Planet TikTok

Logo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Logo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

One way to understand the origins of TikTok is to consider two train rides that took place on opposite ends of the globe. The first was in Beijing in 2011. Zhang Yiming, a twenty-eight-year-old entrepreneur, was on the subway when he noticed that nobody was reading newspapers anymore; they got the news on their phones. It gave him an idea: an app that would create personalized newsfeeds. “Just as Zuckerberg founded Facebook to connect people with people, and Travis [Kalanick] founded Uber to connect people with cars”, Zhang said in a 2015 speech, “I want to connect people with information”.

Growing up in the reform era, when China was, in Deng Xiaoping’s words, “connecting tracks” (jiegui) with the outside world, Zhang had taken a special interest in streamlining what he called “the flow of information”. He was a voracious reader. In his book Attention Factory (2020), the tech writer Matthew Brennan notes that Zhang claimed to devour up to thirty periodicals a week and ran his own life like a feed, absorbing as much information as he could to make informed, efficient decisions—about where to attend college or whether to marry his girlfriend. (She was, in his words, the “approximate optimal solution within acceptable range”.) He worked at three start-ups, including a real estate app that aggregated information to suggest properties to buyers.

Zhang’s idea—personalized content distribution—was neither new nor radical. By 2011 a range of so-called portal websites dominated the business of news aggregation in China, among them NetEase, Sohu, and Tencent. But his timing was perfect. While the portal giants were stuck on Web browsers, Zhang looked ahead to smartphones just as the country was on the cusp of a mobile revolution. That year China became the world’s largest smartphone market, and 4G towers sprouted everywhere. Mobile traffic was doubling annually.

In March 2012 Zhang founded a company called ByteDance out of a four-bedroom apartment in Beijing’s northwestern Zhongguancun district. His small team experimented with a number of apps: Gaoxiao Jiong Tu (Hilarious Goofy Pics), which served up amusing memes; Neihan Duanzi (Subtle Jokes), which included off-color jokes and short videos; and finally Jinri Toutiao (Today’s Headlines), an aggregator that “let every user, at every moment, see their own front news page”. There was nothing particularly remarkable about Toutiao’s user interface or content. But its recommendation algorithm was innovative: it granularly analyzed how users engaged with a piece of content—taps, swipes, time spent, pauses, comments—to determine what else to show them. “The recommendation engine got better with every use”, Alex W. Palmer wrote in a 2022 New York Times Magazine essay. “It was a virtuous cycle: more users meant more data; more data meant a smarter algorithm; a smarter algorithm meant more users; and on and on”.

Toutiao became one of the fastest-growing Chinese apps in history: by 2016 it had 78 million daily users. The average user spent seventy-four minutes a day on it, twenty more than the average Facebook user. Beating Facebook was a big deal. Silicon Valley was a lodestar for Chinese entrepreneurs of Zhang’s generation; they were drawn to its myth that, with the right technologies, underdogs could change the world. One of Zhang’s favorite books was Winning, the 2005 best seller by the former General Electric CEO Jack Welch; ByteDance borrowed its guiding maxim, “Always Day One”, from Amazon. Like Mark Zuckerberg, Zhang asserted that his company was not a media outlet that required an editor-in-chief but a tech platform. It built a tool to meet a social need: delivering people information they wanted.

ByteDance’s success was part of a broader social transformation in which the mobile Internet penetrated every aspect of Chinese public life. Its rapid growth was propelled by an increasingly connected middle class and forward-looking leadership. China’s population provided an ample target audience to scale up new technologies, and in 2014 the government introduced a policy of “mass entrepreneurship and innovation”, pouring money into start-ups and tech incubators. Among tech journalists, AI experts, and McKinsey consultants alike, “leapfrog”was the word du jour. Smartphones leapfrogged laptops, voice memos leapfrogged email, and mobile payments leapfrogged credit cards; in 2016 China’s mobile payments market surpassed that of the US fifty times over. A cash-dependent country went cashless seemingly overnight. Before 2011 it was common to see people paying their rent with stacks of hundred-yuan bills. Five years later farmers sold their produce on social media and panhandlers laid out printed QR codes on the street.

