It’s hard to get past the initial sheer inanity of TikTok.
I spent half an hour trying to make sense of the endless feed of video snippets of ordinary people doing daft things with their dogs or in their kitchens or in the gym.
I figured out the viral memes of the moment: animals dancing to Tono Rosario’s “Kulikitaka,” the suspenseful unveiling of hunks or hounds to the repeated words,
“Please don’t be ugly.” I asked my eight-year-old son what I should look out for. He recommended the dancing ferret. I never found it.
Thirty minutes of TikTok left me with just one burning question: How can this thing be a threat to U.S. national security?
And then I had the epiphany. TikTok is not just China’s revenge for the century of humiliation between the Opium Wars and Mao’s revolution. It is the opium — a digital fentanyl, to get our kids stoked for the coming Chinese imperium.
First, the back story — which you’ll need if you, like me, never got hooked on Facebook, or Instagram, or Snapchat, and still use the Internet like a very fast version of your university library, and begin emails with “Dear …”
The year is 2012, and Zhang Yiming, a Chinese tech entrepreneur who briefly worked at Microsoft, founds ByteDance Ltd. as a smartphone-focused content provider. His AI-powered news aggregator Toutiao is a hit. In November 2017, he pays $1 billion for a lip-synching app called Musical.ly, which already has a growing user community that tilts young (12 to 24) and female and is established in the U.S.
Zhang then merges Musical.ly with his own short-video app TikTok, known in China as Douyin.
The thing spreads faster than Covid-19: TikTok now has 800 million monthly active users around the globe. And it’s far more contagious: Just under half of U.S. teenage internet users have used TikTok. If it were a pathogen, it would be the Black Death.
But it’s an app, so ByteDance is now worth $100 billion.
So what’s the secret of TikTok’s success? The best answers I’ve seen come from Ben Thompson, whose Stratechery newsletter has become essential reading on all the things tech.
First, Thompson wrote last month, the history of analog media already told us that “humans like pictures more than text, and moving pictures most of all.”
Second, TikTok’s video creation tools are really “accessible and inspiring for nonprofessional videographers.” Translation: Idiots can use them.
Third, unlike Facebook, TikTok is not a social network. It’s an AI-based algorithmic feed that uses all the data it can get about each user to personalize content.
“By expanding the library of available video from those made by your network to any video made by anyone on the service,” Thompson argues, “Douyin/TikTok leverages the sheer scale of user-generated content … and relies on its algorithms to ensure that users are only seeing the cream of the crop.”
In other words, “think of TikTok as being a mobile-first YouTube,” not Facebook with cool video. It’s “an entertainment entity predicated on internet assumptions about abundance, not Hollywood assumptions about scarcity.”
So what’s not to like? The answer would seem to be quite a lot.
In February, TikTok was fined $5.7 million by the Federal Trade Commission over allegations that it illegally collected personal information from children under the age of 13.
In April, the app was temporarily banned in India by the High Court in Madras for carrying child pornographic content and failing to prevent cyberbullying. (The ban was swiftly reversed.)
But Zhang’s real headache was elsewhere. Last November, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (known as CFIUS) began a probe into ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly on the ground that it potentially affected U.S. national security. Seriously? A teenage video app is a threat to the most powerful nation-state on the planet? Well, these days CFIUS regards just about any Chinese investment as a threat — in 2010, it forced the Chinese gaming firm Beijing Kunlun Tech Co. to sell the gay dating app Grindr.
I’ve written before in this space about Cold War II. Well, TikTok has become the Sino-American conflict’s latest casualty.