TikTok on the Clock

So, what happens if the unthinkable happens, and TikTok goes away in the U.S.? Photo: Stefano Guidi/Getty Images
Baratunde Thurston
January 8, 2023

It’s practically a certainty that you are aware of TikTok, even if you don’t use it, or are unwilling to admit you do. Is there some turn of phrase, some behavioral phenomenon, new fashion or dance trend that you can’t identify? It probably came from TikTok. One in three Americans use the app. Globally it has more than 1 billion active monthly users who spend an average of 90 minutes or more, daily, on the service, nearly double the number who use Instagram and three times that of Twitter (remember Twitter?). For Gen Z, it’s replacing television. For businesses, it’s a new marketing channel. For parents, it represents a terrifying, misinformation-rich addiction for kids, but also a bonding opportunity. For creators, it’s the latest path to attention and monetization. 

Of course, being owned by the China-based company, ByteDance, complicates things. The U.S. House of Representatives and 19 state governments have banned the app on government-issued devices. The federal government included a ban on its devices in the recently-passed omnibus spending bill. Several universities are booting the service from their networks or officially-issued devices. Congress is considering a national ban. And the federal interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) is nearing the end of a years-long assessment of the app’s national security issues. The concerns range from its addictive nature (one lawmaker called it “digital fentanyl”) to fears of Chinese Communist Party manipulation of the U.S. public, to surveillance or worse of elected officials and journalists. It doesn’t help that after months of denials, TikTok admitted that employees at parent company ByteDance were in fact using app data to track U.S. journalists. Oops. 

So, what happens if the unthinkable happens, and TikTok goes away in the U.S.?

I want to begin by emphasizing how unlikely this outcome is. Simply put, I don’t think Gen Z and Generation Alpha are going to let it happen. Have you met a teenager lately? They’re brilliant and terrifying. They are the most educated and online generations ever created. They don’t trust authority, and would sooner start a business or non-profit or online hustle than sign up for a lifetime of college debt and an unreliable corporate job. They’ll use that hustle to get what they want. And what many want is to be famous. According to a recent study, one in four Gen Z Americans wants to be a social media influencer. In addition, young folks rely on social media as a search engine, for news and health information, and to fill in the knowledge gaps created by increasing restrictions on education in the U.S. You can get the C.I.A., F.B.I., Senate, and White House on the same page to turn this app off, but I don’t think the kids are having it. They’ll secede. They’ll create the largest collective VPN usage outside of China. They’ll have their memes, dammit! 

But if I’m wrong, and TikTok does disappear, it’s going to have massive ramifications for marketing, media, and in particular, creators. The word “creator,” in this particular usage, entered the lexicon about a decade ago via YouTube, as applied to people who spent lots of time posting content, semi- and fully professionally, on the internet: stories, songs, commentary and other forms of mostly-digital media. An early promise of Web 2.0, of course, was “disintermediation.” A musician could connect with a fan directly, without hoping some A&R rep would discover them at a club; a writer could publish an e-book and sell it on their own website without a publisher or literary agent, and so on. 

In one of the most prescient insights of the Web 2.0 era, I remember attending the “Future of Storytelling” conference in Snug Harbor just a short ferry ride away from Manhattan. There, my friend Kenyatta Cheese who was just about to launch his new digital agency EA1, shared his theory that in this emerging, soon-to-be-dubbed “creator economy,” even the audience has an audience. People would pay attention to fan fiction and commentary. Everybody was a creator! That was 2013, and indeed, 10 years later we live in a world of new stars, not minted by Hollywood blockbuster success, talent agencies, and A-list P.R. handling but by deep online fan engagement, industrial-grade content output, and monetization tools that support an escalating spiral of content production, consumption, attention, and money. 

Ironically, or perhaps inevitably, this D.T.C. economy has become intermediated by platforms and middle-men, all of whom take a cut for hosting or facilitating user-generated content: Most of the social platforms have official creator programs that enable ad insertions and share in their revenue, collect bonuses for content production through some form of “creator fund,” or manage partnerships with brands. We think of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitch, TikTok, etc as “social media,” but from an economic perspective, they are marketplaces which not only match creators with fans but creators with cash. 

At least two things make TikTok unique from its competitors. The first is speed. TikTok has emerged faster than any other in attracting the necessary mix of users, creators, and brands to offer a massive boost to this creator ecosystem, and that may now be in peril, at least in the United States. The second is the lack of reliance on big followings. Previous generations of social media required a creator to assemble a large audience before shifting to monetization. The bigger the following, the bigger the base of people you could convert from free to paid supporter and the more credible you’d be in conversations with brands.

But TikTok isn’t built around social graphs and friend counts. You can be a creator with zero friends and go viral with millions of views because of the algorithm. You can be a passive viewer with zero friends and within a few minutes of launching the app, find yourself lost in the scroll until jarred from your reverie by a romantic partner or parking attendant or child who needs your attention. All that to say, TikTok is special and addictive. 