Logo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Logo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
 
Logo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The line between online and offline life blurred: a smartphone served as a wallet, transportation ticket, means of communication, and social world. With a few swipes you could order dinner and pay rent, scout for dating prospects, and book a therapy appointment. And you could do much of this on a single app: Tencent’s WeChat, which grew from a messaging platform into a kind of digital Swiss Army knife, rolling the functions of Facebook, WhatsApp, Venmo, and Yelp into one.

For decades Western firms had dismissed Chinese Internet companies, like most Chinese goods, as cheap knockoffs: Alibaba as a lesser version of eBay, Baidu as a subpar Google, Tencent as “China’s Facebook”. But all that was changing. “The golden age of Chinese technology is coming”, Zhang wrote in a 2014 blog post after a trip to Silicon Valley. In 2019 Zuckerberg, driven by what some called “WeChat envy”, pushed for Facebook to emulate the app’s business model and offer a wider range of private services such as mobile payments and e-commerce. In 2016 Wired ran a story with the cover line IT’S TIME TO COPY CHINA. The cover showed a portrait of Lei Jun, founder of the smartphone company Xiaomi, against a large red cartoonish sunrise, with the caption: “Don’t call me China’s Steve Jobs”. ByteDance was about to take its business beyond China’s borders.

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The second train ride was in California in 2014. Another Chinese entrepreneur, Alex Zhu, then employed as a project manager in the Bay Area for the German software company SAP, was en route from San Francisco to Mountain View when he noticed a group of teenagers. Half of them were listening to music; the other half took selfies. Why not, he thought, combine both those features into a single app? He’d previously launched an education platform modeled on massive open online courses, which allowed experts to produce and share short tutorial videos on subjects like math and history. But the barrier to entry proved too high for creators, who struggled to come up with engaging content. Zhu himself took two hours to piece together his first lesson, according to Brennan, and it was a boring, three-minute video on the “history of coffee”. His new product needed to be faster, lighthearted, teen-friendly.

Shortly after his epiphany on the train, Zhu moved back to Shanghai, where he founded Musical.ly, a lip-synching app for creating short videos paired with filters and soundtracks. It caught on quickly, particularly among American teenage girls, topping US app store charts within a year of its release. Avid users called themselves “Musers”. Many of them hoped to get famous, and some did, landing record deals, acting gigs, and sponsorships worth millions of dollars. Zhu was paraphrased in the South China Morning Post comparing them to “migrants chasing the American dream”.

Musical.ly came to Zhang Yiming’s attention in 2016, just as he was looking for ways to expand worldwide. That was the year of short videos: in the US, apps like Vine, Flipagram, and Dubsmash were in their prime. In China, many new short-video apps vied for audiences’ attention, such as Meipai, which was popular among young urban women posting makeup and fashion content, and Kuaishou, which was dominant in China’s less economically developed and more rural regions, where people often livestreamed their daily routines: fishermen displayed their catches and truckers took viewers along on their commutes. ByteDance created its own app, using Toutiao’s recommendation algorithm and imitating several of Musical.ly’s central features, such as a full-screen display, an endless feed, and an emphasis on sound. They named the app Douyin (Shaking Sound).

But ByteDance didn’t just want Musical.ly’s features; it wanted the app’s clout and its 60 million users. The ByteDance team thought that the best way to gain international popularity was through a big acquisition, the tech analyst Rui Ma told me. So in 2017 it bought Musical.ly for a billion dollars. The new, combined app would serve as Douyin’s international counterpart and absorb Musical.ly’s users. The team named it TikTok. The two apps were like “twin siblings separated at birth”, the journalist Chris Stokel-Walker wrote in his book TikTok Boom (2021). Douyin operated legally within China’s Great Firewall; TikTok traveled well beyond China, without the same constraints.

