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Meet TikTok Founder Zhang Yiming — And Why The Popular App Is Under National Security Investigation

Photo: DisobeyArt / shutterstock
Meet TikTok Founder Zhang Yiming — And Why The Popular App Is Under National Security Investigation

TikTok is an incredibly popular social media video app. Users can create and share short 3 to 15-second videos featuring lip-syncing, comedy and pretty much anything else. TikTok videos often go viral. The app is the brainchild of Zhang Yiming, which was launched by his company, ByteDance, in China in September 2016 and outside of China in September 2017. In October 2018, TikTok became the most downloaded app in the U.S., the first Chinese app to reach this milestone. In February 2019, TikTok hit one billion downloads globally. Two years ago, TikTok's parent company recently paid $1 billion to acquire Musical.ly, which concerned the federal government because TikTok didn't seek clearance from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). 

This week, the U.S. government launched a national security review of this acquisition as well as an investigation into TikTok itself. The government's concerned over the way the Bejing-based app stores personal data as well as the fact that they suspect the app censors politically sensitive content. A report from the Washington Post seems to back up these claims. Allegedly, ex-TikTok employees in the U.S. were forced to follow strict Chinese censorship laws. 

TikTok is incredibly popular with teenagers in the U.S. It is estimated that 60% of the app's 26.5 million monthly users in the U.S. are between the ages of 16 and 24. 

At the center of all of this is Zhang Yiming, the 36-year-old founder of TikTok. Who is Zhang Yiming? Read on for all the details. 

1. The most valuable startup in the world

TikTok is valued at $75 billion — making it the most valuable startup in the world. It is more valuable than Uber, than Airbnb, than SpaceX. However, despite this lofty valuation, TikTok does not turn a profit. This isn't so unusual in the tech landscape. Money is poured back into the company so it can grow typically. ByteDance, TikTok's parent company is the most successful Chinese tech company at creating an international base of users. It is available in 150 markets and 75 languages. Even the most popular app in China, the messaging app WeChat, abandoned plans of international expansion in the face of TikTok's domination.  

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2. He's a software engineer

Zhang was born in April 1983. He majored in software engineering at Nankai University in Tianjin. He met his wife in college. He graduated in 2005 and became the fifth employee at the Chinese travel website Kuxun. He was promoted to technical director in 2006. In 2008, he left Kuxun to work for Microsoft. However, the corporate culture didn't agree with him. He left Microsoft for a startup called Fanfou, which eventually went out of business. In 2009, he founded 99fang.com, a real estate search business and his first company. 


A post shared by Zhang Yiming (@yimzhang) on Apr 21, 2017 at 8:08am PDT

3. The news aggregator

Back in 2012, Zhang Yiming was mulling over the idea of a news aggregation app powered by AI. He basically wanted to make information easier to access — something that is very difficult to do in China, where draconian censorship laws reign. Investors were wary. After all, Google couldn't make a go of it in China, how could a 29-year-old software developer do it all on his own? This news aggregation app used AI to predict what a user wanted to read next. The more it was used, the better and more personalized your newsfeed would be. TikTok was born out of this news app. 

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4. TikTok

Streaming services have always been popular in China and in 2016, Zhang set out to take advantage of this. A company called YY Inc. gave people the ability to sing and dance in virtual showrooms and try to win online gifts from fans. Zhang took that concept but instead limited the videos on his app to 15 seconds. TikTok launched in China in September 2016 and was an instant hit. People loved being able to shoot and edit videos, add fun filters and special effects and share the videos across social media platforms. It was so popular in fact, that WeCha blocked access to it from within their app. 


A post shared by Zhang Yiming (@yimzhang) on Sep 13, 2017 at 10:18am PDT

5. Music.ly acquisition

Music.ly was technically also a Chinese company but it set up a U.S. office in Santa Monica, California. It was acquired by TikTok two years ago and merged with the app last year. This basically gave TikTok an enormous and instant user base in the U.S., allowing the app to become wildly popular across the globe quickly. 

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6. Government investigation

CNBC reports that last week, senators Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton requested a national security probe into TikTok. They detailed their concern over the app's user data and specifically whether censors in China could see U.S. content and censor what users could see. The Senators said that TikTok could be targeted by foreign campaigns trying to influence elections in the U.S. The request was filed with Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence and said: “With over 110 million downloads in the U.S. alone, TikTok is a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore."

Thanks to the wild popularity of TikTok and its $75 billion valuation, Zhang Yiming has a net worth of more than $16 billion. 

Amy Lamare is a Los Angeles based writer and editor covering entertainment, pop culture, beauty, fashion, fitness, technology, and the intersection of technology, business, and philanthropy. You can find her on Instagram and Facebook.