IF THIS ARTICLE were a TikTok video, it would already be almost over—and you would be smiling. TikTok’s 15-second clips are all the rage among teenage netizens. The app was downloaded more than 750m times in the past 12 months, more than Facebook plus its sister services, Instagram and WhatsApp, combined. Fun aside, TikTok raises serious questions—about data geopolitics, the power of internet incumbents and who sees what online.
TikTok is YouTube on steroids. It bombards users with self-repeating clips. It forms a genre of quick-hit entertainment: a prank, a dare, a teenager looking pretty. Most are produced by adolescents, with easy-to-use editing tools. The app makes money from adverts and commissions on digital tips. It may one day generate revenue from e-commerce, like its Chinese sister app, Douyin. Both are owned by ByteDance, a Beijing firm valued at $75bn, more than any other private startup.
The China connection has Washington in a tizzy. On November 1st it emerged that America’s government has opened a national-security review of ByteDance’s takeover in 2017 of Musical.ly, an app developed in China, which later became TikTok. On November 5th congressmen lambasted ByteDance for not showing up to a hearing.
Hawks argue that TikTok gives the government in Beijing access to data on millions of Americans and that it censors content the regime does not like. If America’s sanctions on Huawei, a maker of telecoms gear, are about disentangling electronics supply chains, its assault on ByteDance is an attempt to keep the data flows of America and China separate. ByteDance rejects these accusations, saying that non-Chinese user data sit on non-Chinese servers, and that decisions about what not to show American users are made in America.
For his part, Mark Zuckerberg is less worried about data sovereignty and more about competition from TikTok, China’s first runaway web success in America. Facebook is pulling out the big guns it deploys against fast-growing upstarts. In late 2018 it launched Lasso, a TikTok clone. An independent developer recently unearthed a feature hidden in Instagram’s code that apes TikTok’s editing tools. It is cold comfort to Mr Zuckerberg that should his defences fail, Big Tech’s critics will have to concede that digital monopolies are not that invincible after all.
Critics of artificial intelligence are also watching the Chinese app closely. What users see on Facebook and other Western social media is in part still down to who their friends are and what they share. TikTok’s main feed, called “For You”, is determined by algorithm alone: it watches how users behave in the app and uses the information to decide what to play next. Such systems create the ultimate filter bubble.
All these worries would be allayed if TikTok turns out to be a passing fad. In a way, the app is only riding on other social networks. It relies on people’s Facebook or Twitter accounts for many sign-ins. TikTok owes part of its success to relentless advertising on rival services. According to some estimates, it spent perhaps $1bn on social-media ads in 2018. At the same time, many who download TikTok quickly tire of its endless digital sugar-rush.
Slowing growth may not stop politicians from hobbling the app. They could decide to bar it from America altogether. For once, Mr Zuckerberg would be cheering them on.■
This post was originally posted at https://www.economist.com/business/2019/11/09/tiktoks-silly-clips-raise-some-serious-questions.