So here are three predictions for who wins, who loses, and why it matters if TikTok really is shut down in the U.S. 

Social Media Exodus

First, and it practically goes without saying, banning TikTok would greatly benefit YouTube, Instagram, and Snap. It’s no wonder that as Facebook’s user base began eroding, during the Trump years, under withering media attention and the stench of aging uncoolness, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg began making the argument, both publicly and privately, that China-based ByteDance represented a national security threat. They may not have been wrong, but they were naturally self-interested.

It’s always dangerous to predict what young people will do, but all the existing demand for TikTok’s service won’t evaporate if the app suddenly doesn’t work within the U.S.’s borders. People will jump elsewhere for their short-form video fixes, and the beneficiaries will be those already-existing apps that have copied the format effectively. Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts are the most similar to TikTok’s functionality, and so should catch the benefit. To a lesser extent, I expect Snap would benefit too. It doesn’t offer the same mechanics as TikTok, but it’s a place where TikTok’s core user base also spends a lot of time. 

Second, if TikTok is banned, I expect cultural influence will decentralize further. The fact that many users will migrate to the other big, centralized, video-centric apps doesn’t mean that all that usage will, and the various cultural behaviors that have grown on TikTok because of the unique mix of user types and the power of TikTok’s algorithm may not emerge again for a while, if ever. 

I’ve already experienced this phenomenon in a minor way with the mini exodus from Twitter since Elon Musk took over. Many people are now migrating to Post, Mastodon, Hive and more. But what gets created there could never be Twitter because Twitter was more than a technical environment. (I’m writing in the past tense because I already believe the Twitter we knew a year ago is dead). Twitter was also a culture. It was a set of norms, behaviors, and interactions that emerged from the unique interactions of people and code at a particular time. 

Considering it’s only about five years old, TikTok is even more culturally influential. The Afrobeats I’m listening to as I write this were brought to me and much of the world thanks to TikTok helping spread these tunes. But if it’s effectively prohibited in the U.S., that will create a rift in what we’ve come to expect is a global cultural exchange. It’s hard to say who this would harm more. A U.S. TikTok ban would escalate a trend of digital isolationism we’ve generally only seen from authoritarian regimes like China, North Korea, or Iran. But the U.S. wouldn’t be the first democracy to do so. In 2020, India banned TikTok after a border dispute with China. Indian youth still communicate on mobile devices, and usage has migrated in part to home-grown Indian-built versions of short video apps. But those memes don’t travel into the TikTok universe. 

How would the rest of the world on this still-global platform respond to the absence of Americans? No doubt some will celebrate. But will Africa’s creators pull back because there are fewer Americans in the mix? How about Latin America? Will brands leave TikTok altogether or just have to add some North American variant to their media plans? I’m placing my bets on a U.S. ban hurting U.S. creators more. 

Third, and perhaps most personal for me, creators and brands will have to scramble to rebuild their networks and financial relationships. It used to be that migrating from one social platform to another was largely about maintaining your social graph and in particular your followers. Those of us who’ve been around got used to this, like moving from one college dorm to another each year. Friendster to MySpace to Facebook or Flickr to Ofoto to Google Photos. We wait to see what the hot new online spot is, then go about claiming usernames, migrating our data and our contacts so we can reconstitute our online worlds one more time. 

For creators, of course, it’s not just about data and fans and followers. It’s also about relocating financial relationships. A marketplace needs buyers and sellers. Those buyers can be creators and brands or sponsors. They can also be fans willing to drive enough usage to send signals as to who the real influencers are and potentially even part with their own funds by paying for subscriptions or tips. Building this kind of ecosystem is hard, and attracting large enough populations of each type of player is even harder. If it were easy and obvious, Musk would have set it up at Twitter by now. 

If TikTok is successfully banned in the U.S., those who depend on that existing marketplace will need to find a new home, including the brands, educators, public health officials, and others who’ve grown to depend on selling their messages and merchandise through the platform. 

Digital Sharecroppers

All this has happened before, and it will happen again (thanks to Battlestar Galactica for this line). When Twitter acquired and then shut down Vine, it killed off a unique culture (heavily driven by Black creators) and potentially muted some stars. But many influencers from Vine found their way to YouTube and beyond. We’ve also seen the smaller scale example of certain fringe political creators—particularly white supremacists and conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones—be de-platformed and have to set up shop, literally, elsewhere. 

But there’s also a simple meta-narrative at play here. It’s risky to build on someone else’s property. Ownership of our data, social graph, and financial relationships has great value. How many times do we have to lose our followers on a social network to realize they were never ours? Unless we have a way to reach them outside the walled garden, such as an email address, mobile number, or credit card number, then they belong to the garden, not to us. We’re just sharecroppers.

I expect a TikTok ban to accelerate the pace of learning on this particular lesson for creators who’ve had to rebuild their shops multiple times now. They’ll experiment with more direct to consumer models, subscription platforms, and yes, web3 tools that offer more control over identity, community, and monetization. As those tools become easier to use, they may be the biggest winners of all.