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TikTok Logo

TikTok is a viral social networking and content creation app that’s been expanding in popularity since its creation. The app’s original title was Musical.ly until the parent company, Musical.ly inc., sold the rights of the app to a company called ByteDance in 2016. Upon ByteDance's purchase, the app was then morphed into a platform for users to create and release short videos up to 60 seconds in length, allowing individuals to either share their content with the public or keep the content private, only allowing specific users to see. Today, it has been downloaded over 1.5 billion times and has 500 million active users per month[1] with its most popular user having over 41.6 million followers. The main demographic of the app is people in their early adult years, with 69% of TikToks users spanning from ages 16 to 24 years old[2]. The app has always targeted a younger audience in order to grow interest and achieve success. Though TikTok has gained a large amount of downloads over the past few years, it is often criticized for breaching its users’ privacy. In addition to this, the app has notable ethical issues by executing and allowing cyberbullying in its community and permitting the use of copyrighted material (most specifically music) without proper licensing from the copyright holders.

How it Started

Musical.ly Logo


The origin of Tiktok dates back to 2014 with the creation of Musical.ly. Musical.ly was an app created by Alex Zhu and Luyu Yang that allowed people to post short form music videos of themselves lip syncing and share them with an online community. To quote Biz Carson from his Business Insider article, "How a failed education startup turned into Musical.ly, the most popular app you've probably never heard of," in May 2016, "The team believes it's building the next social network to revolve around videos"[3]. The app quickly grew in notoriety, reaching 60 million active users. During this time, the app did not have a large international outreach and almost all users were from the United States. The lack of international outreach would soon change after being bought out later that year.

Musical.ly to TikTok

In September 2016, Musical.ly was acquired by a company called ByteDance for over $1 billion. After acquiring Musical.ly, ByteDance changed the name of the app to TikTok [4] and added more freedom in video creation as opposed to limiting their content to just lip syncing videos. While the app is internationally known as TikTok, it goes by the name of “Douyin” in China, and runs off of separate servers due to China’s regulations. [5].


ByteDance is a company based in Beijing, created by Zhang Yiming in 2012[2]. One of its first apps, Toutiao, is among the most popular sites in all of China for people to retrieve the news. Chinese tech companies, such as ByteDance, benefit from the fact that they are able to grow their user base throughout China, but are also able to spread their outreach around the world. This is in contrast to many popular tech companies, like Google, that are banned from use in China. Moreover, being that all of ByteDance’s apps are free for use, the company receives the majority of its revenue from advertising. With that in mind, ByteDance’s goal for the creation of TikTok was to target a young demographic due to the fact that adolescent audiences have a higher capacity for long term use and often create the newest viral trends.

Growth and Success

In less than 4 years the app has reached over 1.5 billion downloads and has an active monthly user base of 500 million. While the app is used across the world (with the exception of 40 countries) it has now started to permeate the mainstream media. On March 10, 2020 one of the app's most famous users (clocking in at 41.7 million followers), Charli D'Amelio, made a live appearance on the hit late night show, "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon"[6]. The app has now received so much recognition that its user’s content is no longer restricted to being shared just on the app. Users are now being featured as special guests on popular mainstream television shows, broadcasted to millions of viewers every night.


Video Uploading

When it comes to posting videos, users are able to either record and upload videos they took directly through the app or record videos from their own camera roll. Once uploaded, the video can be viewed by a number of people depending on the user’s privacy settings. If the user has a private account, the video can only be accessed by the user’s specific followers. If the account is public, all uploaded content can be viewed by any other user accessing the platform.

Following Page

TikTok has a feature called the “following page” where people are able to view newly released videos specifically from users that they follow. Instead of having to look up each individual user to check new posts, all of them are organized in one location.

For You Page

TikToks algorithm selects a feed of videos based off what each user likes, watches, and shares. The page is never ending, and many users guess about the type content they have to make in order to get on more people’s curated "for you" pages [7].