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TikTok took off in the United States in 2019, primarily among American teenagers, who once dominated the Musical.ly user base. The app’s main attraction is its “For You” page. Instead of showing users content based on social connections—accounts they follow and accounts that follow them—it is tailored to their individual habits and even instincts. If, for instance, you engage with content related to woodworking or a particular kind of dance, the algorithm will serve you more content on these subjects, regardless of who created it. This allows for a feeling of “surprise”, the researcher Marcus Bösch told me. It’s “like falling in love with a stranger very fast”. People describe the experience with a sense of enchantment. The tech blogger Eugene Wei called it a “rapid, hyper-efficient matchmaker”. He compared it to the Sorting Hat from the Harry Potter books, divvying up users into subcultures. A writer at Mashable praised the app as a “divine digital oracle” after it identified her as bisexual before she realized she was interested in women. Researchers found that TikTok could send users into a “flow state” in which they lose track of time.

TikTok has lowered the barrier to entry for creators as well, Bosch explained to me. Since the algorithm generates content based on individual tastes rather than the creator’s social profile, any video can potentially take off. A few months ago, for instance, Donghua Jinlong, a factory in China’s Hebei province that manufactures “industrial-grade glycine”, a flavor enhancer, posted an earnest marketing video on TikTok that went viral. The factory became a meme, inspiring comedy skits, Gregorian chants, and even a personality test (“Which glycine are you?”). While Instagram’s feeds can seem overcurated and predictable, TikTok’s algorithm reaches into the far corners and vestiges of the Web, spawning an array of weird trends (“butter boards”, “quiet quitting”, “quiet luxury”, “girl dinner”, “goblin mode”) and bringing various niche subcultures into the spotlight (AltTok, WitchTok, FactoryTok, petcore, ASMRcore.) On a single scroll a user might see a “parent hack” video on how to turn juice cartons into frozen popsicles, a mental health influencer offering a four-step diagnosis of ADHD, or news coverage of floods in Dubai.

Logo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Logo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Many Chinese social media giants like Weibo and WeChat are popular outside China only within its diaspora. TikTok, however, has become truly global. Mexican politicians use it to connect with their constituents; Cambodian monks preach to millions of followers; Ukrainian “WarTokers” livestream scenes from bunkers and bomb shelters and appeal for international support. The app enables users to interact across borders. You can use the “Duet” feature, for example, to record yourself singing, then leave a gap for a collaborator to fill the space: a French artist can start a chorus, then inspire a Brazilian user to add a verse; a South Korean K-pop star can riff on a dance challenge choreographed by a TikTokker in the US to a Megan Thee Stallion song. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the feature allowed a user to dance alongside a stranger anywhere in the world. In 2020 TikTok’s growth accelerated; between March and April its average daily user count rose by 110 million. That year it was the most downloaded app in the world.

Such content is heartwarming. But TikTok, like the social media platforms that preceded it, is ultimately a private company chasing profits. Once it consolidated its users, the logical next step was to monetize their attention. In 2018 the New York Times technology columnist Kevin Roose praised the app for bringing “fun back to social media”, in part because it was free of ads. A year later TikTok was no longer ad-free: the same algorithm that drove content distribution now fuels advertisements and sponsored content. The more time users spend on the app, the more money ByteDance makes. According to Bloomberg, by 2022 the company was charging as much as $2.6 million for a one-day run of a “top view” ad, the first thing a user sees when they open the app—four times what it charged the year before.

With its younger user base, more fragmented content, and amped-up algorithm, TikTok has exacerbated many of the ills of social media, from mental health crises to addiction. According to the mobile research firm data.ai, the average American TikTok user spent about twenty-nine hours a month on the app in 2022, more than Facebook and Instagram combined. If data is the new oil, the business school professor Scott Galloway wrote that year, TikTok provides “sweet crude like the world has never seen, ready to be algorithmically refined into rocket fuel”.

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TikTok emerged from a powerful fusion: ByteDance’s recommendation algorithm and Musical.ly’s userbase. TikTok stars have become international celebrities—and parlayed their fame into profits. Perhaps the most emblematic figure is Montero Lamar Hill, more widely known as Lil Nas X, a nineteen-year-old college dropout from Georgia who shot to stardom after his country-trap hit “Old Town Road” went viral on TikTok and became the longest-running number one song in the history of the Billboard Hot 100.

