stood at 19.8 hours, surpassing Facebook (18.3 hours a month), WhatsApp (16 hours a month) and Instagram (9.5 hours a month)

Dr Crystal Abidin, an associate professor of Internet studies at Curtin University in Australia, said that in Singapore, TikTok pandemic gave local influencers who were unable to shoot content overseas, another outlet to produce content. 

TikTok’s “come as you are” culture where its creators can post casual videos of themselves at home allowed these influencers to present a more amateur side of themselves. It also gave them an avenue to continue producing content on a different platform without impacting their other personas or branded identities on other sites such as Instagram, Facebook or YouTube, said Dr Crystal.

Isolation during the pandemic also gave older, millennial influencers who were in their late 20s to late 30s the time to learn how to use TikTok and overcome the inertia of using another new app, she added.

But it was only when brands realised that TikTok had commercial value that the app truly went mainstream, said Dr Crystal, citing examples of how restaurants and alcohol brands turned to TikTok influencers to market their products and services during the pandemic. 

Professor Lim Sun Sun from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) said that she expects TikTok’s user base in Singapore to grow beyond its younger, teenage audience with non-entertainment personalities such as politicians starting to take TikTok more seriously as a platform for engagement. 

In response to TODAY’s queries, a TikTok spokesperson from Singapore said the platform “continues to see strong growth in its audience reach and engagement”, with more than 1 billion people globally coming to TikTok every month. Nearly one out of four global users came from Southeast Asia, with its user base in the region exceeding 240 million, up by 85 per cent year-on-year. 

The spokesperson said that "it was only natural" for online platforms such as TikTok to see an increase in user activity during the pandemic when more people stayed at home, with TikTok playing a part in "connecting and meaningfully engaging communities even while physically apart".

During the pandemic, TikTok saw a significant increase in daily accumulated engagement on videos as well as an uptick in video creation, especially content related to spreading positivity and educating people on hygiene practices.

"We've also seen this increase in TikTok user activity continue even as restrictions eased in Singapore — leading to the platform surpassing 1 billion active global users monthly in September 2021," said the spokesperson. 

LIVING OFF THE TIKTOK DREAM 

As TikTok’s popularity grows globally, so has its efforts to move beyond being a platform for trendy dance sequences — to one which promotes commerce. 

To allow TikTokers to monetise their fame, the app has launched several features, including TikTok Creator Marketplace and TikTok Live in 2019. 

In May this year, TikTok also introduced a subscription service for its TikTok Live where content creators can generate recurring revenue from fans through additional perks such as subscriber-only chats.

All seven TikTok creators whom TODAY interviewed said that they have made money from participating in brand sponsorships or publicising services on the platform. 

Ms Liel, the 24-year-old TikToker, said that the rates for branded TikTok videos are usually in the range of thousands of dollars. Her highest-paid project on TikTok was a “five-figure number” while her least lucrative projects are usually in exchange for the products that she is promoting.

24-year-old TikToker Nicole Liel said that the rates for branded TikTok videos are usually in the range of thousands of dollars. (Photo: TODAY/Nuria Ling)

While her monthly earnings are sometimes higher than that of a fresh graduate, Ms Liel acknowledged that what she does on TikTok cannot provide a stable income source.  

“I can be rolling in dough when big projects (involving large sums of money) come in one month, and then become a pauper the next month,” she quipped.

To this end, Ms Liel said she has set up her own business — she runs several eyelash studio outlets — to ensure that she has something to fall back on if she becomes irrelevant and unable to make money on TikTok. 

For Mr Ian Jeevan Prasad Arumugam, who is more popularly known as Ian Jeevan on TikTok, hitting 10,000 followers within a few months of his debut in April 2020 — during the "circuit breaker" period — was “a big milestone”. 

Mr Jeevan, who now has more than 150,000 followers on TikTok, earns between “mid-four figures to low five figures” for each project on the platform.

