One day last March, Shauna Davitt decided to have a look at TikTok. The app allows users to create and upload short-form videos, but the Wexford teenager had previously dismissed it as being aimed at younger children. "I got sucked into it like everyone else," she recalls. She started making her own funny videos under the handle @shauna_the_sheep123 and sharing them with her friends.
In July, she made a short video poking fun at Americans who claim to have Irish ancestry when their links to the country are tenuous at best. Her friend encouraged her to upload it, and it garnered tens of thousands of views. From there, she started creating more bite-sized videos that riffed on everything from Irish mammies to Irish girls’ predilection for fake tans. As she posted more videos, the likes and follows poured in.
At the time of writing, the 18-year-old secondary school student has more than 325,000 followers, and her videos have been liked more than 15 million times. She has secured sponsorship deals, including one with phone case manufacturer Slickprotect. "I feel like people enjoy watching me because I'm relatable but I can make it funny," she says.
Davitt’s swift ascent is reflective of TikTok’s astronomical growth since it launched in August 2018. The app started out life as Musical.ly, a Chinese-owned video sharing network that enabled users to upload short videos of themselves dancing or lip-syncing to music. Musical.ly quickly caught on among teenagers, and gained millions of users.
In 2017, it was acquired by ByteDance, a Beijing-based tech company. At the time, ByteDance operated a similar video-sharing app called TikTok (known in China as Douyin), and the decision was taken to merge the two apps. In August 2018, Musical.ly ceased to exist with TikTok absorbing its user accounts and content.
It soon became one of the most talked about apps in the world. Data collated by App Annie shows it was the seventh most downloaded app of the 2010s. That put it behind the likes of Facebook, Messenger, Whatsapp, Instagram, Snapchat and Skype, but ahead of Twitter and YouTube, which is quite remarkable for an app that is less than 18 months old.
Like its predecessor Musical.ly, TikTok is beloved by children and teenagers. Recent figures from Irish polling company Ipsos MRBI show 6 per cent of people over the age of 15 in Ireland have a TikTok account. That's up from 2 per cent the previous year, and is likely to increase over the coming months. Meanwhile, CyberSafeIreland recently conducted a survey among 2,336 children aged eight to 12 and found that TikTok was used by 35 per cent of them, making it the most popular app in the age group. "It has really grown in popularity," says Alex Cooney, chief executive of CyberSafeIreland. "We're hearing a lot more about it in the classroom."
Not wanting to be left behind, more and more celebrities and organisations are jumping on board. Actors, musicians and comedians like Will Smith, Reese Witherspoon, Justin Bieber, Lewis Capaldi and Kevin Hart are all avid users, while in sport, the NFL, NBA and Liverpool FC also boast strong followings. Even news organisations like The Washington Post have a TikTok presence. (What does the Washington Post share on TikTok, you ask? Viral comedy clips about Watergate.) Closer to home, RTÉ One, RTÉ 2fm and Dancing with the Stars are all sharing content on the app.
So how does it all work? Essentially, users can create videos that are up to 60 seconds long. Most videos feature people lip-syncing to music, performing comedy sketches or making relatable memes. There are also trending hashtags and viral challenges to explore. Unlike other social media apps where you only see content from people you follow, TikTok shows you content it suspects you might enjoy based on what you like and who you follow. For instance, my feed is full of Love Island alumni lip-syncing to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song, or Irish teenagers explaining why Ireland is better than England.
Music is one of the defining features of TikTok, and the app has been widely embraced by figures in the music industry who know that popularity on the app can propel them to worldwide success. Just last year, Lizzo's Truth Hurts reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 two years after it was released. The reason for the sudden surge in popularity? Its opening lyric inspired a TikTok meme known as the DNA Test Challenge. Likewise, rapper Lil Nas X struck gold when his rap-country banger Old Town Road was picked up by users on TikTok. The song subsequently topped the charts all over the world, and was one of the best selling singles of 2019.
"The music integration function has become a marketing goldmine for performers and labels," says Sean Early, director of social strategy with Teneo. "According to talent agencies, more of their artists are being signed via TikTok than the traditional routes of demos, Spotify or YouTube based on the novel usage of music sharing." Early notes that Irish group Chasing Abbey are currently at the centre of a "trust fall" challenge on TikTok that is linked to their song Dominos. "[It] has in turn led to piqued interest from international audiences on their track," he says.
As TikTok has become the app of choice among Generation Z, brands and advertisers have started to pay attention to it. Earley says advertising is only open to companies from certain countries and regions, and interested parties have to submit a contact form and await an invitation to advertise.
The Chinese-owned app has been accused of censoring pro-Hong Kong content, and banning pro-LGBT content in Turkey
Among the options available are video advertising, brand takeovers or sponsored hashtag challenges, the latter of which encourage users to generate their own content and engage with the brand. Last year, cosmetics brand MAC started a sponsored hashtag challenge to boost its profile among teenagers and young people. The sponsored hashtag #YouOwnIt generated 2.3 billion views, and has been hailed as the most successful brand campaign on TikTok to date.
Are we about to see more brands making their way to TikTok in Ireland? Perhaps, but it’ll take some time.
“Brands are starting to take notice either experimenting with content, registering accounts or beginning to dip the toe,” Earley says. “TikTok is currently occupying the space that Snapchat did three years ago when it entered the market, but marketeers are still cautious due to the lack of analytics, formats and consistency in pricing.”
As is the case with many social networking apps, TikTok has had its own fair share of controversies. The Chinese-owned app has been accused of censoring pro-Hong Kong content, and banning pro-LGBT content in Turkey. Meanwhile, the US government has opened a national security investigation into the acquisition of Musical.ly. There are also concerns around the app potentially exposing younger users to violent or sexually explicit content, as well as questions around how it stores data.
