The TikTok situation is just the 2020 version of that lesson: weirder, sudden, and wrapped up in the “Can he do that?” questions that surround Trump’s whims (in this case, the answer is kind of). Along for the ride are the real people whose lives and livelihoods are, to some degree, linked to it.
Beard isn’t a science educator or an established entrepreneur: he’s a musical comedian. As a teenager, he had a glancing blow of viral attention when he auditioned for America’s Got Talent, but it was TikTok that provided sustained views and attention. Explaining why TikToks are funny or relevant is a tiring and awkward exercise that never works, so you’ll have to trust me: Beard is good at this. When he found out about the potential ban, it was a torpedo to his plans. He had an album coming out in two weeks, which he planned to use TikTok to promote. And TikTok had just announced a creator fund, which he hoped could lead to a more stable source of income for people like him.
As Beard processed Trump’s statement, a river of support, jokes, and suggestions flowed in via chat.
“Make motivational Monday’s on ur YouTube if it is getting banned”
“he also said he’d build a wall”
“Ryan come to Germany”
“we about to watch ryan take a mental breakdown on stream😳”
Like hundreds of other major TikTok creators that night, he started encouraging followers to find and subscribe to his other social-media presence channels.
Beard decided to trash his weeks-long promotion plan and released his album the next day, just in case he lost his largest platform. TikTok creators don’t usually make much money directly from the app, instead parlaying it into cash from sponsorships, merchandise sales, and paid content. But if Beard didn’t have TikTok, very few people would know that he had anything to sell.
When Beard and I spoke a few days later, it was clear that TikTok’s demise was much less certain than Trump had said it was that Friday night. But the back-and-forth had already taken a toll.
“He’s putting us through this. You’re losing your job—oh wait, you’re not. It’s not a great thing for my mental health,” he said. “But I get that it’s just how the internet goes sometimes.”
The most right now
The internet has gone that way as long as the idea of a “content creator” has existed. Small algorithmic changes by a platform can make or tank an entire career. Seemingly unstoppable sites have faded into obscurity and replacements taken over. And creator burnout has led some popular people to leave, or to drastically change what they do. This means it’s always been better to be on multiple platforms or, as Green suggested, find a way not to rely so much on huge companies and their algorithms to tether you to your audience. Not everyone finds it easy, though.
TikTok is the most “right now” of all the platforms where you can get famous in the first place, and for people like Beard it provides things they can’t replicate anywhere else. The algorithms that feed the app’s “For You” page of recommendations, for example, seem to reward good content with attention. The feed jams large and small creators—videos with a million views and videos with 20 views—next to each other in an endless stream of things to watch.
This, in part, is why educational or advice accounts and extremely niche creators can quickly find audiences there. “As long as content is interesting and engaging, it has the potential to go viral and reach a large number of people,” says Austin Chiang, a gastroenterologist at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, who has a popular educational TikTok account. “For health information, this allows us health professionals to promote health knowledge to people who may otherwise not see it.”
The general public tends to know about the relatively small segment of TikTok creators who are most successful. There are breakout personalities like Sarah Cooper (once a contributor to MIT Technology Review), who is now arguably less a famous TikTok creator and more a just plain famous anti-Trump comedian. And there are notorious Gen Z creators like the members of Hype House, who are grouping up in LA mansions, throwing parties in the middle of a pandemic, and creating cohorts of influencers that resemble the cast of a reality TV show.
But plenty of people with followings on TikTok are not in these categories. Some aren’t professional creators. Kathleen Lewis started getting views and gaining followers for a spur-of-the-moment video she created pointing out a license plate that read “WASUBI.” But TikTok affected her more deeply when she ended up meeting the “love of her life” thanks to her first viral hit, which had more than 250,000 views.
After moving across the US and talking about her loneliness online, she caught the attention of a woman who sent her a direct message. “She thought it was funny and reached out,” Lewis says. “We’ve been together officially since March 11.” Yes, the coronavirus is making it more complicated. They are figuring it out.
Anyone who’s spent time on TikTok without falling hopelessly into one of the many bad algorithmic rabbit holes will know how prominent LGBTQ+ content is there. And although TikTok has given LGBTQ+ users reasons to be wary of its moderation practices, LGBTQ+ TikTok “reaches a lot of people,” Lewis says. “It’s real-life representation. It’s people’s actual lived experiences, good or bad.”
Political and social-justice content on TikTok became really prominent in general over the summer. Even before the nationwide antiracist reckoning that followed the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer, Black users were staging in-app protests, calling out racism, censorship, and harassment there. The campaigns urged TikTok and its users to address why Black voices were absent from many users’ For You pages, even as trends originally created by Black Gen Zers were driving the app’s culture. During the protests, Gen Z was documenting the movement on TikTok. And although the causality here is somewhat questionable, Gen Z, TikTok, and K-pop stans were all credited with tanking a Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by organizing a campaign to sign up for tickets they’d never use.