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Why does Gen Z like TikTok so much?

Do you know what FYP stands for? Ask any member of Generation Z; they definitely know that the acronym represents “For You Page,” or the homepage of TikTok. Since becoming available worldwide in 2018, TikTok has become the choice social media platform for much of Gen Z, surpassing a record-breaking 2 billion downloads in April 2020

Its user growth has been astounding — from 12% of Gen Z in February 2019 up to 35% in January 2020, according to YPulse. Whether scrolling through other social media platforms, checking group chats, or even hanging out with friends, escaping TikTok is impossible.
The question is: Why? Why so much success for the app many wrote off as a copy of the short-lived Vine? 

Social media analysts cite the same few reasons for TikTok’s popularity: the easy consumption of a short video format, the insularity of the “For You Page,” and the simplicity of endless scrolling. However, these are hardly the reasons TikTok was able to build such a dedicated user base. The platform’s real strengths lie in its hyper specific algorithm and ease of use, which lead to a perceived authenticity and community other platforms lack.

Any avid TikTok user can relate to the phrase, “The algorithm is getting too specific,” a reflection of the app’s miraculous abilities to sniff out users’ interests and lifestyle based on what content they engage with. No two FYPs are alike—the longer the app is used, the more hyper focused the algorithm becomes. TikTok feels much smaller and more personal than other platforms, which are a constant stream of new content; instead, the For You Page delivers a comforting mix of familiar creators and topics, with the occasional experimental topic thrown in for algorithm tweaks. As a result, the algorithm is always evolving to match user preference. Unlike with other platforms which often require seeking out preferred content, TikTok delivers that content as soon as a user opens the app, sucking them in for hours on end. Our internal poll showed that our JUV team can spend anywhere from 7 to 14 hours a week on the app—a testament to how successful the algorithm really is!

“These self-identified tribes make members of marginalized groups or alternative subcultures, who often feel ‘othered’ on Instagram or Facebook, feel seen.”

While no two FYP’s are exactly the same, there is a common thread of creators, trends, and audio tracks that have birthed the “side of TikTok” phenomenon. Those dancing videos everyone tries to recreate? Yup, that’s Straight TikTok. If you’re into the paranormal, welcome to WitchTok. Like post-postmodernist humor? Dive into DeepTok. These self-identified tribes  make members of marginalized groups or alternative subcultures, who often feel “othered” on Instagram or Facebook, feel seen. As a result, TikTok has become a safe place for self-expression and meeting similarly minded people online.

For Gen Z, Instagram is often reserved for IRL friends or building a professional brand, and TikTok is a much more personal place, all thanks to the community encouraged by the algorithm. While there is a faction of TikTok consisting of what you would expect from influencers, with emphasis on (often superficial) creator friendships and brand deals, the algorithm ensures that this is not the TikTok you’ll see if you don’t want to. (My FYP is inexplicably filled with people in rat costumes playing the synth, and I love that the algorithm keeps it that way.)

TikTok’s ease of use is another important factor—expressing yourself through video has never been so simple. All you have to do is open the app, press the plus button, and start recording. Editing and effects are all added with the app’s built-in functions. Adding a few hashtags ensures your video will be seen by more people, but other than that, there is no pressure to optimize your video in other algorithm-friendly ways. Users are able to focus on their content and begin shooting whenever they’d like, resulting in a less-filtered atmosphere than other social media platforms.

The relatively filter-free nature of TikTok gives its creators an aura of authenticity—even the platform’s most popular creators like Charli D’Amelio create new content whenever they want, wherever they want. “People are getting too comfortable on this app” is a common comment on posts that perhaps go a bit TMI on the feed, but it’s a practice openly rewarded with likes, shares and views all in the name of expressing oneself freely. For Gen Z, TikTok is a departure from the pressure to be polished online, and we welcome it with open arms.

The community and authenticity of TikTok is a reminder of the way social media used to be in the days of “old Youtube” and Myspace: expressive and spontaneous, rather than a personal brand to maintain. TikTok gives Gen Z a home in their own corner of the internet, as well as a Gen Z-focused space to explore their ideas, interests, and place in the world. The algorithm ensures that TikTok fills every niche Gen Z could possibly want, a welcome departure from the lack of diversity of other platforms. TikTok does not visibly try to appeal to Gen Z; it just does. And perhaps that’s its biggest appeal. 

JUV Consulting is a Gen Z collective that works with companies to create purpose-driven and authentic marketing campaigns that engage young audiences. Contact us at info@juvconsulting.com if you would like to learn how to reach Gen Z. 

Ris Igrec is a consultant at JUV Consulting. They specialize in digital video content and can usually be found scrolling on TikTok or editing Youtube videos in bed. Find them on Instagram @risigrec!