For Mr Ian Jeevan Prasad Arumugam, who is more popularly known as Ian Jeevan on TikTok, hitting 10,000 followers within a few months of his debut in April 2020 — during the circuit breaker period — was “a big milestone”. (Photo: TODAY/lli Nadhirah Mansor)

The 26-year-old said that 80 per cent of his monthly income comes from social media content creation while the rest comes from his work as a financial consultant.

Another TikToker, dentist Tristan Peh, also started off by doing videos during the early part of the pandemic in March 2020 to bond with his young daughters, who were aged six and nine then. 

Dr Peh, 43, who has gained more than 2 million followers through his videos on dental hygiene, said that he constantly gets emails from brands looking to do sponsored posts for toothbrushes or water flossers.

He began receiving requests for sponsored posts about four to five months after he started posting videos on TikTok.

He charges around US$5,000 (S$6,856) to US$10,000 for each post, based on his study of the market rates for such collaborations.

However, Dr Peh said that he is “not really into sales” and is mostly on TikTok to “just have some fun, spread awareness (on dental hygiene) and get everyone to smile”. 

Dentist Tristan Peh started off by doing videos on TikTok during the early part of the pandemic in March 2020 to bond with his young daughters. He has since gained more than two million followers through his videos on dental hygiene. (Photo: TODAY/lli Nadhirah Mansor)

For some of these content creators, there is also the fear of losing their relevance in a space where the audience's taste is fickle and constantly evolving. 

Ms Liel said: “My worry is about whether I can start a family with a job that can be taken away (just) like that. It’s (like) the whole world could collectively decide that they don’t need you and I know that’s imminent, because unless you create drama every day (on social media), you’ll become irrelevant.”

To stay relevant, Ms Liel has changed her content to keep up with her audience. While she started off with mostly comedy sketches, she now shares more about her life on TikTok to establish a connection and sense of community with her followers. 

Mr Jeevan, who is best known for Bollywood-style parodies on TikTok, said that he does not feel any financial pressure at the moment as he has a second job as a financial consultant, and brands are still actively seeking him out for collaborations. 

To ensure that his TikTok content stays relevant, he said he has been branching out over the last two years, beyond the Bollywood skits. 

He added that he has also sought to establish himself as a family-friendly content creator, one which brands find safe to collaborate with. This helps to ensure that brands continue to seek him out for campaigns, he said. 

Still, he acknowledged the pressure from his fans or followers who want him to reproduce popular content that he has done before. But Mr Jeevan said that he does not want to do so unless he can be sure that the content is of good quality.

Meanwhile, other TikTokers said they do not see the need to chase “likes” or boost follower count because they feel financially secure with their day job.

One of them, Mr Hafidz Rahman, a 33-year-old arts educator, said: “I do content when I want it and I’m quite comfortable doing it at my own pace. In terms of finding followers, I think they will come at their own time.”

Mr Hafidz, who has been producing content on social media platforms since 2014, has 103,000 followers on TikTok and is known for playing the role of a Malay woman in comedy skits.

THE GOOD AND BAD OF TIKTOK

The TikTokers interviewed cited the ease of the app's video editing features and diverse reach as major draws for them.

Mr Cavin Chua Kar Shin, a 22-year-old university student who has been making videos on YouTube since primary school, said that TikTok allows anyone to build a following without needing to look good or have a following on other social media platforms first.

“For YouTube, for instance, it takes very long to build a following, but you can do it really quickly on TikTok. Anyone can make a video and have it appear on the ‘For You Page’ at any time,” he said. 

The third-year communications and new media student at the National University of Singapore has more than 180,000 followers on his TikTok account cayydences. His posts range from comedy skits to anecdotes about his daily life.

Other upsides of the platform cited by the TikTokers include the sense of community it provides, and the opportunities to produce educational content or present minority views.

Mr Jeremy Tan, a 37-year-old magician who has more than 135,000 followers since joining TikTok last year, said: “I realise that the community on TikTok, especially when I do livestreams, is really supportive and (they) care for the creators.” 