Do parents need to be vigilant? Alex Cooney of CyberSafeIreland says that, as with all social networking apps, parents should exercise a degree of caution. Firstly, she advises parents to familiarise themselves with the app itself. “That’s one of the things we say to reassure parents,” she says. “You don’t need to be experts. You just need to know some general principles. If your child is coming to you saying, ‘I want to download TikTok, all my friends are on TikTok,’ then have a look yourself. Get a sense of what it’s like.”
While TikTok has no age verification system, there is a restricted version for those under the age of 13. Moreover, there are digital wellbeing settings that limit screen time and restrict content that may not be appropriate for younger users. “We would advise parents to enable that setting in the app,” says Cooney.
She also recommends having conversations with children around what not to share and what not to comment. If children are using the app, parents are advised to keep an eye on what they’re doing. “Have them use it in a family space and not up in their bedroom, because what we don’t want is kids giving away loads of personal information,” she says.
TikTok does not release figures on how many users it has in each country, but there are a number of Irish creators with significant followings on other social media channels like Snapchat and Instagram who are also growing their TikTok audiences. These include Cian Twomey, Keilidh Cashell, Jonathan Joly, and Tadhg Fleming. Others like Cian Gannon (@ciangannon) and Belfast magician Joel (@joelmagician) have built up followings directly through TikTok.
Here, we chat to some Irish teenagers who are striking it big on the video-sharing app.
Bonnie Neiland @bonnieneiland
Bonnie Neiland is a 17-year-old from Co Wexford. As a child, she grew up making video tutorials on her mother's video camera. When she got older, she discovered the now-defunct app Vine and started creating short, funny videos. "They didn't really become too successful for me, but I kept posting on the app as I just loved making them," she says. In secondary school, she was introduced to Musical.ly having come across videos shared by Loren Gray and Baby Ariel, two of the site's most popular stars. Neiland says she was drawn to their "fashion and quirkiness" and decided to join the app herself.
When she started out, she says she was sharing six to 10 videos per day in a bid to build her audience. Her breakthrough came when a video of herself and her mother dancing to the song Gasolina by Daddy Yankee was featured on the global page and went viral. “Once I got my first feature I got such an adrenaline rush from the positive response I received, and I was even more motivated to create new content,” she says. “My followers began to blow up, crazy numbers overnight. This really motivated me to make entertaining content all the time. I got so hooked to posting, and loved hearing all the nice comments from people who looked up to me.”
Neiland now has more than 436,000 followers, while her videos have amassed almost 38 million views. She sees TikTok as a tool for expressing herself.
“I’ve always been very creative and artistic when it comes to making my videos,” she says. “I love being able to pick a song I like and create my own personal video to it, because you can express yourself in so many different ways. I have created most of my content from my own imagination, plus on TikTok you can get so many different ideas from watching other people’s content that you then can tweak around and make your own. People’s ideas bounce off each other.”
Currently in fifth year, she says she is already looking forward to life after school. “I’m so looking forward to having a creative career and actually being able to spend my time doing what I love,” she says.
King Ye @namesking
When King Ye was younger, he used to spend time making videos for Dubsmash, the lip-syncing app. A friend saw how much he enjoyed it and introduced him to Musical.ly. The teenager started regularly posting videos to the app and eventually earned a verified badge.
The UCD student was gradually building up an audience but things really took off when he shared a video of himself impersonating the lead character in Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom. The Irish language short film tells the story of a Chinese man who decides to move to Ireland. When he discovers that Irish is the official language, he sets about learning it. Once he lands in Ireland, however, he discovers that the language isn’t widely spoken and nobody can understand him.
“I received a big reaction from the Irish audience because the majority would know of the film from primary and secondary school,” he says. “This attracted a lot of Irish people onto my account. I would get comments regularly from people asking if I was actually him.”
One of his most popular videos sees him highlighting the likeness between him and Jackie Chan’s son. “People often told me how I looked similar to Jackie Chan’s son, so I made a video to compare and it blew up also,” he says.
Why is TikTok is so popular among his peer group? “Because of the unexpected,” says the 19-year-old. “There are so many videos being made on there you would never grow bored of it. I am guilty of swiping through videos for hours.”
Lauren Ennis Cooney @laurs_7530
When Lauren Ennis Cooney first joined TikTok she didn't have any aspirations towards developing a following on the app. It was just for fun. "I know it sounds stupid, but I just posted on it for the craic not thinking anything major would happen," she says.
The 16-year-old comes from an agricultural and farming background in Co Offaly, and started making what she calls "culchie TikToks" aimed at young farmers. "My videos consists of all farming and machinery-related topics and the majority are of a comedic nature," she says. "For example, some topics I would talk about in my videos are machinery brands, Teagasc, farming in Ireland or even just things that would interest culchies like silage. Even my username on TikTok is culchie-related. @laurs_7530 references a John Deere tractor which is a 7530 premium."
It might sound a little niche, but she has amassed 36,000 followers since joining last autumn. Her audience primarily consists of young farmers from the UK and Ireland, and she is careful not to deviate too far from her remit. That means talking about road frontage, the Ploughing Championships and even the ongoing beef crisis. “I feel like there is no one else on the app doing this so it is my specialty, I suppose,” she says.
Her following is constantly growing, she says, which is a testament to the growing popularity of TikTok. “For example, in one day I gained 4,000 followers,” she says. “This is down to the sheer power and scale of TikTok. It is unbelievable the amount of users it has.”