As unlikely as it may seem, the noose is tightening around Chinese-owned social media phenomenon TikTok. Were it to be banned outright, what impact would this have on the short form video creator community? Adrian Pennington investigates…
With north of one billion monthly users and annual revenue in excess of $10bn, plus a reach which touches virtually every aspect of business and culture, TikTok is arguably the most influential social video app on the planet.
Yet it could be switched off in the Western world as concerns mount about user data flowing back to Beijing. As draconian as it might seem, pressure is growing on regulators to act. This is particularly acute in the US as it enters the presidential election cycle and where government divisions, nineteen states and dozens of college campuses have already outlawed its use.
“TikTok is under scrutiny for good reason, but it’s not a foregone conclusion that it’s terminal,” said Tom Morrod, Co-founder, Caretta Research. “It seems likely that there will be some limitations imposed in the US and Europe, but there may be a couple of reasonable steps that TikTok can take to avoid being banned outright (which feels pretty extreme, in my opinion). The platform could either form under new ownership in the US and Europe, or accept more regulation of data flows and privacy.”
US politicians and media executives (including Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg) have been sounding the alarm and calling for Apple and Google to remove TikTok from stores. A move to ringfence data from its 80 million US users in US-based Oracle servers has not assuaged doubts.
The FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, claimed last June, that the Bytedance-owned app was “looking at everything from search and browsing history, your keystroke patterns, draft messages, biometric data, including voice print and face print that could be used in facial recognition down the road.”
The noose is also tightening in Europe where TikTok is the subject of two EU-wide privacy probes for sending data on its 250m+ EU users to China. It must also comply with extensive new requirements on content moderation under new digital rulebook, the DSA, from mid-2023.
French President Emmanuel Macron has called TikTok “deceptively innocent” and a cause of “real addiction” among users, as well as a source of Russian disinformation.
Aside from spying allegations, the app is warned to have “consequences on the brain capacity of its users” notably children, a concern which French daily paper Le Parisien headlined on December 29.
In China, content on the site tends to be longer form and its algorithm promotes education content including maths and engineering. In the West, TikTok is accused of making its algorithm more addictive and feeding its audience with ‘digital fentanyl.’
According to the Pew Research Centre, two-thirds of 13-to-17-year-olds in the US use TikTok.
“It should be divested or banned in the US,” said Harry Gestetner, co-founder of creator monetisation platform FanFix. “TikTok is proven to be syphoning data to the Chinese government. There are fears it could be used to spread propaganda or at very least being used to dumb kids down.”
There are legitimate concerns about privacy violations. “Many users have complained that their accounts were hacked or deleted without warning or explanation from TikTok itself,” said Guillermo Dvorak, Head of Digital at media and behavioural planning agency Total Media. “While these complaints may not be true (some of them seem fake), they could still create an atmosphere where regulators feel compelled to take action against the app because they think it’s unsafe for users’ data privacy rights.”
However, as Morrod pointed out, it is not consumers but regulatory concerns that are threatening TikTok’s future. That suggests that TikTok style short form is successful and in demand.
So what happens if that is taken away?
Who stands to gain most if TikTok is killed?
There are certainly no shortage of companies that would seek to capitalise on the market for short-form video if TikTok were squeezed out.
Snap, Meta and YouTube all launched or doubled down on short form video to counter TikTok’s success. YouTube Shorts just surpassed 50 billion daily views, up from 30 billion a year ago. Twitter could revitalise Vine. Others include French snap sharing site BeReal and Triller, a music based social platform.
“There are lots of contenders, but no obvious alternative right now because it requires a particular configuration of audience, content and algorithmic management in order to make it work properly,” said Morrod.
He said that network effects will tend towards “natural clustering of users” and so the audience that creates and consumes short-form will tend to stay primarily in one platform until something allows that audience to naturally fragment. That could be as a result of different demographics on TikTok vs Facebook or different content types on TikTok vs YouTube).
“If there is a regulatory change, some good marketing and investing in key influencers could result in any number of companies becoming the new home for that audience, but it’s likely to consolidate on a single platform.”
Meta, in theory, has the most to gain from TikTok’s potential demise. It expanded short form video product Reels onto Facebook a year ago, designated a $1 billion creator fund to encourage the creator community to produce for it, and grew to more than 140 billion plays across Facebook and Instagram a day by October.
“That’s a 50% increase from 6 months ago,” said Meta’s CFO Susan Li on the Q3 2022 earnings call. “Reels is incremental to time spent on our apps. The trends look good here and we believe that we are gaining time spent share on competitors like TikTok.”
Others aren’t convinced.
Amy Gilbert, Head of Social at London-based social media agency The Social Element, said, “Meta hasn’t found a way to connect with younger consumers or make Reels as profitable yet, and given their focus on the Metaverse, Reels seems like more of a necessary evil for them rather than a pillar of what the platform stands for.”
Like Caretta’s Morrod, she believes the biggest challenge that Meta (and others) face is recreating the unique algorithm and vibrant community that has made TikTok a household name.
