Is TikTok a threat to Facebook social media dominance?

Other social media giants, especially Facebook, have underestimated the huge threat of the Chinese video-sharing app.
19 March 2021

TikTok vs Facebook: A threat to social media dominance. (Photo by VALERIE MACON / AFP)

  • Facebook is finding it harder to emulate TikTok than it did with Snapchat
  • TikTok is beating out both Instagram and Facebook – it’s the only app that was downloaded more than (and only second to) Facebook-owned WhatsApp
  • Experts and figures underscore just how big of a threat TikTok is to Facebook’s dominance 

Silicon Valley has been concerned about the enormous growth recorded by social media upstart TikTok. The Chinese social network has taken the world by storm with over a billion users to date, making more money than any other social media platform, even Facebook. Today, TikTok’s parent company ByteDance has become the most valuable startup in the world on the success of the video app and its domestic clone, Douyin.

Both TikTok and Douyin have amassed over 2 billion downloads and penetrated one-third of all social media users on this planet in less than four short years. For the former, a staggering 500 million of those users had signed up last year alone, and that’s half of all Instagram users.

Although TikTok is particularly popular among teenagers, known as Generation Z, with nearly 60% of all TikTok users are of that age group, the video-sharing app already beats Facebook’s app in popularity among America’s youngest and largest generation. Such progress has put Facebook on notice.

The tale of the old and new social media format

TikTok is a Chinese social network owned by ByteDance where people create parodies and share otherwise frivolous short mobile videos that involve either dancing, lip-syncing, acting out trending scenes from movies, jokes, or songs.  It’s not so much about privacy and making friends, but strutting on the world stage. Especially since the pandemic, TikTok is known for its remixing of culture: taking the audio from someone else’s clip and reimagining the gag in a new context by layering it atop a video you record.

This is a whole new social media format that has taken the attention of almost everyone who has heard of the concept. As Facebook has done in the past, if the social pioneer couldn’t acquire its competition, it would try to replicate its most popular feature. That’s how Snapchat’s disappearing photo/video feature eventually appeared on Facebook’s and Instagram’s home screens (Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp introduced a virtually identical feature not long after).

Mark Zuckerberg has been trying to clone TikTok or taking it over, but all attempts had been resisted by TikTok’s Chinese owner Bytedance. Perhaps, that makes TikTok distinct enough that it will be very difficult to shoehorn into the current versions of Instagram or Facebook, even if they add the remixing functionality. Most videos on those apps or features owned by Facebook aren’t designed to be templates for memes, like TikTok’s are.

Instead, Insta and Facebook’s social graphs are rooted in personal connections and are supported by a well-established ecosystem – but don’t encompass the new wave of Gen-Z amateur performers that TikTok elevates. If Zuckerberg and Co. were to boil down the user experience of TikTok into just its main feature, Facebook will miss out on owning the social entertainment feed.

Facebook’s attempts to reign as a social media champion

To recall, Facebook made its first attempt to kill TikTok in 2018 after it hit 650 million users. Then, America’s social media giant launched a copycat app called Lasso, but it didn’t draw much interest and Facebook shut it down. For context, Lasso has been installed just 425,000 times since it launched, while TikTok has 640 million installs in the same period outside of China.

It was the same for Snapchat — with the launch of stories, it started to blow up with US teens. Facebook’s attempts to clone it in standalone apps like Poke and Slingshot never gained traction. In fact, none of Facebook’s standalone apps have succeeded unless they splintered off an already popular piece of Facebook-like chat and users were forced to download them like Messenger. 

It wasn’t until Zuckerberg stuck his clone of Stories front-and-center atop Instagram and Facebook that Snapchat’s user count went from growing 18% per quarter to shrinking. There, Facebook used the same strategy laid out in Zuckerberg’s comments on TikTok — push its good-enough clone in countries where the original isn’t popular yet

Then in November 2020, Facebook’s Instagram launched a feature called Reels, available only in certain countries, including for India’s 1.3 billion people after TikTok was banned in that country. In a post on its corporate blog, Facebook said Reels lets users record and edit 15-second multi-clip videos with audio, effects, and creative tools.’]

Zuckerberg has even gone out of his way to say that TikTok deserves more scrutiny. “While our services, like WhatsApp, are used by protesters and activists everywhere due to strong encryption and privacy protections, on TikTok, the Chinese app growing quickly around the world, mentions of these protests are censored, even in the U.S.,” Zuckerberg said during a speech at Georgetown University last year. “Is that the internet we want?” All said and done, TikTok is definitely an existential threat to Facebook, which is under constant pressure to maintain user growth across its services.

Business takeaway

As one of the newest social media platforms, TikTok’s user base is growing rapidly and it’s quickly becoming a great opportunity for businesses to reach new, larger audiences. The volume of users and the rate at which it’s growing means that it can provide access to a huge audience and it seems to be easier than on other channels to create video content that goes viral and reaches hundreds or thousands of people.

Also, given that TikTok is used in over 150 different countries, viral videos on the platform can reach all over the world. If a business is looking at reaching international markets, then TikTok is an effective platform for connecting with new audiences in other countries. While the trend for video marketing isn’t going away anytime soon, TikTok is a good way to expand the reach of video content. If a business is not already using video then it provides a fairly accessible way to incorporate video into an existing marketing strategy.