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What would a post-TikTok (US) future look like?

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Photo: Anledry Cobos

Photo of Hanna Kahlert
by Hanna Kahlert

The US House of Representatives has just passed a bill, with bipartisan support, which would make TikTok break with parent company Bytedance or be banned from app stores. Based on current discourse, it looks unlikely that TikTok will comply; and unlike past legislation, it looks like this bill may have ‘teeth’. Of course, it will have to pass through the Senate, be signed by the President, and take a further six months for TikTok to choose whether to comply – but wecould realistically face a future with TikTok no longer being available in the US. 

So… what would that future look like? 

There are two sides to TikTok’s value, which would be reallocated elsewhere. One is simply time spent; this is the more important aspect for advertisers, which is where the money is in the near term. The other, however, is more ambiguous: the app’s intangible cultural heft, which drives the growth of time spent on the platform long term. This is the more important aspect for creators as well, as they use this cultural power to grow and nurture their fanbases. However, it is exactly this creator-fan connection that TikTok has been letting slip, according to some creators, and that which UMG’s departure from the platform has thrown into question. 

As far as time spent goes, a world without TikTok is a boon to its competitors. Among all but the youngest age groups, TikTok falls below both Instagram and YouTube for weekly use, and for 16-19s, over half of whom use TikTok weekly, the platforms are neck and neck, with many users on more than one. Time now allocated to browsing social videos on TikTok would easily switch to browsing social videos on Reels or Shorts. 

However, the more interesting question is what will happen to the cultural gravity of TikTok. While in terms of time spent and number of users it is neck-and-neck with (if not behind) its competitors, in terms of cultural value, it far outpaces them. TikTok is where trends get started and news breaks, similar to the old role of Twitter. YouTube Shorts content is more niche, pulling people into longer videos and smaller scenes rather than trying to generate cultural moments, and Instagram is more likely to feature content recycled from other platforms and be less clear about its time stamping. In short, TikTok is “you saw the ‘it’ thing here first”, Shorts is “you saw something special to you here” and Reels is “you see everything here eventually”. 

The platforms’ algorithms have a huge role to play in this, more so than the social video format itself, and are not an accident. YouTube’s strategy is more fan-focused, so the niche approach works; Instagram is all about advertiser reach, so its broader approach is most effective. Without TikTok as the mainstream trend cultural driver in between the two, there will be room for a competitor to emerge – or, more likely given the already-fragmented environment, there will be a total loss of cultural centralisation, and we will fall over the cliff-edge of niche everything. Twitter’s demise was the death knell for the digital town square, but TikTok going down could be the final nail in the coffin. 

In the US, at least. This legislation has less to do with consumer protections than it does political differences between the US and China; other countries may not have the same incentives, nor the same responses. At the moment, TikTok has a huge impact on global (digital) culture, and the loudest voices on the app are US consumers – and largely US teenagers. Yet, entertainment is increasingly being driven by localised scenes, with the latest trends in music coming from markets like LATAM, South Korea, and India, and international content becoming increasingly important to platforms like Netflix. TikTok disappearing from US app stores means American voices disappearing from global TikTok… and the rest of the world may not miss them. Having long dominated global culture through Hollywood and the major labels, the US has been gradually ceding its cultural hegemony through the growing prominence of localised scenes, culture, and content, and this may just tip that influence over the edge. Popular content on TikTok outside of the US will inevitably be reposted on platforms available in the US, like Shorts and Reels, meaning that the US would end up on the other side of the cultural feedback loop – viewing, rather than contributing.

Yet, even this hinges on whether the cultural gravity can be retained at all. The fickle thing about attention is that, when it is focused on something, that thing – however small – becomes incredibly important. However, when attention shifts elsewhere, that thing may as well not exist at all, save for the imprint it leaves behind… and there is very little that lasts in the rapidfire cultural turnover perpetuated by social platforms today. TikTok has cultural power because we pay attention to it even if we aren’t on the app, but with or without the ban, perhaps this could wane. Creators are voicing dissatisfaction with the app in wake of the legislation being announced; and its core younger users are ageing up and potentially out of the app, forcing it to choose between remaining young and relevant (like Snapchat) and lose them to the likes of Instagram, or age up with them, and potentially sacrifice its cutting-edge relevance. Broader dissatisfaction with the relentless and thankless demands of digital entertainment is resulting in a cultural revival of analogue and the search for alternative ways for creators and audiences to connect with each other, to the point where UMG felt confident pulling its entire affiliated roster from the app. This trend is likely to continue.

A world without TikTok would be a digital space with no cultural centre; a network of niche online communities, with little to ground them or tie them to each other. Without these common connection points, we may see the role of digital diminish altogether, as the content demands of being too niche outweigh the remuneration opportunities and exhaust audiences looking for connection with other fans.

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