He recalled how when he was hospitalised recently for sleep apnea surgery and did not put up any posts, TikTok users messaged him to ask about his health and wish him well.

Mr Jeremy Tan, a magician who has more than 135,000 followers since joining TikTok last year, said that the community on TikTok is really supportive, especially when he does livestreams. (Photo: TODAY/lli Nadhirah Mansor)

Likewise, Mr Chua, who said he is an introvert with few friends, described TikTok as a “substitute for his social life”, as his posts are similar to what he would share with a friend.

He has also spoken openly on TikTok about his struggle with depression and mental illness, and believes that this is one reason why users choose to follow him.

For others such as Ms Ainul Md Razib, a 24-year-old software developer, TikTok is not only a platform for her to share niche, educational content but also to inspire others as a member of a minority community in more ways than one.

She has built up a following of more than 40,000 by putting up TikTok tutorials on how to break into the tech industry. 

“I’m a Malay-Muslim woman working in the tech industry, and maybe people who see me on TikTok identify with me as a Malay, as a woman or as someone trying to break into the tech industry. They may not know anybody like that in real life, but they see me on social media and they follow because it inspires them,” said Ms Ainul.

For Ms Ainul Md Razib, a 24-year-old software developer, TikTok is not only a platform for her to share niche, educational content but also to inspire others as a member of a minority community in more ways than one. (Photo: Ainul Md Razib)

Still, there are also drawbacks from being a TikTok personality, said those interviewed, with some lamenting the loss of their privacy. 

Recalling how someone had interrupted his date for a photo request recently, Mr Chua said that he tries not to leave his house as far as possible and sticks to areas with fewer people to avoid being approached or recognised on the streets.

The TikTokers also cited hate comments as another hazard they have to face. As it is fairly easy to sign up for a TikTok account and remain anonymous on the platform, the problem is exacerbated on TikTok compared with other social media platforms, they said.

Ms Ainul said that she uses TikTok’s filter feature to block out inappropriate words about her appearance or religion. These include words related to weight, vulgarities or Islamophobia. 

Nevertheless, she noted that given the type of content she produces, the level of hate comments directed at her is still far lower compared with other TikTokers, including those with larger followings.

The TikTok spokesperson said that the company “does not tolerate bullying on its platform” and has developed several safeguards against it.

These include the removal of comments that go against TikTok’s community guidelines, such as those which involve harassment or bullying, and hate speech.

TikTok has also partnered with digital safety organisations in Singapore such as the Media Literacy Council to launch campaigns that prompt users to think before they post or comment on videos.

THE DOUBLE-EDGED IMPACT OF TIKTOK'S RISE 

As with all other social media platforms, TikTok comes with the good, bad and ugly, said experts.

On the plus side, SUTD's Prof Lim highlighted how TikTok — with its ability to let anyone broadcast themselves — allows smaller, less visible communities, such as those with medical conditions, to band together. 

It has also given regular folks with seemingly mundane lives an avenue to become famous, unlike influencers on other platforms such as Instagram, which is usually associated with glitz and glamour, said Prof Lim. She cited the example of how Mr Raymond Lim, better known as Uncle Raymond, rose to fame by broadcasting his dances outside MRT stations on TikTok.

Dr Crystal noted how TikTok became accepted as a mainstream application  — and not just a platform for young people  — when it was used in social justice movements. 

For example, in Asia Pacific, TikTok was adopted as a means for the climate justice movement to organise marches in late 2019. It also became a site for young people to talk about anti-Asian racism when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in East Asia and Southeast Asia in early 2020, said Dr Crystal.

Some observers also pointed to how the Black Lives Movement in June 2020 tapped TikTok for social advocacy. During that period of protests, the #blacklivesmatter hashtag trended on TikTok and provided an avenue for users to share educational resources on the issue.

Despite its upsides, TikTok has also received its fair share of criticism.

NTU's Assistant Professor Saifuddin Ahmed noted that there have been more widespread discussions surrounding censorship, privacy and surveillance on TikTok compared with other social media platforms, although these issues are not necessarily specific to TikTok.

