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(Pocket-lint) - You probably already made up your mind about TikTok.

You've seen the ads with some 17-year-old teen with neon contacts, bleached hair, and fake blood dripping down their neck lip-syncing to a tune. Why on Earth would you want to download it just to watch people dress up, mouth words, and gyrate to soundbites? We get it. But there are reportedly over one billion people scrolling through TikTok monthly, spending nearly an hour on it a day.

Yeah, it's about time you checked out the app.

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What is TikTok?

TikTok is a social app used to create and share videos.

Many videos tend to be music-focused, with creators leveraging the app's vast catalogue of sound effects, music snippets, and filters to record short clips of them dancing and lip-syncing. But there's an untold number of videos to discover, with varying topics. There are DIY and craft videos, comedic sketches, you name it. If TikTok sounds familiar, it's because there are similar apps that came before it, like Vine and Dubsmash.

TikTok also had a predecessor, called Musical.ly, that Chinese entrepreneurs Alex Zhu and Luyu Yang launched in 2014. ByteDance acquired Musical.ly in 2017, and then a year later, it folded the service's core functionality and userbase into its own TikTok app. Existing Musical.ly users were migrated over. By 2018, TikTok had surpassed Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat in monthly installs in the US app stores.

TikTok has over one billion global monthly active users - 63 per cent of which are between the ages of 10 and 29. Women on TikTok also outnumber men two to one in the US. As a result of TikTok's popularity, ByteDance is now considered one of the world’s most valuable startup.

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    How does TikTok work?

    Getting started with TikTok

    The basic function of TikTok is that users can film videos of themselves lip-syncing, dancing, or acting out sketches. Videos - or TikToks - can be up to 15 seconds long, but they can also connect multiple clips for up to 60 seconds of total recording. Recently, TikTok expanded the time limit to three minutes for most users. Users can also upload longer videos that were recorded outside the app.

    TikTok also has video editing and customisation tools. Users have access to a library of songs, effects, filters, and sound bites to add to their videos. They can also “duet” with someone by replying to a video, creating a split-screen and endless reactions.

    They can even add their own sounds and lip-sync to another user's video.

    Navigating TikTok

    Let's go over how to navigate the app.

    When you open TikTok, you'll see a menu bar on the bottom. It has shortcuts to each of the following five pages in the app:

    • Home: Shows two feeds - Following and For you - which you can toggle between.
    • Discover: Mostly shows you TikTok videos tagged with a trending hashtag.
    • Create video: Opens up to the record screen, where you can film a video.
    • Inbox: Shows you all the activity on your videos. (Tap the Envelope to access DMs).
    • Profile: Your profile that you and other users can see. You can make parts of it private.

    Watching TikTok videos

    In a nutshell, like videos from Vine or Instagram, TikTok videos appear vertically on your screen. You can engage with them using “hearts", which are the same as “likes.” After you download the TikTok app and open it, you'll immediately see curated featured videos on the “for you" page. You can switch to the “following” page to see videos from users you follow - whether friends or popular TikTokkers.

    On either page, to see more new videos, swipe up on the screen or tap Home. You can also try tapping Discover (the magnifying glass icon next to the home button) to search for videos by keywords and hashtags. Within videos, you can tap on the screen to pause. Also, look to the right for the user's icon to visit their profile. Also, on the right, you'll see the number of “hearts” and comments the video has, plus options to share it.

    On the bottom of the video, you'll find the user’s name, caption, hashtags, and the name of the song that’s playing. Top these to see related videos.

    Note: It’s possible to watch TikTok videos without creating an account. But you need an account to engage with other users and to post videos.

    Creating TikTok videos

    When you’re ready to start creating post your own video, click on the Create video button (plus sign) at the bottom of the home screen and press the record button. While that sounds easy, it takes a tonne of work. If you search YouTube for tutorials, you'll see how intensive the TikTok video-making process can be for most users. That's because, before you even hit record, you can find sounds, effects, and filters to apply.

    You can even save a video as a draft to post it later. Just tap the Create Video icon to shoot a video, and after you finish recording and editing your video, tap Next. From the video posting page, tap Drafts. If you're looking for more step-by-step tutorials on how to shoot and edit videos with TikTok, we recommend browsing TikTok Support Pocket-lint also has this handy TikTok tips and tricks guide.

    Who to follow on TikTok

    This Wikipedia page keeps track of the top 50 TikTok accounts with the largest number of followers.

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    Currently, Charli D'Amelia is at the top with 122 million followers. She's 17 and primarily posts videos of herself dancing. Many of the most popular users on TikTok are teenagers, and they've become friends in the past year and formed collaboration groups, or collectives, such as Hype House, Sway House, and Club House. They live together in mega-mansions in LA purely for the purpose of creating an endless stream of TikTok content.

    If you don't want to get involved with content houses and prefer to watch more organic content that suits your interests, explore the Discover page.

    Is TikTok a surveillance tool for China?

    TikTok is the latest to be under the glare of the US, with former President Donald Trump attempting to ban the app before leaving office. The app was "being looked at" by the former administration over fears it could be a surveillance tool for China, among other things. 

    Courts have repeatedly sided against Trump's TikTok ban, ruling that the effort appeared to be politically motivated. In fact, efforts to ban TikTok were put on ice in February 2021, with the US Justice Department filing a motion that signaled the Biden administration may drop the cases entirely.

    But Biden has said that he has some concerns with TikTok. His administration is even scrutinizing Chinese tech companies and trade practices.

    All that said, the US has yet to supply evidence that TikTok is a surveillance tool for China. And the US government currently allows the app to be used widely in the country by millions of Americans. So make of that what you will.

    Writing by Maggie Tillman. Originally published on 1 February 2019.