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'It put food on our table': TikTok users respond to potential U.S. ban

After India's ban, the Trump administration said it was considering a similar crackdown on TikTok over national security concerns, causing fear and anxiety among the young community

By Taylor Lorenz
Published: Jul 13, 2020

'It put food on our table': TikTok users respond to potential U.S. banImage: Shutterstock

Since Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News on July 6 that the United States was considering banning TikTok over national security concerns, a sentiment echoed by President Donald Trump in an interview Tuesday, TikTok users have been scrambling. Some have engaged in open revolt, retaliating by posting negative reviews of Trump’s 2020 campaign app. The app received more than 700 negative reviews Wednesday and only 26 positive ones, according to data from the analytics firm Sensor Tower. It currently has a one-star rating.

“For Gen Z and millennials, TikTok is our clubhouse, and Trump threatened it,” Yori Blacc, a 19-year-old TikTok user in California, told Time in an interview about the app ratings. “If you’re going to mess with us, we will mess with you.”

Suspicion of TikTok, which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, has come from the private sector, too. On Friday, Amazon asked its employees to delete TikTok from any phone that can “access company email,” according to a memo obtained by The New York Times. Several Amazon employees expressed disappointment at the request on Twitter. (Hours later, the company backtracked and said the email had been sent in error.)

Beneath the users’ frustration, though, there is anxiety.

For many young people, TikTok has been an outlet for creative expression and human connection, especially throughout months of distance learning and social isolation.

“If TikTok did shut down, it would be like losing a bunch of really close friends I made, losing all the progress and work I did to get a big following,” said Ashleigh Hunniford, 17, who has more than 400,000 followers on the app. “It’s a big part of who I’ve become as a teenager. Losing it would be like losing a little bit of me.”

There are also those for whom TikTok is their livelihood. “It has put food on our table,” said Hootie Hurley, 21, who has more than 1.1 million followers on the app. He said that a TikTok ban would be particularly devastating right now.

“TikTok has been such a big part of everyone’s quarantine and helping everyone get through this pandemic,” he said.

Influencers who watched the fall of Vine, another popular short-form video app, in 2016 learned the importance of diversifying one’s audience across platforms. But even for TikTok’s biggest stars, moving an audience from one platform to another is a huge undertaking.

“I have 7 million followers on TikTok, but it doesn’t translate to every platform,” said Nick Austin, 20. “I only have 3 million on Instagram and 500,000 on YouTube. No matter what it’s going to be hard to transfer all the people I have on TikTok.”

Some of TikTok’s biggest stars have already successfully migrated to YouTube. Members of the Sway House, like Bryce Hall, have quickly become stars there. Other TikTok influencers, such as Charli D’Amelio and Josh Richards are also already in the millions.

“When Vine ended, all the Viners took over YouTube,” Hurley said. “If TikTok gets banned, TikTokers are taking over YouTube. TikTokers are the ones in the headlines right now. TikTokers are the talk right now. If TikTok gets taken away, these people aren’t just going to disappear.”

Ellie Zeiler, 16, said that a glitch Thursday afternoon where TikTok temporarily showed zero views on videos across the app led some users to believe that the ban could be imminent. She said she saw hundreds of users going live, saying goodbye to their followers and urging people to follow them elsewhere. “I was like no, this can’t be it,” she said.

In addition to giving young people a place to meet and entertain each other, TikTok has also been a platform for political and social justice issues.

“I think this will drastically affect political commentary among teenagers,” Hunniford said. “TikTok is an outlet for a lot of protest and activism and people talking about their political beliefs. Banning that would not carry well among people my age.”

While the Trump administration’s statements have upended the TikTok community, they have been a boon for other apps. Byte, a short-form video app created by one of the Vine founders, Dom Hoffman, briefly shot to the top of the app store after news of TikTok’s ban. Influencer Elijah Daniel encouraged his followers to download the app Thursday.

“Literally nobody uses Byte, aka Vine 2.0, because the gays aren’t on there,” he said in a TikTok video. “So obviously it’s not worth it. However, just to be safe, I made a Byte profile. Let’s take over Byte and make it a gay app before anyone else has a chance.”

Many Byte users posted welcome videos to TikTokers on the app Thursday in which they gave new users a lay of the land.

“The Byte community is being swamped with TikTokers coming in,” said Kyle Harris, 29, an avid Byte user. “A lot of TikTokers have been coming in very confused about how to use it. People expect it to be a TikTok clone, but it’s not at all. It’s not a TikTok competitor and it’s not supposed to be.”

Dubsmash, an app that functions very similarly to TikTok, has also seen a large influx of users. Barrie Segal, the head of content at Dubsmash, has been working overtime to make the new users feel welcome without alienating its current stars.

“We have tons of new users coming into the app right now, and that’s why we’re making sure that no one feels like it’s a takeover. That’s the key thing,” she said.

Segal has appointed 40 popular Dubsmashers to act as “ambassadors” to new users with big followings. “It was a bit of a culture clash in the last couple days, but now everyone is understanding each other more,” she said.

Max Levine, the COO of Amp Studios, an incubator for social media talent, said that the 10 TikTok creators who work with his company are all investing heavily in Snapchat. The platform recently verified them, and they have found success with the app’s Discover page.

Still, many people say TikTok is irreplaceable for them.

“I’ve heard of Dubsmash. I’ve heard of Byte, but it’s just not TikTok,” said Q Shamar Stenline, 21, who has 4.4 million followers on TikTok. He’s not immediately looking to jump to another short-form video app. He’d rather focus his time on YouTube, which he sees as more stable. “YouTube will be around,” he said. “These other apps come and go.”

©2019 New York Times News Service

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