TikTok influencers have found many ways to make money. For someone as famous as Lil Nas X, popularity on the app can lead to gigs and major record deals. Those slightly lower on the pecking order can publish sponsored influencer posts—a kind of supercharged product placement. Procter and Gamble might pay a popular hairstylist to feature Pantene in a thirty-second video; Hoka might strike a deal with a running influencer to wear their shoes in a branded hashtag challenge—a marketing strategy that uses tags like #ShareACoke or #ShotoniPhone. Or they can earn on the platform itself, through “revenue-sharing” contracts from in-platform ad sales and “virtual gifts”, tips that users purchase with real money and send to creators during livestreams (TikTok takes a cut). In 2020 the app set up a $200 million “creator fund” to pay users who had at least 10,000 followers based on engagement; it lasted three years before the company shut it down.

Platforms like YouTube have already paved similar paths to fame, but TikTok is more accessible and efficient. Lil Nas X achieved in three months on TikTok what Justin Bieber achieved in three years on YouTube. “If YouTube was like a complicated, highly strategic video game, TikTok was like Nintendo Wii”, Allyson Toy, a former creator manager at Twitch, told me. Anybody can participate, from aspirants to veteran stars. Creator collectives have emerged, like the LA-based Hype House and the Atlanta-based Collab Crib. “This is more than just kids making videos on the internet”, a Collab Crib member told The New York Times in 2022, echoing Zhu. “This is the new American dream”.

On TikTok, people are dreaming well beyond American borders: everyone on the platform is competing for views and clicks in the emerging global attention economy. (In China, where short videos and livestreaming long ago matured into full-blown industries, this process was already long underway on Douyin, where octogenarians launch second acts as fashion models and farmers moonlight as comedians.) In 2021 ByteDance launched TikTok Shop, which lets users purchase products from sellers within the app. It took off quickly in Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Since 2022 the most followed TikTokker in the world has been a Senegalese-born Italian creator named Khaby Lame, a former factory worker laid off during the pandemic who made a name for himself by posting silent comedy videos poking fun at life-hack tutorials.

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Meanwhile relations between the US and China have been souring. In 2018 the Trump administration imposed punitive tariffs on China, igniting a messy trade war; the Chinese government responded by doubling down on its investments in self-sufficiency and “indigenous innovation” in core technologies. The US raised alarms about national security risks posed by Chinese technology companies; in 2019, driven by concerns over espionage and the security of 5G networks, the Department of Commerce put the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei on its Entity List, banning American companies from doing business with it. That same year reports emerged that TikTok suppressed content about the Hong Kong protests and banned a clip of a user criticizing the China government’s treatment of Uyghurs, fanning fears of censorship. The pandemic only amplified hostilities, fueling Sinophobia in the US and anti-American nationalism in China.

Logo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Logo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In August 2020, concerned that the Chinese government could use TikTok to access sensitive data or exploit it to spread propaganda, the Trump administration issued an executive order calling on ByteDance to sell the app or be banned in the US. A platform once praised as a divinatory meme machine was now seen as a geopolitical Trojan horse, enabling the Chinese Communist Party to steal data and brainwash children.

The company took a hit in China, too. In 2021 the government launched a sweeping crackdown on its big tech companies as part of an effort to address what the Party called the “disorderly expansion of capital” in the private sector—a broad accusation leveled against everything from monopolistic practices to a hypercompetitive tutoring industry to video game addiction. ByteDance faced antitrust probes and tighter scrutiny of its data, and it was forced to cancel an impending IPO. The company had already been under pressure to tighten regulations over its content; as early as 2018, regulators shut down Neihan Duanzi for failing to “grasp correct guidance of public opinion” and demanded that Douyin cleanse its feeds of “vulgar” content.

Squeezed on both sides, ByteDance divided itself in two, moving most of its leadership to Singapore to distance TikTok from its Chinese origins. When TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer responded to Trump’s order by resigning after just three months on the job, they hired Shou Zi Chew, a Singaporean, Harvard Business School–educated former Facebook intern. To address data security concerns, they proposed what they called Project Texas: a partnership with the American software company Oracle to store American user data at its Austin headquarters. The plan resembled Apple’s arrangement in China, where it stores data locally, in Guizhou province, to comply with the country’s 2016 Cybersecurity Law.

