Who owns TikTok and how did it start?

No matter who you are, if you’re in any way interested in social media then you’ve probably noticed the inexorable rise of Chinese social media app TikTok. Despite certain controversies that have come with the app – namely those over security and the ways in which moderation excludes content based on unethical parameters – TikTok has gone from strength to strength in 2020, building on an incredibly solid foundation that it established for itself in 2019. Influencers are building networks on TikTok as we speak, often using sites like https://mytiktokfollowers.com/ to net new groups of followers so their content can grow even more exponentially than it already is.

So, how did we get here? How did TikTok go from a barely-known app to a global smash hit, and who are the masterminds behind it? The story of TikTok is both complicated and straightforward. It concerns a country that hasn’t historically been particularly accepting of scrutiny, as well as a number of huge untapped markets and the untimely death of a social media network beloved by content creators. Without the niches and power vacuums left behind in certain wakes, TikTok probably wouldn’t have been able to climb to superstardom, but it’s established a position for itself. Here’s who owns TikTok and how it began.

TikTok began life as a social media app called A.me. That app launched in September 2016 and was only intended for Chinese markets. It wasn’t long before A.me became Douyin, on the suggestion of its users. The app was originally created by Chinese developer Zhang Yiming, who founded a startup company called ByteDance back in 2012. ByteDance’s most prominent creation (in China, at least) is a content platform called Toutiao, which roughly translates as “headlines”. Toutiao delivers text, microblog content, and various other things to its users. The company’s first foray into short-form video content was Xigua Video, an early 2016 app that allowed users to upload videos between 2 and 5 minutes in length.

It took Yiming and his team 200 days to create Douyin, which quickly became incredibly popular. Within a year of launch, Douyin enjoyed 100 million users. Not bad for a short-form video social media platform. Yiming said that eyeing the international market for TikTok was a no-brainer; if the company didn’t expand into the rest of the world, Yiming and his peers would “lose to peers eyeing the four-fifths”, referencing the population outside of China. It’s clear that Yiming always envisioned TikTok as a global proposition and never intended for the app to remain in its native China, and indeed, such an obviously good idea could never have been contained in one territory.

Before we continue, let’s talk a little bit about ByteDance, the company that created TikTok. It’s effectively a Chinese tech company in a similar vein to Facebook; although it doesn’t create hardware like companies such as Apple or Google, it does have a wide range of software like news recommendation system Toutiao and longform video platform Xigua Video (please note – these links are both in Chinese). ByteDance also has its fingers in some international pies; it’s created apps that are popular in India, Indonesia, and other territories in Southeast Asia. TikTok is just one of the many products it’s currently selling, although most of them are exclusive to China.

ByteDance is now an umbrella for various different social apps that compete in some ways with state-approved Tencent apps. The company offers a WeChat competitor (think WhatsApp but for the Chinese market) called FlipChat, as well as a video messaging app that competes with China’s QQ messenger which goes by the name of Duoshan. It’s a spectacularly popular company that enjoys lots of international investment, but has come under fire by the Chinese authorities for perceived subversive content being allowed on some of its software’s networks. In short, it’s not without its controversies, and TikTok certainly has its fair share too.

Luckily for TikTok, at around the same time its star was in ascendancy in China, another app was on the wane: Vine. If you’re not familiar with Vine, it was effectively a Western precursor to TikTok; users could upload short 7-second clips of anything they liked, usually resulting in humorous non-sequitur memes and clips that now find themselves on YouTube compilations. Vine lasted for around four years before it met its untimely demise, and many content creators who loved Vine found themselves without a home for their content. That’s where TikTok comes in – it managed to find an audience in part thanks to Vine’s surplus of audience members and content creators without a home.

Another aspect of TikTok’s success has to do with its merger with Western shortform music platform Musical.ly. This app was effectively a social media network that encouraged users to upload videos of themselves either lip-syncing to popular songs or creating music of their own. It became popular among the younger demographic, which isn’t surprising considering that much of TikTok’s content now focuses on lip-syncing. In 2018, ByteDance acquired Musical.ly and rebranded it under the TikTok umbrella, meaning both apps now provided the same service to users. Musical.ly accounts became TikTok accounts and all users were migrated to the new service. The rest, as they say, is history.

That’s the story behind TikTok, the popular social media app that’s only going to become more popular as more people and demographics discover it. In many ways, TikTok’s story is a standard success story that reflects much of the tech industry, but in others it’s an exciting tale of a Chinese startup finally managing to break the global market.

Photograph by Kon Karampelas