Four people photographed separately on coloured backgrounds. Left to right: A man in a white t-shirt and blue jeans, turned to one side and jumping in mid-air with legs apart against a blue background. A man in orange shorts, a yellow t-shirt and white sneakers, posing as though running while pulling a silly face, against a red background. A woman in a yellow jumper, blue jeans and white sneakers jumping with her hands against her face on a turquoise background and a woman in a grey shirt, grey jeans and white sneakers, star-jumping against an orange background.

TikTok – where creativity has no demographic

Are you on TikTok? Given that it’s the most downloaded app in the world, chances are that’s a yes. If not, your neighbour probably is. Or your family. And no doubt your colleagues too. You see, even though TikTok is still a relatively new kid on the app block, these days it’s definitely not all lip-syncing and comedy videos. 

We often speak of TikTok in the same breath as platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, but when you get under the skin of each of them, it’s a comparison that doesn’t really work. “People are not communicating through it like they would a Snap or meeting their acquaintances as they would through Facebook,” explains Alex McIlvenny, Head of Growth Partnerships at TikTok. “It’s much more about community based on interests.” And the format of the app itself is precisely that. Yes, you can choose to seek out just the people you know, but it’s way more fun to follow people and organisations that are using the platform creatively and sharing content that will, to use TikTok’s own mission statement, ‘inspire creativity and bring joy’. And as well as enjoying what’s already on there, it’s essentially a video editing platform with built-in tools, making it almost too easy to add your own contributions. Which is no doubt why it has over 100 million users across Europe. 

However, what’s really interesting about TikTok today lies in just who those users are. It has almost always been mentioned in the same breath as ‘Gen Z’ – the socially aware digital natives for whom TikTok is an essential part of their ‘aesthetic’. But (to quote quite a famous Boomer) “times they are a changin’” and TikTok is being rapidly adopted by new demographics who are every bit as invested in the same communities and interests as their younger counterparts. This shift in users saw TikTok coin the term ‘Generation T’ (which they admit it is “more of a mindset than a generation”) and is crucial to explaining the platform’s new appeal outside the teenage market. The many and difficult events of the last eighteen months have almost certainly contributed to an influx of new joiners to TikTok, who are seeking out communities and finding some comfort and fun along the way. “We’re not afraid to bring, difficult conversations to the fore,” says Alex. “To look at the different stories and narratives and bring them to the community so they can really appreciate and learn.” In this way, organisations like Black Lives Matter and Pride are prominent on TikTok and are among the many social movements that are creating communities of like-minded people – regardless of age, gender or location. That’s not to say, of course, that these are the only places where difference meets. Because the TikTok algorithm feeds content based on interests and there are plenty of topics that share an incredibly diverse demographic – beauty, cooking, sport and photography to name but a few.

A hand holds a smartphone. On the screen, you can see that it is filming a brown and white puppy, which is blurred in the background.
The algorithm used in the TikTok ‘For You’ feed is cleverly optimised towards your specific interests and because there’s no special treatment for influencer’s content, anyone can become an overnight TikTok superstar.

Sound ON 

However, there’s no doubting the impact of TikTok on popular culture and nowhere is this felt more than in music. But once again, this isn’t necessarily about new artists breaking into the charts through using the platform (although that happens too, of course). Take, for example, the TikTok that absolutely blew up last year ­– a man living his best life, singing along to Fleetwood Mac's 1977 hit ‘Dreams’ as he skateboards AND swigs from a huge bottle of Ocean Spray. The response was immense, with users creating tributes to the original TikTok in droves and Spotify listens to Dreams shooting through the roof. The song jumped in sales by an astonishing 374% and re-entered the Billboard charts after a 43-year absence. Another hilarious aspect to this phenomenon was Ocean Spray reporting that stores had been completely cleared of the same cran-raspberry flavour drink that was featured in the TikTok. “We’re ‘sound on’ by default,” says Alex. “And that is a huge factor that differentiates us.” In this respect, as a visual medium it has a lot in common with that stalwart of entertainment, MTV. From a generational perspective, TikTok feels familiar to those Gen Xers, who were the first audience to grow up with music videos in the 1980s. A decade on, a new generation of millennials enjoyed the same channel for music as well as the forerunners of reality TV, such as Cribs and The Real World. Today, TikTok combines them all and creates this new-yet-familiar place that welcomes everyone.

Be seen, be yourself, be safe 

Alex points out that, as in life, TikTok is a place to express yourself and speak freely, but it is also a place to challenge and be challenged. “The hashtag we launched earlier this year – #learnonTikTok – is feeding discovery but is also a facilitator for a different perspective. Helping people to understand and appreciate diversity and culture.” However, there are also plenty of checks and measures in place to strike a balance between openness and disinformation. Indeed, the platform has a surprising and reassuring amount of oversight. “We use a mix of technology and human moderation and operate a 'follow the sun' approach so that people on teams around the world are always focused on protecting people 24/7,” explains Alex. “Reporting on our progress is hugely important, and in our most recent Community Guidelines Enforcement Report we shared that more than 82% of violating videos were removed before they received a single view, and 91% before any user report. We’re really strict on what comes through, and user protection is our utmost priority.” TikTok also has robust parental control tools including Family Pairing and accompanying educational material for parents to understand how to use them including its Guardian's Guide. There are also arrangements in place with charity partners that redirect users to their support and services, should they be using search terms that raise alarms.

From a generational perspective, TikTok feels familiar to those Gen Xers,
who were the first audience to grow up with music videos in the 1980s

All these factors and more means that brands (such as our own!) are flocking to TikTok as a place where they can build their own communities and connect with customers on a new, fun, engaging and educational level. And there’s no slow-down in growth in sight for the platform. Alex is really excited by two new developments that are happening right now. “The first is TikTok becoming a viable shopping destination. One example is the #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt hashtag, which showcases the products the community discovered on TikTok and has generated over 4.5B views to-date. Countless brands have reaped the benefits of community-driven, organic trends on the platform like #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt through real-time engagement and action. Secondly is the diversification of content. Partnering with even more credible sources – media brands, broadcasters news channels, independent vloggers – and having a much more diverse voice that represents the world we live in now.” So, we’re looking at a future TikTok that is a mix of fact-based content, in-app shopping, fun and a place to be creative and share interests. Fundamentally it’s all about discovering new things. And finding joy in the new is something we all share, whether we’re eighteen or eighty. “It’s all about universality,” says Alex. “There’s a lot that we all share.” 

We’re on TikTok! Give us a follow @canonemea

Written by Thessa Heijmans