A beginner’s guide to TikTok

Our beginner's guide to TikTok profiles this phenomenally popular social media app

Wednesday, 15 March, 2023

Social media may be a relatively new phenomenon in terms of human history, but its impact has already been seismic.

It’s influenced elections and referenda, created new friendships and destroyed old ones, launched causes and ended careers.

Whether this is to the betterment or detriment of society depends very much on who you ask, and what their experiences have been.

Most people accept that older social media titans like Facebook and Twitter have become stale, mired in endless scandal and outflanked by upstart platforms.

Foremost among these is TikTok. Even those unfamiliar with this video hosting service will recognise its name, and it’s these people our beginner’s guide to TikTok is aimed at.

Love it or loathe it, there’s no escaping its impact…

Video killed the Instagram star

You can measure a social media platform’s success by the extent to which rivals try to imitate it.

TikTok is a video hosting service, successfully achieving what Instagram Reels and Snapchat have subsequently failed to do by challenging YouTube’s dominance in the short video segment.

YouTube remains the world’s second largest search engine (beaten only by its parent brand Google), but TikTok’s usage figures are increasingly astronomical as well.

The app has been downloaded 3.5 billion times, and the stat-counters at Statista have predicted TikTok will have 15 million UK users by the end of next year.

Having installed the app and created a basic user profile, you are then able to view and share videos of up to three minutes in duration.

These videos are usually heavily stylised – dubbed with R&B music, played at higher speed than they were recorded at, or overlaid with a filter.

As on other social platforms, hashtags provide a shortcut to finding relevant content, while algorithms scrutinise your viewing history to curate future recommendations.

As the app launches, it’ll usually display an advert, which can be swiped up to access further content. There are no home pages or static content – just ever-changing video clips.

It’s possible to like, bookmark and comment on these videos, though the community aspects of TikTok are very much secondary to keeping you watching for as long as possible.

You might think clicking on the Friends tab would produce a page with a list of friends and contacts. Not at all – it simply launches a video from someone you follow.

Creators can access analytics and support within the app, including the ability to promote content and develop communities of live followers.

Why is TikTok controversial?

There are several reasons, including the fact its parent company ByteDance is legally obliged to surrender any information the Chinese government requests, at any time.

That could encompass huge swathes of personal data on millions of people in the UK, none of whom would know how/when/where/why that information was being accessed or used.

It’s one thing accepting Facebook will sell your information to advertisers, but quite another to unwittingly hand over reams of personal data to a foreign government as opaque as China’s.

It’s been reported that TikTok might one day be legally ordered by the Chinese state to conduct surveillance on foreign users, including people here in the UK, without their knowledge.

The blocking of Chinese involvement in areas like the UK’s 5G broadband infrastructure reflects concerns at the highest levels of government.

That’s before we get to controversies affecting all social media platforms – trolling and stalking, inconsistent responses to offensive content and a lack of moderator transparency.

TikTok moderators have previously been instructed to suppress posts by users deemed “too ugly, poor or disabled” (direct quote).

The app can read messages as they’re typed even if they’re never sent, while harvesting information as diverse as your keystroke patterns, screen resolution and contacts lists.

Because social media is relatively new, we can’t yet gauge whether our dwindling attention spans and spiralling mental health issues are related to widespread use of these platforms.

That’s a matter for future historians to unpack. Here in 2023, we can only recommend restraint in the use of any social media platform – however seductive it may appear…

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!