Ryan Beard was sitting in front of his keyboard, taking song requests on a live stream on the last Friday of July, when he saw a message from a viewer pop up in the chat: “tik tok is officially getting banned 😿”
Beard, 22, has more than 1.8 million followers on TikTok. He spent a year growing that following, throwing everything he had into a career as an online creator with the app as his anchor. The Twitch thing was new, his audience there much smaller. Now—while dozens of people looked on—he was trying to process the possibility that he could lose it all.
“Is it really?” he said, continuing to stream from his family home in Kansas City, Kansas. “No. Please tell me it’s not true.” He turned to his computer and searched for news coverage, finding a headline: “'Trump says he will ban TikTok from the US.' Great. GREAT.” He leaned back in his chair and put his head in his hands. “Fuck Donald Trump. Oh my God.”
President Trump’s proclamation that he was about to ban TikTok turned out to not be quite true. But the company’s future in the US is still uncertain: last week Trump issued executive orders setting a 45-day deadline, after which he said the US government would ban transactions with two Chinese companies unless their US operations were sold: TikTok parent company ByteDance and Tencent, the parent company of WeChat. It created turmoil and set a timer on TikTok’s ongoing efforts to find a buyer for its American operations.
That timer is also running for creators like Beard, whose fame is mainly limited to TikTok. Whether the app goes or stays, this moment is forcing creators like him toward a realization that making, or even consuming, things on the internet means depending on platforms that could change drastically in an instant.
Beard might not have expected it, but it’s not necessarily a new lesson. Every generation of online creators has been through some version of this crisis, with corporate decisions destroying their livelihoods or fracturing their communities.
“The thing that I’m always saying to creators is that you have to find ways to matter to your audience, and you have to find ways to connect with them, ideally, that aren’t controlled by these intermediaries,” says Hank Green, one of the earliest and best-known YouTube creators. His science and education YouTube channels boast many millions of subscribers, and he has started businesses and written books on the back of that success. But recently he’s become a regular presence on TikTok too. None of the big platforms should be fully trusted to host the ties between creators and the communities that form around them online, he says: “At any point, any one of them can pull the plug."
The TikTok situation is just the 2020 version of that lesson: weirder, sudden, and wrapped up in the “Can he do that?” questions that surround Trump’s whims (in this case, the answer is kind of). Along for the ride are the real people whose lives and livelihoods are, to some degree, linked to it.
Beard isn’t a science educator or an established entrepreneur: he’s a musical comedian. As a teenager, he had a glancing blow of viral attention when he auditioned for America’s Got Talent, but it was TikTok that provided sustained views and attention. Explaining why TikToks are funny or relevant is a tiring and awkward exercise that never works, so you’ll have to trust me: Beard is good at this. When he found out about the potential ban, it was a torpedo to his plans. He had an album coming out in two weeks, which he planned to use TikTok to promote. And TikTok had just announced a creator fund, which he hoped could lead to a more stable source of income for people like him.
As Beard processed Trump’s statement, a river of support, jokes, and suggestions flowed in via chat.
“Make motivational Monday’s on ur YouTube if it is getting banned”
“he also said he'd build a wall”
“Ryan come to Germany”
“we about to watch ryan take a mental breakdown on stream😳”
Like hundreds of other major TikTok creators that night, he started encouraging followers to find and subscribe to his other social-media presence channels.
Beard decided to trash his weeks-long promotion plan and released his album the next day, just in case he lost his largest platform. TikTok creators don’t usually make much money directly from the app, instead parlaying it into cash from sponsorships, merchandise sales, and paid content. But if Beard didn’t have TikTok, very few people would know that he had anything to sell.
When Beard and I spoke a few days later, it was clear that TikTok’s demise was much less certain than Trump had said it was that Friday night. But the back-and-forth had already taken a toll.
“He’s putting us through this. You’re losing your job—oh wait, you’re not. It’s not a great thing for my mental health,” he said. “But I get that it’s just how the internet goes sometimes.”
The most right now
The internet has gone that way as long as the idea of a “content creator” has existed. Small algorithmic changes by a platform can make or tank an entire career. Seemingly unstoppable sites have faded into obscurity and replacements taken over. And creator burnout has led some popular people to leave, or to drastically change what they do. This means it’s always been better to be on multiple platforms or, as Green suggested, find a way not to rely so much on huge companies and their algorithms to tether you to your audience. Not everyone finds it easy, though.
TikTok is the most “right now” of all the platforms where you can get famous in the first place, and for people like Beard it provides things they can’t replicate anywhere else. The algorithms that feed the app’s “For You” page of recommendations, for example, seem to reward good content with attention. The feed jams large and small creators—videos with a million views and videos with 20 views—next to each other in an endless stream of things to watch.
