Gus Carlson is a U.S.-based columnist for The Globe and Mail.
While a bipartisan posse of U.S. lawmakers sharpen their sticks against TikTok out of fear it is a Chinese spying machine, there are so many other good reasons the platform should die.
Ask any parent whose kids are addicted to this cyberfentanyl and you’ll hear that the alleged capture of personal information by the Chinese Communist Party is the least of their worries.
I’m one of them. My college-age daughter has a love-hate relationship with the platform. She says she would love to stop, but watching it is like living the old Lay’s potato chip slogan: Betcha can’t eat just one.
She hates that she spends far too many hours on it every day – more than the hour-and-a-half average viewing time of the world’s one billion users, 150 million in the U.S. alone. She has deleted the app from her iPhone several times in an attempt to break the habit, but the fear of missing out on some cute video or the chance to film a video with her friends is too strong to risk such social suicide.
She is, to put it bluntly, part of the cult. Sixty per cent of the TikTok faithful are under 30 – some as young as 10 – according to a report this month from Wallaroo Media. On average, users open the app eight times a day, and 83 per cent of viewers have posted their own videos – many of themselves dancing, helping dogs skip rope or doing other mundane tasks akin to watching paint dry or grass grow.
Harmless fun, you say? It’s not a dad joke to suggest the impact of time wasted on her personal productivity – her studies now, but her work eventually – is troubling, especially for those of us paying the bills. When multiplied 150 million times – or a billion – 365 days a year, well, the impact is real.
The death of TikTok would also shine the bright light of truth on the influencer economy that drives the platform, as well as more popular ones such as Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. It remains a mystery to many what credentials – other than celebrity – some of these people really have. In today’s culture, that seems credential enough.
For the talent that uses TikTok as a broadcast channel for their music or videos or other artistic expressions, the death of the platform is a scary prospect. They will quickly learn whether their talent is driving their popularity or whether it’s the platform’s powerful algorithms, which act like fire hoses on viewers. The music industry in particular is watching the anti-TikTok movement closely, fearful that the platform’s artificial environment might expose the truth that a lot of talent isn’t talent at all.
Sadly, the noise around TikTok, fuelled by loud voices from Congress, is actually driving its popularity. As someone once said about negative publicity, “I don’t care what they say about me as long as they spell my name right.”
The negative attention has been plentiful. The right has engaged in loud, jingoistic sabre-rattling in calling for a ban of TikTok or at least forcing the platform’s Chinese owners to sell their stakes in the company. Some on the left, meanwhile, have suggested the banning of TikTok would be racist – a thin claim.
Amid the bipartisan push, there are some who are sympathetic to TikTok’s cause. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive New York Democrat, said the move to ban the platform “doesn’t feel right.”
But her objections seem to be more about her own political expediency than national security. Many of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s biggest supporters are social-media influencers, and she uses social media regularly as a self-promotional tool. In fact, she posted her objections to the TikTok ban on – where else? – TikTok.
At the end of the day, the death of TikTok has far more benefits than simply limiting China’s view into our personal preferences. But will it really matter?
Remember the last scene of The Truman Show, when two security guards who had been glued to the faux-reality program for years finish watching the finale? Says one, unmoved by the twist to the story in which he’d invested years of his life: “Let’s see what else is on.”
If TikTok dies, my daughter says that, like those guards, she will probably shrug and look for the next emerging platform. A billion or so other people will probably do the same, and the cycle of mindless but addictive nonsense will begin again.