Examples of edits and filters that can be added to videos

Video editing

Users are able to edit their videos in many different ways including:

  • Filtering
  • Lengthening and shortening videos
  • Adding audio over videos
  • Adding stickers and animations
  • Add special effects that alter the users body, eye color, hair color, etc.
Example of a duet

Live streaming

Users can live stream themselves either publicly or limit the stream to their specified followers.

Social sharing

Users have the capability of sharing their TikTok content to other social media websites, such as Instagram and Snapchat.


The app has a library of songs that users can choose from to use as audio over their videos.

Duet Option

Users have the option to take a video and put it side by side with another video so they can both be watched at the same time.

Stitch Option

Stitching allows users to crop and integrate part of another user's video into their own. This feature is most often used to add to another users' content, or react to their content. Users can turn on or off the option to let others stitch their content. Videos made with the Stitch option will credit the original creator in the new video's caption, and if clicked, it will link to the original video that was stitched.[8]

Creating Playlists

Creators can now also make playlists to sort their videos into. Because creators may post multiple videos daily, this adds up over time and can make it difficult for viewers to find a specific video. The playlist feature helps creators to better categorize content and allow users to be able to watch relevant videos in a certain series.[9]

Accessibility Features

Auto Captions

Auto captioning is a feature to make videos more accessible to those who may be deaf or hard of hearing. If turned on by the creator, this feature will automatically generate and transcribe subtitles. Creators can also edit their captions if the text is not accurate or if they want to add more textual information.[10]

Features for Better Visual Experience

Instead of animated thumbnails that repeat over and over, TikTok has replaced this with static images. TikTok has also added a feature that notifies creators if their video contains effects that may trigger photosensitive epilepsy. Similarly, there is also a photosensitivity feature that allows users to skip photosensitive content if they want to. These features help improve the visual experience of TikTok and make it more accessible to people with varying degrees of visual impairment.[10]

Speech to Text

TikTok has introduced a voice-to-text feature, where creators can type text into the video and a default AI voice will read the text out loud.[11] This can help improve accessibility for both creators and users, by offering an alternative way for people to narrate videos. A few examples of why people may prefer to use this feature are if creators do not want to expose their real voice online or if they have speech impediments or are unable to communicate verbally. This feature also aids users who may have visual impairments and find it difficult or straining to read text.[12]

The Ethics of TikTok

Using the app is like being watched over your shoulder

Ethics of Surveillance

Unbenounced to many of its users, TikTok tracks the audio and browsing data of every single one of its users[13]. Not only does this action address unethical means of surveillance, but it also brings into question the transparency of the company and their reasons for not disclosing the true purpose of what this data is being used for. In his article “Reddit CEO says TikTok is ‘fundamentally parasitic,” Chaim Gartenburg stated "TikTok parent company ByteDance claims that its fingerprinting techniques are used to identify malicious browser behavior, but Eberl notes his skepticism given that the website still appears to work perfectly fine when those scripts are disabled"[13]. If the fingerprinting and tracking technology does not affect the website’s ability to function, it brings about many concerns regarding what the company could be doing with the data. Considering that the information is not crucial to the inner workings of the app, it shows a breach of privacy for the community of users connected by the platform. When discussing this, it is important to mention Steve Mann's paper "Veillance and Reciprocal Transparency: Surveillance versus Sousveillance, AR Glass, Lifeglogging, and Wearable Computing" that shows ByteDance’s position on data to be unethical. At the moment, ByteDance is executing a propertarian model of veillance; since the app is their property, they are deciding to survey every action that happens on it. However, this is an unethical use of the company’s power. To quote Mann "there is no reason to assume that those in high places (e.g. priests, politicians, police, etc.) are flawless and should thus be able to watch over us without us being able to watch back! Otherwise, the one-sided nature of surveillance allows it to, under certain circumstances, become the very “ladder” that facilitates this high-level corruption"[14]. ByteDance is surveying its users with no opportunity for sousveillance. The company has placed itself at a high level of power, compromising the privacy of all individuals using the app. Being that the company won’t disclose their true reasoning for fingerprinting each user, they are exercising unethical behavior that affects the millions of people who interact with the social media platform every day.


