In the face of TikTok’s monumental rise worldwide, the app has had a tumultuous week. With major bans and global superpowers now placing the megahit app under the microscope amid rising political tensions, TikTok may never operate the same again; and its majority Gen-Z audience may need to turn elsewhere for a cultural maypole.
For context, the last couple of years have firmly established TikTok a mainstay of social media: It was formerly the platform of choice for the trend-following upstarts of the internet, but over time it became clear among the youth majority that not having it was the real hipster statement. In 2017, Chinese company ByteDance acquired American app Musical.ly, and merged it with their already existing TikTok. By 2019, it was ahead of Facebook among the 13-16 year old demographic and by the turn of the decade reached 800 million active users and over 2 million worldwide downloads. No other social media platform has leapfrogged its competition to the top so quickly.
On Monday, June 29, the Indian government officially announced it was banning 59 Chinese-owned applications, including popular messenger WeChat, and most notably TikTok. The ban came roughly two weeks following an incident in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a conflict with Chinese forces over a decades-disputed Himalayan border region, lifting tensions between the two nations. The Indian Government stated that the Ministry of Information Technology received complaints that the apps in questions were stealing user’s data and illegally storing it on non-Indian servers.
— ☆ Grace Angel Merritt ☆ LARRI'S BDAY MONTH (@laresgrace) July 9, 2020
Now, the Trump administration has made statements indicating that the US government might follow in India’s footsteps sooner rather than later. In a Wednesday interview with Fox News, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that banning the popular video app was “something we are looking at.” Trump corroborated these claims the next day, mentioning that a US TikTok ban was “something we are looking at.” TikTok has, for a while now, been under scrutiny from American lawmakers and government officials for potential security risks. In fact, on Friday, July 10, Amazon asked all employees in a company-wide email to delete the app from their phones, fearing “security risks.” However, later the same day, the company made a statement saying the email was “sent in error” and that no employee will be required to delete the app. Wells Fargo later stated their intent to have employees remove the app.
India and the United States are the top two nations that have explicitly requested data-driven information from TikTok and ByteDance over the last few years. This led to the company releasing an official transparency report on Thursday, July 9, citing over 16 million removed videos in India and over 4 million removed in the US. This comes after the company’s July 6 announcement that they will be pulling the app from Hong Kong following a new law that forces companies operating in the region to provide user data to the Chinese government, as well as obey censorship demands. It is important to note as well that although Chinese-owned, TikTok is not available itself in China, instead focusing on the western market.
To defer to a conversation of more anthropological measure: it is no secret that TikTok has become a uniquely Gen-Z product; so much in fact that it could arguably be considered the quintessential Gen-Z cultural artifact, at least presently. That is why is comes as little surprise that Gen-Z is actively fighting back.
Almost immediately following Pompeo’s and Trump’s statements, #TikTokBan was everywhere on Twitter. Additionally, the President’s official re-election campaign app was flooded with one-star reviews, racking up over 700 negative comments in a single day. This is the second time TikTok users have struck back at the GOP, the first being their infamous rallying on the platform to hijack Trump’s Tulsa rally registration system, leading to lower-than-expected attendance.
It is important to ask then why TikTok has struck such a chord with Gen-Z, and to a lesser extent Millennials, in the first place. Gen-Z, for all the criticism constantly lobbied by older generations, is a politically aware group. It is very much within Gen-Z’s nature to target the tense global political climate for memes and scrutiny, and part of the collective Gen-Z mentality is both the exasperated acceptance of and willingness to stand up to the injustices of the world. Dark and once-taboo subjects like depression, anxiety, politics, sexual repression, and natural crises are now some of the main sources of lighthearted banter among young people on social media. At the same time, most of said young people do not fail to see the seriousness of these topics, which is why TikTok has been the ideal place for young social activists to spread awareness of serious issues in a lighthearted manner.
omg guys.. it would be so bad if we got the app store to delete trumps app definitely do NOT leave a one star review that would be so bad could u imagine pic.twitter.com/kHcidOR1H8
— gia⁷ JUNGKOOK DAY (@FL0WERH0YA) July 9, 2020
On a lighter note, the escapism of TikTok is like no other. Similarly to Gen-Z’s politically active nature, TikTok is also the most common place to escape the world and delight in the dumpster fire of the world among a group of (mostly) like-minded individuals. The most popular trends on TikTok are dances, life hacks and general nonsensical antics of its main demographic, setting itself apart from Instagram, which has largely been more rigid and brand-centric as of late. Teens feel little obligation to filter themselves on TikTok as they might on Instagram or Snapchat, with virtually no desire to highlight themselves in only positive light. In that way, it is almost like the video equivalent of Twitter.
Which leads to a major quandary: if the US does ban TikTok, where will Get-Z turn to next? Quite honestly it is hard to say. Instinct might say that the generation will logically stick to Snapchat and Instagram, as those are consistently the most-used platforms amongst those aged 13-21 in America. But if that is the case, will the TikTok attitude and culture of today leak into Gen-Z behavior on those applications, or will Snapchat and Instagram continue to be the popcorn entertainment and idealized brand platforms they currently are?
Odds are unlikely that overall habits on other platforms will significantly change in the wake of a TikTok collapse, but stranger things have happened in the social media landscape. Other than the still-somewhat cult-like Tumblr, most longstanding social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have not maintained the exact same demographic as they initial grasped at launch. Facebook has long become relegated to a far older crowd, while Twitter has become popular amongst Millennials. Typically the only platforms that preserved their initial demographics have been those that were short-lived, like the still highly-touted Vine. TikTok could very well be seen as the logical successor to Vine, and if TikTok goes under in America just as quickly, it would be more than natural for a new upstart to take the throne and begin the cycle anew.