It’s not just silly dance videos or social organizing. TikTok is the center of Gen Z’s media universe.
It seems every generation has had their own ways to mix media and friendships. Boomers had radio and television to bond over. Xers had mixed tapes and movie theaters, Millennials were the first to have media and friendship combine with Facebook, and now, Instagram. And like the generations before them, Zs have their own favorite – TikTok. For Zs, TikTok is everything. It’s the place where they get their news and information. It’s the place to express their creativity. It’s the place to have their voices heard and their perspectives validated. And it’s the place to organize and activate social movements. It’s no wonder that from January 2018 to August 2020, TikTok’s userbase rose 800%, with over 100 million users in the U.S. alone.
This popularity, coupled with President Trump’s executive order to ban the app, has brought TikTok to the mainstream – or at least to the awareness of older generations. Its leap to the current zeitgeist lead one analyst to call it the “winning social network of the pandemic.” While Zs were homebound for months, TikTok became a place to escape, to try on different identities, to collectively laugh, cry, or mobilize. Remember this summer when Zs disrupted the attendance at a campaign rally for President Trump? That was organized via TikTok.
As summer has turned to fall, TikTok has continued to be an influential platform for politics. It’s not a stretch to call some of TikTok’s hype houses “cable news for young people”. About as many Zs ultimately used TikTok as a source for news and information about the election as used CNN or FOX News. In a Front Row Insights & Strategy survey conducted in October, 30% of Zs told us they got news and information about politics and the upcoming Presidential election from TikTok, compared to 37% from CNN, 28% from FOX News, and 10% from MSNBC.
If you spent any time on TikTok before the election, you’d find thousands of videos supporting Democrats and Republicans alike, including campaigns aimed at getting these young, historically low-turnout voters, to the polls.
Being the center of Z’s media universe is no small feat, but TikTok has managed to tap into everything that appeals to Zs, and they have rewarded it accordingly. But what is it exactly that makes TikTok so popular with Zs?
TikTok feels like it’s just for them. Many Zs started on musical.ly (which later became TikTok) in elementary school, so TikTok always felt like the platform “for them.” It appeals to their digital native-ness – they’ve spent their entire lives immersed in internet culture and this app gets that. There’s no tutorials or profiles to set up, nothing to stop them from getting in and getting started. Remixing content is a breeze and the app requires the digital literacy that Zs have in spades. Zs love personalization, and there’s no better way to grab their attention than to have a platform that feels like it was created just for them.
TikTok allows Zs to flaunt their creative chops. Zs have grown up with phones and videos. They’re extremely creative and TikTok gives them a place to showcase all their talent. The platform makes laying music over video and editing clips together so simple that any user can create an engaging video quickly and feel good about it. And, that video can go viral easily.
That’s another thing Zs love. TikTok’s algorithm democratizes content. It’s far easier to go viral on TikTok than the other social platforms. Zs don’t have to wait to gain hundreds of thousands of followers in order to get their videos seen. For a generation craving connection, TikTok is a place to easily find others like you and make the world feel a bit kinder. As one Gen Z TikToker told Buzzfeed this year, “I have a following of people who think I’m funny and somewhat attractive and it’s helped me get through thinking I’m not worth anything.”
TikTok allows Zs to be casual and authentic. There’s no pressure to produce shiny, expensive-looking, perfect videos. While Millennials may love the polished look of Instagram, Zs value keeping it real above all else. They would rather see a grainy – but authentic – video than the hyper-produced and polished types. The videos are also super short, which is a natural fit for Gen Zs’ short attention spans. Quibi learned this the hard way. The ultra-polished, Hollywood-backed app was supposed to revolutionize the way we consumed short-form content. It launched just six months ago to much fanfare; think of having a Hollywood box office on your phone! But as Zs show, Hollywood doesn’t have the same clout as it used to. This is mostly due to Zs only knowing a world where their own content sits alongside professionally produced content, like on YouTube. So, the media hierarchy that existed for previous generations doesn’t exist for Zs. It’s not that Zs don’t enjoy well-produced content, they just care more about seeing – and engaging with – their own generation in all their real, authentic glory – blemishes and all.
Despite all this, the future for TikTok is still unknown. The Trump administration is continuing its push to ban TikTok from the U.S., citing ongoing national security risks. The latest executive order pushes for the U.S. operations of the app to be sold from its Chinese parent company by November 12th. But if Zs have anything to say about it, and if anyone actually listens to them, TikTok is here to stay.