TikTok at a Crossroads: Balancing Growth, Safety, and Innovation in the Post-Pandemic World

The explosive popularity and growth of short video platforms during the pandemic go without saying, but as the pandemic gradually eases, these platforms are now facing new challenges and tests.

Over the past two years, TikTok has dominated as the mobile app where children and teenagers spend most of their time. With the rise of the short video trend on TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram have also reformed their existing modules and algorithms to better adapt to this trend.

This month, TikTok has added four new theme categories, including “Sports,” “Fashion,” “Gaming,” and “Food,” to its homepage to further deliver targeted video recommendations. Viewers who have preferences for specific themes can easily browse content that interests them. Prior to this update, TikTok had only two main modules for users to choose from: “Following,” where users can browse content from creators they follow, and “For You,” where the algorithm recommends short videos based on the user’s interaction, such as likes, comments, and shares, and the time spent on each video. While TikTok has a specific algorithm to recommend content to users, those who want to browse specific content still need to manually enter keywords or hashtags to search for it. Otherwise, the content on the “For You” page appears disorganized and lacks a clear pattern. While this strategy may keep users scrolling endlessly to find content they want to watch, it also leaves room for improvement regarding the user experience. As other platforms also launch short video functions and are actively recommending their users to browse short video content, TikTok’s move optimizes the platform’s user experience and highlights its advantage as a platform dedicated to short videos.

Last year, TikTok attracted over 1 billion users globally, becoming the one of the most notable short video platforms without a doubt. This move by TikTok has not only improved the user experience but has also facilitated more accurate connections between short video creators and audiences. Furthermore, it has prevented the loss of long-term users by overcomplicating how content is pushed to them

There is no doubt that TikTok has a tremendous influence on the browsing habits of the general public, especially teenagers. According to a global annual review of kids’ and teens’ app usage and behavior, since June 2020, young people aged 4 to 18 spend more time browsing TikTok than YouTube. Additionally, TikTok at one point briefly surpassed Google to become the most visited internet platform of the moment. 

Driven by this trend, other dominant mainstream platforms are making changes to adapt to new media consumption habits. For instance, YouTube has launched its YouTube Shorts feature, and more and more creators have developed the habit of posting short videos featuring the highlights of their longer videos. On the YouTube homepage, Shorts are also prominently displayed, demonstrating the platform’s strong push for this feature. 

Another major platform feeling the heat is Instagram.  Amid the surging popularity of short video content, Instagram, which has long been centered around image and text-based posts, has recently shifted its focus to its new video feature, Reels. Many YouTube videos now teach Instagram creators how to increase their user engagement, emphasizing that in the new year, the Instagram algorithms’ focus will shift from carousel posts to Reels. As Instagram was originally more focused on photography, this has generated some backlash from users. Instagram head Adam Mosseri admitted that in the past year Instagram has pushed “too many videos” to users. Nevertheless the app continues its shift toward video. This determined move to promote the Reels feature through encouraging Reels creators and providing massive exposure to mass users, highlights Instagram’s ambition to expand the feature to a wider audience and establish it as a key aspect of the platform. It seems Instagram sees this as a necessary to catch up with the short video hype, so that they can better compete with other major social media platforms like TikTok and YouTube.

During the pandemic, people’s media habits have undergone significant changes. With explosive growth in time spent at home, people are using smart devices more than ever before. As face-to-face social interactions became impossible, short video platforms filled the void with rich content and concise information during people’s moments of emptiness. Now that even China has relaxed its pandemic control measures, the pandemic is becoming a thing of the past. How to maintain stable user growth and satisfaction as people resume normal social and daily routines poses a major challenge for TikTok’s further development.

Meanwhile, tensions between China and the US are closely tied to TikTok, as well as the issue of excessive screen time for teenagers causing anxiety for many parents, not to mention the rapid spread of dangerous and pornographic content, and user data security. All these have become the focus of public discussion. The development of short video platforms is facing a heavy test in the post-pandemic era.

Over the next few years, the key to TikTok’s development will be how to overcome these issues and maintain its advantages and user traffic between mainstream media platforms and emerging short video platforms. TikTok’s ability to maintain user engagement and innovate will also be key to remaining at the forefront of the industry.

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