An example of one user bullying another user by comparing their image to the fictional character Humpty Dumpty

User to User

Much like other social media apps and websites that are popular today, TikTok also acts as a device for cyberbullies to post hurtful comments on other’s content and proliferate negativity. However, unlike other apps, TikTok also has the duet feature that allows users to make a video and play it side by side with another video made by a different user. In regards to cyberbullying through comments, people are able to make separate accounts and remain completely anonymous when commenting on any post. Fortunately, any comment a user adds to a post can be deleted by the person who posted the video. However, in the case of users being bullied from duet videos, there is no way for them to delete the post without filing a complaint with TikTok. While users are able to either disable or delete comments from their post, they are unable to prevent duets from being created and posted which creates a moreopen opportunity for cyberbullies. To quote Rachael Krishna in her article "TikTok Creators Say They Are Being Bullied And The Company Isn’t Helping", "When they do report abuse, users find that content either stays up or just keeps coming, meaning they spend more of their time reporting content than creating it"[15]. While the app exercises ethical behavior by allowing users to restrict comments, they fail to stay consistent in upholding their ethical behavior and anti-bullying policies across the platform by allowing duets to constantly be created with no means to delete it without the involvement of TikTok employees.

ByteDance to User

The parent company ByteDance has been accused of directly cyberbullying a number of its users, instructing moderators to remove content that they find to be undesirable. To quote Joe Price, "it has been revealed that TikTok moderators were told to suppress videos of people deemed too "ugly, poor, or disabled" in an effort to attract more people to download the app"[16]. The act of suppressing users based on their physical appearance and financial wellbeing is extremely unethical. Bytedance is willing to risk silencing its own users in order to make the app more aesthetically desirable so that users will be more compelled to download it. Not only does the app act as a device for user to user cyberbullying, but the parent company also bullies and degrades its users. When considering this through the lens of Philip Brey’s work, ByteDance does not follow societal values for disclosive computer ethics, most specifically "Justice(Fairness, non-discrimination)"[17]. The app’s moderators are discriminating against its own users, determining who should be seen and who should be silenced based on specific and vain personal traits, which is unethical behavior for ByteDance to practice.


TikTok relies on a large library of music in order for users to make content every day. The app allows users to either add their own audio or use audio provided by TikTok itself. While the app contains a massive library of music for users to select from, much of the audio being presented is not legally available for the app to offer. To quote Stuart Dredge from Music Ally, "TikTok received 3,345 takedown notices for copyrighted content in the first half of 2019"[18]. ByteDance allowing unlicensed music in its videos creates concerns about the company practicing unethical behavior, as they are receiving success from the work of artists without giving them proper credit or compensation. To quote David Israelite, the CEO of the National Music Publishers’ Association(NMPA), "while some publishers have been able to negotiate with TikTok to license their catalogs, a large part of [the publishing] industry does not have agreements in place, meaning numerous works continue to be used unlawfully as the platform’s popularity grows exponentially"[19]. Even though certain music creators are able to receive credit as well as royalties, there is still a large population of music creators that are not receiving the same level of compensation. This has become such a large issue that the NMPA has called on congress to investigate further into TikTok’s problem with copyrighted audio. In Joseph Millers "Hoisting reality," he quotes Professor Paul Goldstein saying "The aim of copyright law is to direct investment toward the production of abundant information"[20]. By choosing not to license much of the music they use, TikTok is cheating music creators out of money and fair compensation that could go towards other projects, therefore limiting investment toward further production. Analyzing the behavior and copyright infringement on many musical creators draws many concerns to the ethics being practiced by the app.

