For Whom the Tok Tiks
Updated at 11:15 p.m. ET on August 6, 2020.
What is TikTok though? It’s an app for creating and sharing short videos, but that description undersells its delight: lip-synched anthems that spawn split-screen duet replies; “challenges” that turn boring tasks into virtuosic dances; wry, incisive takedowns of national politics by teens too young to vote; pets, kids, emo kids , emo pets , and comedians.
That’s part of what TikTok is, anyway. It’s also a data-collecting social-media platform that sells and serves ads, like any other social-media platform. But it’s not exactly like any other social-media platform, because TikTok is one of the only Chinese-made apps that is broadly popular in America. This fact rankles the White House because the company could pass U.S. user data to the Chinese government. Today, Donald Trump issued an executive order that would ban TikTok’s clever videos from American shores entirely.
Unless, as Trump has put it, a “ very American ” company buys TikTok from ByteDance, the platform’s Chinese owner, and repatriates its data. It’s ironic to try to blockade a foreign app, given that America has imposed Facebook, Google, Uber, and all the others on the rest of the world, whether those nations asked for them or not. ( Often they didn’t .) Microsoft has emerged as the likeliest suitor—and among the only ones capable of shelling out an estimated $20 billion to $50 billion for a cat-dancing video app.
The threat that the White House might disappear a favorite app has turned esoteric trade diplomacy into a tiny culture war. Among the many horrors of 2020, America can add a multibillion-dollar international dispute about a data-vacuuming platform on which people … film themselves in their bathroom mirrors and prank their parents. “They can pry TikTok from my cold dead hands,” one fan said . “I need my cat videos.” Some teens who love the platform have even become newly endeared to Microsoft , the most boring of old-guard tech companies, as TikTok’s possible savior.
[ Read: TikTok stars are preparing to take over the internet ]
It’s gratifying to cast TikTok as an innocent bystander in a trade war between the U.S. and China, or as fuel for a generation gap between Boomers and Zoomers, or as a David facing off with the tech-establishment Goliath. Two years of breathless coverage of TikTok as a fresh-faced force of delight and opportunity have made the app feel like an underdog bet in a prizefight against entrenched ne’er-do-wells, such as Trump and Facebook.
But TikTok, I regret to inform you, is also bad. Chatter about its possible ban or fire sale makes the harm it can cause, which is multifaceted, even more visible. To peel the app like an onion reveals that there’s really no good outcome, whether or not a deal or a ban comes to pass. TikTok is going to be America’s problem in America, or America’s problem in China, or both.