Have we reached peak TikTok? The app’s hype cycle may be nearing an end 

TikTok’s popularity in the U.S. may be plateauing after years of massive growth, according to a variety of research reports that piled up within hours of one another this week. 

According to data from Apptopia, TikTok downloads this year through Nov. 30 were down 20% from the same period in 2022, and this July, TikTok saw its lowest number of U.S. downloads in years, with 5.9 million, a drop of 32% from the previous July. 

The firm, formerly named App Annie, reported a similar conclusion in data shared with NBC News, with U.S. downloads falling 18% this year. Both Apptopia and show double-digit download growth for TikTok worldwide, suggesting the slump may be specific to the U.S. 

Apple said Tuesday that TikTok had fallen several spots on its annual report of the most popular free iPhone apps. After ranking No. 1 in 2022, TikTok fell to No. 5 this year in the U.S. 

In a separate report Tuesday, the tech services firm Cloudflare said that TikTok had fallen a notch in its annual ranking of the most popular internet services, from No. 3 a year ago to No. 4 this year. 

And the Pew Research Center said Monday that the share of American teens using TikTok likely was unchanged over the past 18 months, although the video app’s popularity remained high, with 63% of teens saying in a survey that they used TikTok

It’s all a sign that TikTok’s cultural cache may not have much room to grow, years into what some people have called the TikTok Era. While the app remains an influential cultural force, with its video frequently reposted to other tech platforms and driving conversation online, TikTok may have reached a ceiling — or at least the end of a hype cycle. 

“You’re going to hit that point of saturation,” said David Belson, Cloudflare’s head of data insight. 

“Only so many people are going to end up using it, and there are only so many hours a day that they can use it,” he said. 

A representative for TikTok had no immediate comment on the data Wednesday. 

Every top social media business has reached a plateau at one point or another, where new users are difficult to acquire and double-digit growth becomes impossible to sustain. In the last quarter of 2021, Facebook became one of the clearest examples of this when it reported that its user base had declined for the first time in 17 years.

TikTok, which has Chinese owners, faces an additional political threat from politicians and national security officials who want to ban it, calling it a potential vector for foreign propaganda and a threat to Americans’ personal data. That debate remains unresolved, with lobbyists for and against a ban furiously arguing in Washington. 

TikTok did have one bright spot in the Pew survey results: Support for a ban dropped among adults. In March, 50% favored one and 22% were opposed, but in the most recent survey, conducted Sept. 25-Oct. 1, the split was narrower, at 38% in favor and 27% opposed. Among teens surveyed, 50% said they opposed a ban while 18% said they supported one. 

Pew also asked teens ages 13 to 17 what apps they use. YouTube was the leader at 93%, with a cluster of three apps following at a distance: TikTok at 63%, Snapchat at 60% and Instagram at 59%. The numbers were similar 18 months earlier. 

“There was a lot of stability in 2023 from 2022, and that was not unique to TikTok,” said Jeffrey Gottfried, associate director of research at Pew. 

Matt Navarra, a social media consultant, agreed with the idea that TikTok may have hit a saturation point in the U.S., but he also said tastes may be changing. He noted that the No. 1 app for iPhones this year was the shopping app Temu, and that TikTok has only begun to move into the online shopping market

By contrast, TikTok has always been focused on two things: prompting people to make videos for strangers, and prompting them to watch videos made by strangers. 

“It hasn’t been particularly good at being a social app in the traditional sense in terms of having messaging features or connecting with close friends and contacts. It was not ever set up to be like that, whereas Snapchat is pretty much the opposite of that,” Navarra said. 

But now, other apps such as Instagram and YouTube offer product features similar to TikTok’s. 

“There’s more competition than ever,” he said. 

Navarra noted that there was a possible bright spot for TikTok in the Apple ranking: The video editing app CapCut, which shares parent company ByteDance with TikTok, ranked No. 2. 

He said he didn’t see evidence that the U.S. political debate or TikTok’s Chinese ownership had hurt the app’s popularity. 

“I think there are some people that are bothered or concerned about it, but I don’t necessarily think that is as big a factor,” Navarra said.

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