Charlie D'Amelio
Tik Tok personalities Dixie D'Amelio and Charli D'Amelio attend the Rookie Premiere Wrap Party on May 20, 2023 in Beverly Hills, California. Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

What Would Happen If TikTok Suddenly Disappeared?

Last week, Governor Greg Gianforte signed a law making it illegal for Montana residents to use TikTok. The first of its kind, the law won’t take effect until January 1, 2024, but already there are rumblings of a legal battle. Five lawsuits have already been filed citing an unconstitutional violation of free speech.

Owned by Chinese Beijing-based internet company ByteDance, the app first arrived Stateside in August 2018. Two months later, TikTok became the most downloaded app in the United States, surpassing Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube. TikTok has since evolved into a bottomless well of content in which users sometimes post videos that “speak” to each other in side-by-side postings—known on the app as duets. Trends move quickly through the medium. 

With any social media, there are positives and negatives. In TikTok’s case, the #FYP (For You page) algorithm can catapult seemingly random creators to fame. Charli D’Amelio (@charlidamelio) amassed 10,000 followers in a matter of hours after posting a video duet of her dancing with @movewithjoy. D’Amelio currently holds the crown as the most followed TikTok user in the United States. Miami U student Alix Earle’s (@alixearle) #GRWM (Get Ready With Me) videos made her a household name, and Jake Shane (@Octopusslover8) became an overnight comedic sensation following a viral video of him casually reenacting the signing of the Declaration of Independence. 

Regulators, however, question the app’s management of the privacy of its users. The Trump administration attempted to ban the app in 2020, and, following an intense congressional hearing with TikTok’s chief executive officer, Shou Zi Chew, President Biden strongly urged greater control. When asked point blank if there was any concern about US data being used by the Chinese government, Chew’s response was straight to the point. “ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” Chew said. 

The question remains: What would happen if our #FYPs suddenly went silent? We spoke with journalist and author of TikTok Boom: China’s Dynamite App and the Superpower Race for Social Media Chris Stokel-Walker, to get a bit more insight. 

What drew you to TikTok in the first place and what would you say is the overall allure?

I was drawn to it because I had been obsessed with YouTube. I was looking for a reason to cover the platform as a journalist to professionally justify the amount of time I spent on it. Same thing with TikTok, basically. I wrote a book on YouTube in 2019 and, when that came out, you could see this app coming around the corner. Even then you could see it had quite the potential to be quite a big thing. When you talk about the allure of TikTok and what attracts people to it, I think it’s the idea that there are like-minded creative people who aren’t necessarily as polished or as primed as they are on YouTube because of the way TikTok works and the ease you have at which you can create content. You have people who might not necessarily classify themselves as creators on the platform creating content for you to watch.” 

What’s on your FYP? How do you personally digest the videos?

So, I just dip in and out. I see where the algorithm takes me. I have phases where I can go several days or several weeks without going on TikTok, and then I have significant spurts where I think this is kind of wholly obsessive, but I enjoy the idea of not having to pick something. There’s that sort of paralysis you get when you open up Netflix and you’re confronted with the options to choose from, and with TikTok, you don’t have that. It picks it for you, which is oddly comforting. 

What are the positives and negatives of being on TikTok as opposed to other social media apps?

Anybody can do anything, and you can be propelled to become popular literally in a matter of hours. We always talked about how Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame became 15 seconds with other platforms like YouTube. But actually, when you’re on TikTok, it genuinely is the case because of the way that you can be plucked from obscurity and thrown in front of millions of people thanks to the algorithm. 

The negatives would be that you might be unprepared for what happens in terms of popularity. Likewise, the reality is that fame can be quite fleeting, and often, the connection with creators is not as personally strong as it is on YouTube because of the fact there’s so much choice in the way it works. You’re not subscribing to an individual creator and backing them. You are just letting content wash over you.

The thought of going viral is almost like winning the lottery. Would you say it’s the ultimate goal of users or someone putting out videos?

I think it’s probably the underlying thing. The idea of creators as a career has shot up in the last decade or so, but particularly in the last few years. More kids now want to be YouTubers than astronauts. There is this idea that you can make money on these platforms, so people started to treat it that much more seriously.” 

The angst in Washington seems to be the fear that the Chinese government is gaining access to US user data—would you agree? 

Yeah, there are two prongs. One is the idea that this is a dry vacuum hoovering up our data to be siphoned off to China and then used against us. The other is that this is a Trojan horse where it can present propaganda to us in a way that we assume doesn’t happen elsewhere. Both of those are not problems that are unique to TikTok, and they’re not necessarily as pressing issues as I think some people think they are. 

How do you personally feel about it?

I feel like we actually haven’t been shown any evidence that this is some deep state plot. This, to me, seems emblematic of all big tech platforms, which is they have too much of my data—every big tech platform does. They know me too well—every big tech platform does. And they addict me in a way that every big tech platform does. So, I don’t feel great about this, but for me at least, it’s not the China link that is the concern here, it’s the fact that we have kind of sleepwalked into just handing over stuff to be tech platforms willy-nilly whether they come from China or elsewhere. You hand over as much data to Instagram or Twitter or YouTube as you do in TikTok. 

What did you think of the congressional hearing with TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew?

Not a lot. It was pretty poor, to be honest. It was emblematic of our approach more generally to big tech. It’s partly generational, right? Our politicians haven’t innately grown up with these platforms; therefore, it’s pretty difficult for anybody who hasn’t innately grown up with the platform to understand how it works if you’re not using it day in, day out. So, there were some questions that were frankly just embarrassing…. I don’t think we got all that much information. I think it did a disservice to TikTok, but I also think it did a disservice to citizens who do need protection from social media…. We didn’t spend any time talking about the actual issues about big tech that we’ve known about for years that we’ve outlined already so far. 

What do you think would happen if TikTok suddenly disappeared in the US?

I think what would happen is you’d see a pretty significant groundswell of public opinion. You know 150 million Americans use TikTok. Not all of them will have very close bonds or ties to the platform and think they need to fight for its survival, but I think probably a good number of them do. I think the company stacks on its economic contribution to the United States and the jobs it supports, and therefore, I think they would probably would want to step in because it’s their livelihood. I think that you would also see a legal response. TikTok has previously been threatened with a ban. They have previously appealed it in court. I think that will happen again. It will just be Groundhog Day from 2020.