“Despite Reels’ algorithmic features, they still fall short in delivering content that truly resonates with users,” she said. “In comparison, the short-form algorithms on platforms like Snapchat and Pinterest often feel too formulaic. Instagram does a slightly better job at balancing a mix of creators and friends, but nothing can match the personalisation offered by TikTok.
“This platform has been able to learn more about its users, and as a result, introduce them to new creators, perspectives, and products they may not have discovered on other platforms.”
Dvorak thinks the biggest winner of a potential TikTokk demise would be YouTube, reasoning that Alphabet’s company may be able to gain back some of its lost market share. The biggest on the other hand will be creators.
“If TikTok were to either haemorrhage users or be outright banned, the impact on the creator community would be devastating. For many, TikTok was an opportunity to find their voice for the first time. If TikTok were to disappear, or if it were forced to change its format so drastically that it became unrecognizable from its current incarnation, it would be a huge loss for creators. They may have to seek new platforms to distribute their content on if they don’t want to lose out on all that sweet, sweet ad revenue.”
Creators are already diversifying
FanFix seem convinced that action will be taken against TikTok, in the US at least. FanFix was launched 18 months ago to help Gen Z creators develop and monetise communities from their TikTok following as a rival to what they saw as existing platforms like Patreon which were not serving Gen Z.
FanFix co-founder Simon Pompan, however, believes creators will simply move to other social media platforms with FanFix continuing to serve them. Meta Reels is the platform most likely to win out, they say.
“We’ve seen that creators like to diversify their revenue stream away from any one social media,” explained Pompan. “A big goal for TikTokkers is pulling that following off TikTok onto Instagram or Snap or converting their content into longform on YouTube, or streaming on Twitch. Meta has improved Reels in recent months and we can see more and more creators shifting attention to it with less focus on TikTok.”
Despite TikTok’s runaway success it doesn’t follow that the market is universally trending towards short form content.
“Certainly, the dramatic collapse of Quibi suggests that short form might not work in certain formats or with certain audiences,” Morrod said. “Even if some of the alternative platforms do manage to get the content right (more user-generated rather than episodic) and invest in an appropriate algorithm they still might not have the right audience (seemingly, ‘kids’).”
The creator community is resourceful enough to figure out how to diversify their income by being on other platforms, creating merch and partnerships, and even setting up shops on Amazon.
For that reason, Gilbert said the biggest loss [of TikTok] would be on the rest of us. “The departure of TikTok would be a significant blow to the social media community and the unique atmosphere that makes it so special. It fills a void that other imitators aren’t able to do. Its algorithm helps bring new voices to the spotlight and keeps the internet fun. If TikTok goes away, we’ll miss out on that social experience we want to be having and our ability to discover and connect with others because nobody does it better.”
While the drive for innovation may remain, the absence of TikTok would create a void that other platforms would vie to fill with a captive audience.
“A ban on TikTok could bring about the birth of a new generation of short-form video platforms, ones that learn from TikTok’s success and bring something fresh to the table,” she said. “Regardless, a ban on TikTok in the US would be a game-changer for the future of short-form videos and could have ripple effects throughout the tech industry.”
China trims TikTok power at home
Banning TikTok is not without precedent. The Indian government has banned it since 2020 along with dozens of other Chinese apps on national security grounds, following border clashes with China.
In the US, any similar move would need to take into account First Amendment concerns. “An outright ban, especially one targeting Chinese companies writ large, risks looking like Sinophobia,” said reporter Alex Palmer in the New York Times article “How TikTok Became a Diplomatic Crisis.”
Ironically in China, TikTok’s success is considered a threat to the Communist party for its potential to offer unfiltered news and views. that the state there has taken considerable steps to control.
“The company is caught in the middle between the old era and the new — too Chinese for America, too American for China,” said Palmer.
“[In the US] TikTok is considered a Trojan horse — for Chinese influence, for spying, or possibly both. In China, meanwhile, a broad crackdown has sought to rein in high-flying tech companies and their founders, out of fear that, with their influence, independence and popularity, they were becoming alternative power bases to the Chinese Communist Party.”
Founder Zhang Yiming has taken a back seat from his role as CEO, while the Chinese government takes more control. According to the NYT, the Chinese state recently took a stake in a ByteDance subsidiary — the implications are unavoidable.
“The Chinese government took one of three seats on the subsidiary’s board, wielding a level of influence incommensurate with its nominal stake. To turn a blind eye to the potential risks posed by a company like TikTok is to ignore the political, economic and social infrastructure of control that the Chinese government under Xi has spent more than a decade constructing.”
It seems certain that the future for shortform video will continue to be bright, but the role that TikTok plays in the arena that it played a core role in developing may well see some flux. Whatever the outcome of the discussions around restrictions, the debate itself highlights the complex –and often surprising - interplay between geopolitics, social media and digital entertainment – a theme that is highly unlikely to go away anytime soon.