Most nights, from around 7 till midnight, Sydney Jade is on TikTok, the smartphone app of the moment. The platinum blond teenager films herself singing show tunes, doing jumping jacks, and joking around with store clerks at a Walmart not far from her home in Oklahoma. Her short music videos and livestreams are popular—Jade has 284,000 followers, some of whom periodically send her virtual gifts, like 99¢ Rainbow Puke stickers.
Jade’s parents resisted TikTok at first. They hadn’t heard of the app and, Jade says, “didn’t like the idea of strangers watching me sing alone in front of the pink curtains in my bedroom.” But she convinced them that TikTok was “friendlier for kids than other apps like Facebook.” They let her join last year, just as, it seems, every other teenager signed on as well. In January, TikTok was the most downloaded app in the Android and iPhone stores, according to research firm Sensor Tower Inc.
The story sounds a lot like the rise of other social media powers such as Instagram and Snapchat, both of which pitched themselves as alternatives to Facebook’s big blue app. But TikTok wasn’t created by Stanford students Mark Zuckerberg could buy off or spend into the ground. It’s a subsidiary of a Beijing startup, Bytedance Ltd., that’s built a collection of valuable apps in China powered by vast troves of data and sophisticated artificial intelligence. Last year, Bytedance’s investors valued the company at $75 billion, the most of any startup in the world.
Separately, TikTok has faced concerns over privacy and child safety. In February, Bytedance was fined $5.7 million by the Federal Trade Commission to settle allegations that Musical.ly, which Byteda-nce bought and renamed TikTok, illegally collected information from minors. It was the largest FTC penalty in a children’s privacy case.
The settlement didn’t scare off Bytedance’s inve-stors or the company itself, which is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to advertise on Facebook in the hope of luring away more users. Over the past three months, for instance, 13 per cent of all the ads seen by users of Facebook’s Android app were for TikTok, says app-analytics firm Apptopia.