According to the US government, either TikTok’s owner, Chinese artificial intelligence company ByteDance, has to sell the app, or it will face a federal ban. For now, 25 U.S. states have gone ahead and banned the app from state employees’ devices.
While we do not yet have the answer as to whether a total ban will be confirmed, it is useful to game out exactly what a ban might look and feel like for Americans. If the U.S. does find a way to block access to Gen Z’s favourite website, it would mean a fundamental shift in the way Americans relate to the internet and vice versa. It would mean we can no longer count on the first amendment to guarantee unfettered access to the web. And, simply put, it would mean a future where no platform was truly safe.
There is no underestimating how huge the app and its influence are. As of this year, TikTok is the fourth most popular social network in the U.S., with around a billion monthly active users globally. It has spawned an entire new class of influencer and, while it has had a tremendous impact on a lot of industries in the U.S., its effect has been felt the most in the music industry. Viral TikTok clips have upended the way the U.S. discovers new artists to the point that Spotify redesigned its entire interface in an attempt to compete.
Its influence on other apps has been particularly astonishing. Meta Platforms started aggressively pushing Reels on its Instagram platform, YouTube launched Shorts and, after Elon Musk purchased Twitter last year, that platform rolled out a new timeline called For You—similar to what TikTok calls its main feed.
With such a meteoric rise, it’s hard to imagine the federal government could actually successfully block it. Other countries already have, though, and those attempts give us a couple of good examples of what such an extreme event might actually feel like.
Most notable among these is India. In 2020, the world’s second most populous country booted more than 200 Chinese-made apps from its internet, including TikTok, which had 200 million Indian users at the time. According to an investigation by Rest of World, local startups tried to fill the void quickly and deployed TikTok copycats that largely failed to take off. Many casual creators stopped making content altogether, while bigger, more established posters moved to competitors like Reels or Shorts. Many of them said they have yet to recover the followings they had on TikTok.
What is so interesting about TikTok’s power is that an American based ban would shift cultural focus. If TikTok stays as relevant as it is now even without U.S. creators – which it very well could – that would signal a drastic shift in global web culture, a new world in which Americans are no longer at the forefront of internet happenings—though any K-pop fan would tell you that’s not too crazy to imagine.
Ironically, if TikTok suddenly became unavailable in the U.S., it would leave behind an internet landscape that has been completely rebuilt in its image. Even without TikTok, short-form video would still be king. There is also nothing in the Restrict Act—or any other proposal from Washington—to address the fact that users can easily download TikTok videos and upload them to other platforms. So yes, maybe our data would be safe without access to the app, but we would likely still see plenty of TikTok content from outside the U.S. across all their feeds. We just wouldn’t be able to make any of our own.