This, in part, is why educational or advice accounts and extremely niche creators can quickly find audiences there. “As long as content is interesting and engaging, it has the potential to go viral and reach a large number of people,” says Austin Chiang, a gastroenterologist at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, who has a popular educational TikTok account. “For health information, this allows us health professionals to promote health knowledge to people who may otherwise not see it.”
The general public tends to know about the relatively small segment of TikTok creators who are most successful. There are breakout personalities like Sarah Cooper (once a contributor to MIT Technology Review), who is now arguably less a famous TikTok creator and more a just plain famous anti-Trump comedian. And there are notorious Gen Z creators like the members of Hype House, who are grouping up in LA mansions, throwing parties in the middle of a pandemic, and creating cohorts of influencers that resemble the cast of a reality TV show.
But plenty of people with followings on TikTok are not in these categories. Some aren't professional creators. Kathleen Lewis started getting views and gaining followers for a spur-of-the-moment video she created pointing out a license plate that read “WASUBI.” But TikTok affected her more deeply when she ended up meeting the “love of her life” thanks to her first viral hit, which had more than 250,000 views.
After moving across the US and talking about her loneliness online, she caught the attention of a woman who sent her a direct message. “She thought it was funny and reached out,” Lewis says. "We've been together officially since March 11.” Yes, the coronavirus is making it more complicated. They are figuring it out.
Anyone who’s spent time on TikTok without falling hopelessly into one of the many bad algorithmic rabbit holes will know how prominent LGBTQ+ content is there. And although TikTok has given LGBTQ+ users reasons to be wary of its moderation practices, LGBTQ+ TikTok “reaches a lot of people,” Lewis says. “It’s real-life representation. It’s people’s actual lived experiences, good or bad.”
Political and social-justice content on TikTok became really prominent in general over the summer. Even before the nationwide antiracist reckoning that followed the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer, Black users were staging in-app protests, calling out racism, censorship, and harassment there. The campaigns urged TikTok and its users to address why Black voices were absent from many users’ For You pages, even as trends originally created by Black Gen Zers were driving the app’s culture. During the protests, Gen Z was documenting the movement on TikTok. And although the causality here is somewhat questionable, Gen Z, TikTok, and K-pop stans were all credited with tanking a Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by organizing a campaign to sign up for tickets they’d never use.
TikTok has assured creators and users that it’s not going anywhere—it pressed ahead and announced the first round of recipients for its creator fund this week—and Microsoft is in talks to buy the app’s US business. But the uncertainty has led to a wave of would-be replacements, including Instagram’s copycat Reels, all vying for TikTok’s top talent. Still, to those who are heavily invested in TikTok, there’s no easy replacement. The creators who have built followings there feel that it is truly unique thanks to its communities, as well as the algorithms that can launch anyone into fame. That’s why so many creators are scrambling to ask whether their TikTok following can travel.
Beard was already trying to figure this out before the Trump comments. He launched his Twitch channel earlier in July, after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the government was concerned ByteDance would give data on TikTok’s US users to the Chinese government. (ByteDance said this was not happening and wouldn’t happen.)
Finding a way to bring his fans with him is vitally important for Beard. “If it disappears overnight, I'll be back at square one,” he told me. He worked in food service before his TikTok began to take off. If he couldn’t get enough people to follow him to Twitch or YouTube, if TikTok goes down, he’d have to get a day job again … in the middle of a pandemic.
Translating popularity from one platform to another isn’t impossible. When Twitter shut down Vine, the popular app for short-form videos, in 2016, some extremely successful Viners were able to become extremely successful YouTubers. And although YouTube hasn’t died, some creators say that the platform is no longer able to grow new generations of creators now that it has shifted toward more advertiser-friendly content and raised the entry points to start making money off videos. So far, the biggest TikTok stars are succeeding as YouTubers. That transition is a lot tougher for everyone else.
TikTok both is and isn’t part of this cycle. This uncertainty feels different: less like one product being overtaken by its rivals and more like an app possibly being murdered just when it seemed at its peak. But the lessons are familiar: No one, from famous creators down to casual viewers, can fully trust the platforms that host the things they care about, no matter where they are in the cycle of relevance. And while it may feel complicated because politics is playing a part this time, the end result is much the same.
“The president didn't decide that Vine wasn't going to exist anymore,” points out Hank Green. “It just died."
Humans and technology
Money is about to enter a new era of competition
Digital technology is poised to change our relationship with money and, for some countries, the ability to manage their economies.
Deception, exploited workers, and cash handouts: How Worldcoin recruited its first half a million test users
The startup promises a fairly-distributed, cryptocurrency-based universal basic income. So far all it's done is build a biometric database from the bodies of the poor.
House-flipping algorithms are coming to your neighborhood
Despite millions of dollars in losses, iBuying’s failure doesn’t signal the end of tech-led disruption, just a fumbled beginning.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.