For Whom the Tok Tiks

TikTok could persist in many ways in America. None is good.

a USA stamp on top of the tiktok logo
Getty / The Atlantic

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.

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.

Collecting data is probably bad, no matter who does it. The administration fears that this app, the first Chinese offering to really break big in the United States, could share the data it collects from Americans with the Chinese government for nefarious exploitation. Some critics have shrugged off this concern as xenophobia, yet it does have merit. The Chinese government can demand that tech companies hand over data, and that could turn TikTok into a Trojan horse for cyberespionage or blackmail. (ByteDance has made assurances that it stores TikTok’s data outside of China, but that’s cold comfort given China’s ability to compel compliance.)

The thing is, it’s not necessarily less worrisome for the same data to be held by American companies; it’s just concerning in a different way. Look at all the trouble Facebook, Instagram, Google, Twitter, and others have gotten into regarding their choke hold on information and their questionable stewardship of its use. The collection and sharing of data that people store or create on technology platforms, along with the ease of disseminating fake information, have been the defining problem of the American technology industry in the past two decades. Microsoft has come under less scrutiny, but mostly because the company has never really invested in consumer-internet applications beyond Skype and LinkedIn. Microsoft hasn’t made Facebook’s errors, but it also hasn’t had much opportunity to do so.

The engagement economy is also bad. Watching a stylist perform a haircut with a butcher knife or a comedian lip-synch to Trump or an actual cat perform a Doja Cat song is fun. But social media can never be taken on its own. Every post serves a common master: the platform, which aggregates the attention and data of individual creations into an engagement-delivery machine, mostly so the platform’s owner can sell advertising.

Platforms need more users posting more content to thrive, and so they must either find new audiences or cannibalize old ones. TikTok does not disrupt the long-standing pattern of consumer apps seeking to make cultural waves, but each wave eventually crashes to shore. Fifteen years ago, Facebook was cool to teens; 10 years ago, Instagram took its place, so Facebook bought it; now Instagram is copying TikTok with a new feature called Reels.

Eventually, inevitably, TikTok will fall from grace, if not by executive ban then by a more ordinary acquisition, or natural decline, or replacement by another, cooler option. When it does, the addicts and influencers attached to it today will invest all that effort in someone else’s corporate platform, just as the Viners who vanished when Twitter shut down that service did, or the YouTubers who were demonetized, or the Tumblrers who were banned. No matter how liberating or delightful the posts feel, content creators are also puppets of the platform owners, who in turn vie for temporary dominance over one another.

The geopolitical rewards from solving the TikTok problem are bad news, too. ByteDance isn’t the biggest Chinese tech company, but it’s worth a hefty $100 billion, and it operates other services in China, India, Indonesia, and elsewhere. If allowed to continue operating in the United States, ByteDance could further entrench its global position. But if Microsoft acquires the product, then the global industry would consolidate further—and mere weeks after the House held a hearing about antitrust concerns in the sector. Global online media will become further controlled by American technology firms, or else by Chinese ones. That’s not much of a choice at all.

Then there’s the political glad-handing, a matter far more boring than any TikTok video, but necessary to understanding the significance of all of them together. In a call with the president over the weekend, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella reportedly managed to talk down Trump from immediate intervention. (Trump’s executive order says the deal can go through if it closes by September 15.) If Microsoft can solve a political (and perhaps personal) problem for the White House, the company would win favor with the administration. That could deepen Microsoft’s already-remunerative relationship with the federal government in areas such as cloud-computing services, for which the company manages a $10 billion contract with the Pentagon.

An acquisition could equally endear Microsoft to Chinese President Xi Jinping. On Tuesday, the government-owned newspaper China Daily published an editorial condemning Trump’s “smash and grab” approach to TikTok, and vowing that China would retaliate against unilateral American action. Microsoft has maintained a foothold in China since 1992, earning it respect alongside local tech giants such as Tencent and Baidu. Even so, China still accounts for only 2 percent of Microsoft’s revenue. By helping to mediate the standoff, Microsoft could improve its fortunes in China. In either case, the American-policy dimensions of a TikTok divestiture would play second fiddle to the corporate benefits of a $1.6 trillion behemoth.

Finally, the artificial intelligence that makes TikTok great is also dangerous, no matter who’s got their hands on it. TikTok is like an iceberg. On the surface, users make and share short videos, which they can also spread via other social-media platforms. No big deal.

Then there’s the rest of the iceberg. ByteDance has created a colossal infrastructure to make the app so engaging. All social apps are designed for compulsion, but TikTok is particularly addictive because it dispenses with the setup that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others require. There’s no need to find people to follow or to build a long pattern of use. Instead, you download it, watch a few videos, and TikTok starts recommending more: sour worms and liquor in a vat; Mr. Clean dancing across the carpet; a lip-synch of a cat’s fear of bath water. You don’t even need an account.

The recommendations are surprisingly effective. That’s because ByteDance has invested enormous time and money to develop artificial-intelligence software that scans posted videos for substance, form, and meaning, and uses that material to recommend more. For TikTok viewers, the resulting sensation is overwhelming, a bit like when Google first replaced AltaVista: magically good results.

But who will own these valuable AI systems if TikTok gets split up in a sale? The AI has potentially broad application in identifying and matching patterns of information to the people who would want it. A company like Microsoft could use this system in any number of ways, including in its enterprise products, such as email or LinkedIn. But it’s not yet clear if intellectual property such as TikTok’s AI will divest in a purchase, or if it will remain in ByteDance’s hands, or if both entities will share in it, or something else entirely. Microsoft has said only that it will “own and operate TikTok” in a few English-speaking markets.

The Trump White House hasn’t weighed in on this detail. Yesterday, Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, sent a letter to Microsoft posing numerous questions about the deal, but none considered how the company might share in the general software already imbricated with TikTok itself.

The mystery spawns another set of bad options. Would it be worse if China retained sole control over the AI that makes TikTok and other services so effective, or if that technology were also in the hands of an American tech giant that’s one of the most valuable companies in the world? Is it worse to isolate that engagement in a series of viral-media Chinese exports, or to allow an American powerhouse to transplant the AI that makes TikTok so compelling into more mundane apps, including cloud-computing services that run corporate and governmental systems, office software that oversees spreadsheets and word-processing documents, and a social network that millions of people use for recruiting?

TikTok might be pleasant, or joyful, or even subversive. But it is also an app on your phone, on the internet, connected to data centers and driving both corporate amalgamation and transnational entrenchment. It’s a bummer, but nothing is ever just an app anymore. Maybe Microsoft will save TikTok, or maybe not. Either way, there aren’t better and worse options here, so much as worse and even worse ones.