Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks, I’m sure you have heard of all the American governmental deliberations, if you will, over TikTok. Just in case you haven’t, in a nutshell, the popular short-form video app has been at the centre of an ongoing battle, with lawmakers calling for an outright ban, and the company portraying itself as a critical community space, educational platform and just plain fun.
Interestingly, there is one place that needs not imagine such a scenario; Hong Kong. TikTok discontinued its services in Hong Kong in 2020. As you can imagine, its abrupt departure was met with mixed reactions: disappointment from some users and content creators, but also relief from others who say life is better without the app’s infinite scroll.
The difference is that TikTok’s pre-discontinued popularity in Hong Kong was certainly modest compared to its widespread modern day American adoption. Nevertheless, the varied reactions to its departure, and the way users have pivoted to other platforms or even real-life offline communities, offer Americans a glimpse into their potential TikTok-less future.
The Hong Kong decision came as the app tried to distance itself from China and its Beijing-based parent company ByteDance, in the face of growing pressure in the US under the Trump administration. As you can imagine, certain creators were frustrated. Take Shivani Dukhande as an example. Dukhande had roughly 45,000 followers at the time the app left Hong Kong after seeing her account take off in early 2020 during the pandemic, with lifestyle content such as cooking and wellness videos flourishing on the platform. “There were a lot of new creators emerging,” she said. “We used to all collaborate together, we had a [group] chat where we would all speak and share ideas and it created a community.” She also started making good income via TikTok brand partnerships before the app came to a halt.
The creator argument is one of the main arguments TikTok has made in recent weeks in the US. In March, as the company’s CEO prepared to testify before Congress, TikTok produced a docuseries highlighting American small business owners who rely on the platform for their livelihoods.
The platform is used by nearly five million businesses in the US, TikTok said in March. And it’s set to surpass rivals: London-based research firm Omdia projected in November that TikTok’s advertising revenues will exceed the combined video ad revenues of Meta – home of Facebook and Instagram – and YouTube by 2027.
This is partly because people are spending more time on TikTok. In the second quarter of 2022, TikTok users globally spent an average of 95 minutes per day on the app, according to data analytics firm SensorTower – nearly twice as much time as users spent on Facebook and Instagram.
So what was Hong Kong’s solution? Other platforms filled the gap. Reels, Instagram’s short-form video product, with similar features as TikTok such as an endless scroll, is growing quickly – and Dukhande has gotten on board.
Interestingly, there were many young people – arguably TikTok’s most recognised demographic – who are in favour of the app being discontinued. Poppy Anderson, 16, has been using TikTok since its launch in 2018. And, like many others in her generation, she would spend hours “scrolling and scrolling” – even when feeling unfulfilled. She described TikTok as often being a toxic environment that breeds narrow thinking, herd mentality, a misguided “cancel culture” and inappropriate online behaviour such as critiquing the bodies of girls and women. Even people she knew in real life began acting differently after joining the app, which strained friendships, she said.
Martin Poon, 15, also grew weary of TikTok, but it was hard to quit. “Everyone was using it, so I feel like there was a sense that you have to use it, you have to be on top of things, you have to know what’s going on. And I think that was stressful to me,” he said. Misinformation and misogyny ran rampant on TikTok, with accounts like those of Andrew Tate, the self-styled “alpha male” recently detained in Romania on allegations of human trafficking and rape, gaining popularity among boys at Poon’s school. “It’s just concerning how [these accounts] have so much impact on the youth, and it has so much grip on what we think and how it affects our behaviour,” said Poon – though he added that misinformation is a major problem on all social media platforms, not just TikTok.
For Poon and his friend Ava Chan, also 15, TikTok’s disappearance sparked new beginnings in Hong Kong. “We had to figure out how to use our time other than being on TikTok,” said Chan. “For us, that was exploring our passions more.” For both, that came in advocating for the neurodiverse community. They launched a club at school that spreads education and awareness about neurodiversity, as well as participating in volunteer activities with neurodiverse people.
Being teenagers, they’re not off social media entirely and use it as a tool to promote their club – but it’s far from the previous hours of scrolling. And while they occasionally wonder what’s happening on TikTok outside Hong Kong, the allure of it is lost when nobody else around them uses it either.