The Chilling of TikTok

Ban or not, this is the end of TikTok as we know it
The Chilling of TikTok

The tok is tiking... Later today, President Biden will sign a bill which, among other things, will put TikTok on the clock. Chinese parent ByteDance will have 270 days to divest its majority stake in the company or the app will be banned in the US.

Of course it won't play out this way. First and foremost, there will be lawsuits. Second, a change of control in Washington may happen before a change of control of TikTok. Third, none of this may matter anyway. By passing this bill,1 Congress has draped the service in a scarlet letter. And damned it to be bogged down in bureaucracy for its remaining days.

Regardless of the merits of this action – I happen to agree with the sale/ban, not because of the fear of data or overt propaganda, but the more subtle subversion where what is simply omitted from feeds sways the masses – I don't believe it will ultimately matter what happens in the end. TikTok's model is predicated around advertising and again, this mark and even just the uncertainty is going to make that a very big challenge going forward. The audience is massive and the demographic is key, but how is, say, McDonalds going to feel about advertising on a platform that the government has effectively deemed an enemy of the state?

The service is reported to already be bleeding money despite its size and growth, will ByteDance keep subsidizing it if revenue starts falling? Will China push them to? Which would just bolster the case against the service? Add to these equations that user growth already seems to be stalling and it's not a good situation.

And while you can envision a world in which this threat of a sale/ban actually boosts interest and perhaps usage amongst teens – damn the man, and all that – that will likely prove fleeting. Things may look great before anagnorisis will set in. It's already hard enough for social services to stay cool beyond a single generation, it will undoubtedly be harder under threat of the service going away. Creators are the lifeblood of TikTok and just as happened with Vine, if the service starts to wither, they'll take their talents elsewhere.2

Meanwhile the company itself will be fighting for its life in a way we haven't seen before. The threat of being broken up under antitrust has nothing on the threat of a full ban with a time trigger. The lobbying and legal bills, already insane, will go berserk. But the bigger concern will simply be the distraction of it all. Product decisions will take longer. Timelines will slip. Executives will be absent. Employees will leave.

The best hope TikTok may have now is a strange one: that Donald Trump comes riding back into the White House. Interestingly enough, 270 days from today is January 19, 2025. The next presidential inauguration is set to take place on January 20, 2025. Surely, TikTok can argue for a one day delay while they await a day one executive order. Yes, the man who originally sought to ban TikTok has now switched camps.3 Can't imagine why.

We're going to hear a lot about all of this over the next six months – and very likely much longer. Hopefully that includes the information Congress has been privy to leading up to the votes. But again, this feels like the end of TikTok regardless. Unless a white knight comes riding in quickly – and it sure doesn't sound like China is going to allow that to happen – the die is cast. The sale or ban may ultimately be put on ice. The chilling effect will linger.

The Inner Ring

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1 Even if more "stealthily", by tying it into the aid packages for Ukraine, Israel, and elsewhere.

2 If nothing else, it may free up time for what's next.

3 Remember when Microsoft tried to buy the service and sucked up to then President Trump in order to do so? Weird times, they were!