None of it worked. This March the US House of Representatives pressed on, passing a bill requiring TikTok to be sold or banned from the US. There was precedent: in 2019 regulators forced the sale of the gay dating app Grindr, which at the time was owned by the Chinese company Kunlun Tech, over concerns that it would give the Chinese government access to sensitive data. But Grindr, an American-made app, sold for $600 million. ByteDance is worth an estimated $50 billion. Reuters has reported that it would rather shut down its US TikTok operation than sell it, since its recommendation algorithm drives many of its other businesses, such as Douyin and Toutiao. The loss wouldn’t be debilitating. Eighty percent of the company’s revenue comes from China, mostly from Douyin, and the remaining twenty comes from TikTok. Even if ByteDance were to agree to a sale, the Chinese government could block it; in 2020 regulators required companies to get permission before selling a technology like TikTok’s algorithm to foreign investors.

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TikTok may well be banned in the US. If it is, what would be lost? The effects are at this juncture hard to gauge. The hundreds of millions of users already on the app will most likely continue to access it on their phones, until they miss so many updates that it becomes too buggy. Dedicated TikTokkers will perhaps jump over the American firewall using the same tools that those within China’s Great Firewall have used for decades: foreign SIM cards and virtual private networks. Those who can’t be bothered will migrate to alternatives, much as Indian TikTokkers switched to YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels after their government banned the app in 2020, or Chinese “Googlers” moved to Baidu after the search engine was booted from the country a decade earlier.

In any case, a TikTok ban would bring an end to the era when Chinese entrepreneurs could take their products global without friction—and perhaps also the era when grassroots creators anywhere in the world with a smartphone camera and a catchy tune could propel themselves to fame and fortune. Chinese tech companies, most notably the fast fashion giant Shein and the e-commerce platform Temu, may expand their businesses worldwide, but they face increasingly tight scrutiny and go out of their way to hide their national origins. “If you are a Chinese company, you are guilty until proven innocent”, the founder of a consultancy that helps Chinese companies expand in North America told the website Rest of World last year.

If TikTok is banned, the American Internet will also become more detached from places where the app remains woven into the fabric of online life, from Southeast Asia to the Middle East. Would global creators like Khaby Lame still find their way to American viewers? How would the demise of TikTok alter online discourse during international crises? In May Mitt Romney suggested that banning the platform—perhaps because it attracts younger, progressive, international users—would help subdue pro-Palestinian sentiment. “Removing TikTok would do more than disrupt entertainment”, Dominic Andre, a Palestinian TikTok creator, wrote in The Guardian that month. “It would sever a lifeline for marginalized voices across the world”.

Other nation-states, emboldened by the US government’s actions, may introduce bans of their own. If the US can ban TikTok, Ma, the tech analyst, told me, “other countries will definitely do it, too”. A Russian opposition blogger claimed that the Russian government could shut down services like YouTube; a lawyer at the New Delhi–based Software Freedom Law Center told The New York Times that the Indian government would use the ban as another justification for cracking down on dissent. The governments of Vietnam, Kenya, Uganda, and Egypt are already pushing to ban the app because of its “toxic” content, security risks, and threats to “morality”.

TikTok, the digital rights activist Samantha Floreani has written, was the “logical next step on the pathway of platform capitalism, laid down by those who came before it”. The concerns it raises—from addiction to misinformation—are pressing, but they are hardly unique to the platform. TikTok has in effect become a Chinese scapegoat for anxieties about the power that all private tech companies wield, regardless of where they come from—their ability to surveil and influence our behavior, ensnare us in an interminable feed, and mine our attention for profit. After decades of trying to “connect the tracks” of the global Internet, we will not solve its problems by letting its trains derail.

Yi-Ling Liu is a writer and editor. She covers technology and its impact on society, and is working on a book about the Chinese internet. (July 2024)

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