It’s been well over two years since TikTok arrived in the U.S. in August 2018 and offered a rejoinder to anyone who believed social media was lost. The app had it all: social comments, comedy, crafts, memes, challenges, makeup tutorials, and of course, dances. Even those who weren’t completely convinced couldn’t avoid the videos that were spreading on platforms like Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter.
As of April 2020, TikTok had been downloaded more than 2 billion times. As of the fall, it had an estimated 850 million monthly active users.
Despite the growth in size and scope, the uninitiated still largely see the app as a tool for other, much younger people. “TikTok is a kids dance app where kids upload videos of themselves for kids and adults to enjoy,” comedian Nathan Fielder joked recently. While TikTok changed the online dance culture, the platform has grown into a rich social and entertainment network. And in 2020 there was hardly a corner of society that it did not touch.
It turned the conversation upside down
The most obvious effects of TikTok can be seen in the entertainment world. “More than any other social network since Myspace, it feels like a new experience, the emergence of a different kind of technology and a different kind of media consumption,” wrote journalist Kyle Chayka in November.
Primarily responsible for the uniqueness of the TikTok ad experience is the For You page, an algorithmic feed that delivers the content that you are likely to find appealing. You don’t have to follow or be chased by a single person to see the videos you want to see or to let the target audience see your videos, which has made a rapid rise to fame for many people. In 2020 alone, top users such as Charli and Dixie D’Amelio and Addison Easterling collected tens of millions of followers and became well-known names. The D’Amelios even landed a Hulu show.
The app has also reinvigorated the music industry, becoming a place to discover talent, market new songs, produce new music together, and mix tracks.
It has shaped shopping behavior
TikTok has an undeniable influence on what people wear and buy. In 2020, TikTokers appeared in campaigns for Louis Vuitton and Prada that were signed and trendsetting with agencies like IMG Models (think cottagecore and the strawberry dress). Gucci took on a challenge that taught people how to style items in their closets to look like Alessandro Michele’s runway models. (If you have a headscarf, turtleneck, and brightly colored accessories, you’re halfway there.) Mass market brands have adjusted to influencers too. Hype House Merch is sold at Target, for example.
“It goes beyond the outfits and into the creative expression,” Kudzi Chikumbu, director of the Creator Community at TikTok, told Vogue.com in December. “TikTok is a place of joy and offers the fashion industry a completely new way of presenting its art and personality.”
While physical stores closed in the first few months of the pandemic, new brands and stores emerged on TikTok, using the platform to drive online orders. Vintage resellers use TikTok to sell their wares and revive old styles. Large retailers like Sephora, Dunkin ‘, and GameStop even encouraged their employees to become TikTok influencers.
It offered a view of the front lines
Service reps were some of the first to choose TikTok in 2018, and in 2020 people got a whole new perspective on their lives. Warehouse workers, fast food workers, and baristas turned to TikTok for a glimpse into their lives, sometimes finding accidental fame in the process. In 2020, many of their industries were hard hit by the pandemic and used TikTok to promote fundraising and relief efforts.
As the coronavirus continued to spread, TikTok also played an important role in the public health arena. Nurses, doctors, and other frontline health workers used TikTok to talk about the risks of contracting Covid-19, explain the importance of wearing masks, and break down misinformation about vaccines. (Many have also documented their vaccinations on the platform.)
Patients with coronavirus and other diseases have recorded their health journeys and are connected to the outside world from their hospital beds.
It helped people organize and express themselves
With support across the country this summer for the Black Lives Matter movement, TikTok became a place where young activists talked about police brutality, what it means to be an ally and criminal justice reform, and the app’s relationship with blacks Creators could speak.
Political activism was fruitful in the app too. In June, TikTok users organized a campaign to raise visitor expectations for President Trump’s campaign event in Tulsa. Photos from the event showed a sparse crowd with plenty of free spaces. After the event, longtime Republican strategist Steve Schmidt wrote on Twitter: “America’s teenagers dealt a heavy blow to @realDonaldTrump.”
It gave us life-affirming trends
One of the earliest and most visible trends at TikTok in 2020 was the Renegade, a dance choreographed by Jalaiah Harmon (15) to the song “Lottery” by the Atlanta rapper K-Camp. Most popularized by white influencers, the dance opened a dialogue about black creators and gave recognition where it is due.
In 2020, the viral food culture migrated from Instagram to TikTok. The platform popularized pancake cereal, whipped coffee, and carrot bacon. It also helped young talent like 18-year-old culinary darling Eitan Bernath be discovered and teach millions stuck at home during quarantine how to cook.
TikTok songs and audio tracks provided the soundtrack through 2020. The platform lifted new artists out of the dark at a rate the music industry had never seen before. It put songs like Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” back in the spotlight and introduced new ones to the mass audience.