See Also

External Links


  1. “30 TikTok Statistics + 5 FAQs to Be Aware of in 2020.” 99firms, 10 Jan. 2020, 99firms.com/blog/tiktok-statistics/#gref.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Ting, Deanna. “Everything You Need to Know about ByteDance, the Company behind TikTok.” Digiday, 30 Oct. 2019, digiday.com/media/everything-you-need-to-know-about-bytedance-the-company-behind-tiktok/.
  3. Carson, Biz. “How a Failed Education Startup Turned into Musical.ly, the Most Popular App You've Probably Never Heard Of.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 28 May 2016, www.businessinsider.com/what-is-musically-2016-5.
  4. Leskin, Paige. “Inside the Rise of TikTok, the Viral Video-Sharing App Whose Ties to China Are Raising Concerns in the US.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 23 Jan. 2020, www.businessinsider.com/tiktok-app-online-website-video-sharing-2019-7.
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TikTok
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=poS7rZ7-_RU&t=326s
  7. Haskins, Caroline. “TikTok Users Are Inventing Wild Theories to Explain Its Mysterious Algorithm.” Vice, 15 Aug. 2019, www.vice.com/en_us/article/xwezwj/how-does-tiktoks-for-you-page-work-users-have-some-wild-theories.
  8. TikTok. “New on TikTok: Introducing Stitch.” Newsroom, TikTok, 16 Aug. 2019, https://newsroom.tiktok.com/en-us/new-on-tiktok-introducing-stitch.
  9. “Creator Playlist: TikTok Help Center.” Support Center, https://support.tiktok.com/en/using-tiktok/creating-videos/creator-playlist.
  10. 10.0 10.1 TikTok. “Introducing Auto Captions.” Newsroom, TikTok, 16 Aug. 2019, https://newsroom.tiktok.com/en-us/introducing-auto-captions.
  11. Schwartz, Eric Hal. “TikTok Adds Text-To-Speech Feature to Improve Accessibility.” Voicebot.ai, 18 Dec. 2020, https://voicebot.ai/2020/12/17/tiktok-adds-text-to-speech-feature-to-improve-accessibility/.
  12. Imagor, Tal, and Tal Imagor. “Everything You Need to Know About TikTok's Text-to-Speech Feature.” MUO, 16 Apr. 2021, https://makeuseof.com/tiktok-text-to-speech-feature/.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Gartenberg, Chaim. “Reddit CEO Says TikTok Is ‘Fundamentally Parasitic," Cites Privacy Concerns.” The Verge, The Verge, 27 Feb. 2020, www.theverge.com/2020/2/27/21155845/reddit-ceo-steve-huffman-tiktok-privacy-concerns-spyware-fingerprinting-tracking-users.
  14. Mann S. (2013). Veillance and Reciprocal Transparency:Surveillance versus Sousveillance, AR Glass,Lifeglogging, and Wearable Computing (Rep.). IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society
  15. Krishna, Rachael. “TikTok Creators Say They Are Being Bullied And The Company Isn't Helping.” BuzzFeed News, BuzzFeed News, 2 Nov. 2018, www.buzzfeednews.com/article/krishrach/tik-tok-users-bullying-abuse-complaints.
  16. Price, Joe. “TikTok Moderators Were Reportedly Told to Censor Posts From Poor and 'Ugly' Users.” Complex, Complex, 16 Mar. 2020, www.complex.com/life/2020/03/tiktok-moderators-told-to-censor-posts-from-poor-ugly-users.
  17. "Values in technology and disclosive computer ethics" (2010), Philip Brey
  18. Dredge, Stuart. “TikTok Says It Received 3,345 Copyright Takedown Notices in 2019.” ,2 Jan. 2020, musically.com/2020/01/02/tiktok-says-it-received-3345-copyright-takedown-notices-in-2019/.
  19. Stassen, Murray. “NMPA Calls for 'Scrutiny' of TikTok, Says Platform Has 'Consistently Violated US Copyright Law and the Rights of Songwriters and Music Publishers'.” Music Business Worldwide, 16 Oct. 2019, www.musicbusinessworldwide.com/nmpa-calls-for-scrutiny-of-tiktok-says-platform-has-consistently-violated-us-copyright-law-and-the-rights-of-songwriters-and-music-publishers/.
  20. Joseph Scott Miller, Hoisting Originality, 31 CardozoL. Rev. 451 (2009) Provided by: University of Michigan Law Library