This is due to allegations of data mishandling and TikTok bowing to pressures from the Chinese government on how the data is used, he said.

Prof Lim also raised concerns about how TikTok’s algorithm has been designed to keep users on the platform longer, generating the fear that its algorithm could draw users into harmful content such as reckless and risky acts, eating disorders or substance abuse.

However, Dr Crystal said that there are echo chambers on every social media platform, and echo chambers are worse in closed messaging groups such as WhatsApp or Telegram where there is no third party to vet or challenge the content.

She also argued that while TikTok's For You Page "does groom and understand your preferences", the app's users are "more likely to chance upon content that's not connected to your egocentric profile, that's also not connected to your personal network of people you follow".

This also means that in comparison, TikTok users "end up being a pedestrian in more subcultures than you would in other social media", she said. 

TikTok said that its recommendation system, the For You feed, is central to the TikTok experience. Recommendations are based on several factors including user interactions, video information and device and account settings.

The spokesperson added that TikTok is aware that one of the "inherent challenges" of recommendation engines is that they can "inadvertently limit (a user's) experience", sometimes referred to as a filter bubble.

“We recognise these concerns, and continue to strike a balance with optimising our For You feed for personalisation and relevance, while also helping users find fresh content and uncover new creators,” said the spokesperson.

The spokesperson added that while safety is at the heart of the recommendation system, that did not mean that serious or controversial content did not have a place on the platform, which is ultimately built to support users’ diverse thoughts, experiences and interests.

"THE MOST ADDICTIVE" SOCIAL MEDIA APP

The success of TikTok's algorithm has led to it being dubbed the "most addictive" social media app. But its very strength is what could cause the most harm to users. 

Mr John Shepherd Lim, chief well-being officer of Singapore Counselling Centre, said that the excessive use of TikTok is “undoubtedly a common contributing factor” to the mental health concerns that its young clients face today.

He noted that while TikTok can be a place for users to express their creativity, its mainly young and impressionable user base means that TikTok may have unintentionally created an environment where users feel the pressure to create videos to increase their follower count, views and "likes" in order to feel social validation.

Mindless consumption of content on TikTok can fuel self-esteem issues, body-image issues and life dissatisfaction, where users compare their own lives and relationships to what they see on the platform, he said.

“If users find themselves ruminating or feeling more anxious regarding what they saw on TikTok, it might be time to put the phone down for a while,” he added.

He also pointed out that with the presence of sexually provocative and various forms of controversial content available, youths are more susceptible to being exposed to adult content, perspectives and struggles at an earlier age.

TikTok’s continuous supply of entertaining content and the “rapid-fire nature” of its videos train viewers’ minds to quickly assess how pleasurable content is during the first few seconds. This may lead to a shortened attention span and a judgmental attitude that users can bring into other aspects of their lives, such as school or work, he noted. 

“A litmus test for how affected our attention spans are, is to measure the length of time it takes for us to get impatient with less-pleasurable activities, such as homework," said Mr Lim.

"If we seem to be performing other tasks at our normal capacity, our TikTok usage should not be a concern. Otherwise, users could consider setting a daily limit on TikTok screen time through the app’s settings."

The TikTok spokesperson said it has options for users to manage the time spent on TikTok, including the daily limit feature which Mr Lim referred to. 

The spokesperson reiterated that it is committed to protecting the safety of young users and has designed tools and strategies to prioritise age-appropriate experiences. These include community guidelines that prohibit nudity, pornography or sexually explicit content on TikTok.

The spokesperson said that TikTok also recognises that some content may contain mature or complex themes intended for older audiences. It is building a new system that will allocate maturity level to videos which will be rolled out in the coming months.

“Our users' well-being remains our top priority and there is no end to our work on this front. As such, we are committed to actively developing and reinforcing our safety features to continue cultivating healthy digital practices and positive online experiences,” said the spokesperson.

This story was originally published in TODAY.

Source: CNA/yb

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