Artists have embraced the platform this year — including Miley Cyrus, Lizzo, Kesha and The Chainsmokers (all of whom have been active users in the past 60 days). Meanwhile, the “meme culture” — in which a certain image and/or video rapidly spreads online with various user-made captions or interpretations — that TikTok revolves around continues to fuel hits. “It’s the first real innovation of social [media] that we’ve seen in a while, because it’s not about an artist or about a song or even about influencers and personalities,” says Elissa Ayadi, senior vp fan engagement and digital marketing at Warner Records. “It’s really about the meme.”
Lil Nas X proved that to be true with his hit “Old Town Road,” which sat atop the Billboard Hot 100 for 19 weeks after gaining popularity on TikTok as a meme. “I promoted the song as a meme for months until it caught on to TikTok, and it became way bigger,” Lil Nas X told Time in March. In the wake of his success, artists and celebrities like Will Smith, Reese Witherspoon and South Korean boy band BTS have joined the platform. In September, TikTok even struck a multiyear partnership with the NFL, which created an official account and will soon launch NFL-themed challenges.
Even with TikTok’s 26.5 million monthly active users in the United States, though, the service will have to evolve more if it wants to maintain success. “If it continues exactly as it is now, there’s a chance that it hits a ceiling,” says Eugene Wei, a former executive for Amazon, Oculus and Hulu, who follows the tech and media industries. “There’s no doubt that after the acquisition [of Musical.ly], TikTok has become more prominent in the cultural discussion, but there is only so much of a market for meme videos.”
And as it enters 2020, the platform and its parent company, ByteDance, face bigger challenges than ever: from increasing competition from services like Instagram and Facebook (which launched a TikTok rival named Lasso), to questions from the U.S. government and lawmakers about whether the app poses a risk to national security.
Since October, when Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) asked U.S. intelligence officials to assess the national security risk TikTok poses due to its ties to China — calling it a “potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore” — TikTok’s 2020 outlook is murky at best. Though, Ayadi is confident it can become an industry staple: “If we’re talking about the next six months to a year, they’re going to continue to grow,” she says. “Just here in the States, there’s massive potential.”