While TikTok has risen to become the latest trending social media app, as its popularity has increased, so too have questions about its actual performance, its ownership and if/how the authoritarian Chinese Government could interfere with the app, given its parent company is based in China.
Those queries have ramped up again this week, with The Guardian gaining access to internal moderation guidelines for TikTok, which detail how the app's team is instructed to censor videos which mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong.
As explained by The Guardian:
"The documents, revealed by the Guardian for the first time, lay out how ByteDance, the Beijing-headquartered technology company that owns TikTok, is advancing Chinese foreign policy aims abroad through the app."
The revelation also comes amid questions around if/how TikTok may also be censoring discussion within the app in regards to the ongoing Hong Kong protests.
As noted, there have been various questions around both TikTok's actual performance and its content decisions. Last month, The Verge's Casey Newton reported that, despite the hype around the app, TikTok users actually aren't sticking around:
"Much of TikTok’s growth has been bought and paid for by ByteDance investors. The company spent nearly $1 billion on advertising the app in 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported in June. And platform executives familiar with ByteDance’s spending have told me that a significant majority of new users still abandon the app within 30 days."
While there's little question that usage of the app is growing, TikTok has been reluctant to release full breakdowns of its usage stats - though earlier this week TikTok VP Blake Chandlee indicated to an audience at an Advertising Week event that it now has more than 500 million users.
“It’s not a billion, but it’s not half that either.”
But that's still pretty vague - in July last year, TikTok reported that it had 500 million users "globally", though that would have included users of Douyin, the version of TikTok which operates within China.
Chandlee, again speaking at Advertising Week, was keen to point out that the two versions of the app are completely separate:
“[TikTok is] autonomous from the Chinese side of the business. We run it outside of the Chinese market, and we run a very locally-centered business. The U.S. is run by teams in the U.S. The European business is run by teams in Europe.”
That, theoretically, would suggest that TikTok itself now has 500 million users, independent of Douyin, which reportedly sees 400 million MAU in China. It would also suggest that TikTok's editorial process could also operate independently, though the findings so far suggest that TikTok is censoring content banned by the Chinese Government in both apps.
Basically, it's impossible to know how separate each element of the company is, and as such, what the user numbers are, what the content regulations are, etc.
Again, it's fairly clear that TikTok usage is rising, which is worth noting for marketers looking to reach younger users. But with the inner workings of the company somewhat obscured, it's difficult to get a real handle on each aspect, and what it may mean for the app.
Each prospective advertiser will need to make an individual call over if and how they use the app, based on the information available. You could be reaching a huge audience, clearly comparable to Twitter or Snapchat. Maybe. But you could also be subject to censorship regulations around certain subjects.
Given the various elements, it's difficult to say what the future is for TikTok. Is it the next big thing, or will concerns around censorship, and potential conflicts with the Chinese Government impede its growth?
Certainly, the potential is there, but how it will play out is impossible to predict.