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Can TikTok Stay Weird?

The teen-driven, Chinese-owned platform was the social-media breakout of 2019—and now faces the scrutiny that comes with going mainstream. As governments investigate and celebrities invade, what will happen to the culture that made TikTok a hit?

Alycea Tinoyan

Cosette Rinab has finally found a Mini Brands! Surprise Ball. The importance of this discovery cannot be overstated. “I’ve been looking for these forever,” the blond social media star says moments after I arrive on “set”—a modern, sparsely furnished home on a quiet North Hollywood block. Like many young TikTok stars her age, Rinab is both extremely personable and effortlessly pretty, with the kind of wide smile that compels you to instinctively tap a heart-shaped digital icon. She’s clutching an unremarkable white plastic sphere like it’s a Golden Snitch. “You open it up and there’s five tiny little brands in it,” she explains. “Like a mini Vaseline or a mini Pringles can. They’re always out of stock.”

The brand-fertilized Surprise Ball will star in one of many videos Rinab is shooting today for TikTok, the social media network that has swiftly become a cornerstone of Gen Z culture. Rinab joined in December 2018 and her videos took off within a week. “It’s such an exhilarating feeling,” Rinab said earnestly. “Once one video goes viral, you’re motivated to keep creating.” She has since collected more than 926,000 followers. The 20-year-old now splits her week up between content creation and studying PR, advertising, and film at the University of Southern California.

On set, a ping-pong table in the center of the living room is covered with candy corn and a few store-bought costumes. Rinab’s boyfriend, once-Viner-now-YouTuber Gabe Erwin, is here with Facebook personality Kurt Tocci to assist with filming some Halloween-themed skits and product promos. On top of basic props, improv, and direction, each shoot requires set design (arranging furniture, tidying up), lighting (they tote a ring light to every corner of the house), and costumes (“I have a whole separate wardrobe for TikTok videos,” Rinab says between Forever 21 sweaters. “Like anything super vibrant that if I bring up saturation it’ll just look crazy.”)

Of the many looping, 15-second video concepts that Rinab has sketched out for the day, the brand ball is by far the most complicated to shoot. She’s planning to turn the post into “an Amazon thing,” meaning she’ll use a new beta program that allows verified “popular creators” like herself to embed affiliate links in TikTok posts, and will earn a small commission if their followers click through and make a purchase. She and her crew gather around the kitchen island and begin to brainstorm all the camera angles and intricate hand choreography that will make this little bundle of capitalism appear extra desirable. They select an upbeat track from TikTok’s “Promo Plus” playlist, a collection of generic, copyright-cleared songs that creators can use as background music for sponsored posts. Tocci hovers the ring light out of frame while Erwin circles the island, filming three-second increments of the reveal: showing off the label, removing its wrapper, cracking it open like one of those seasonal foil-wrapped chocolate oranges, and peeling off the seal of each plastic slice to show what’s inside. It’s an exercise in precision and patience: filming each frame with the correct timing, playing it back, and adjusting facial expressions until Rinab deems a shot acceptable.

Though opening up a $9 piece of plastic to discover other smaller pieces of branded plastic might seem like a depressing ritual of late-stage capitalism, when crammed into the dizzying pace of a TikTok clip the exercise comes off—I know this sounds impossible, but bear with me—as a delight. Every second or two includes a new angle, a dramatic reveal, or an expression of awe. If all the social networks are in a dog race for the average user’s attention span, TikTok is the contestant that shoots out of the gate in a blur. It takes the content we know to be reliably engaging on the internet—viral dances, unboxing videos, cute things, attractive people—condenses them, and feeds them to the human brain like a sugar rush. That’s why, within an hour of learning (a) what a Mini Brands! Surprise Ball is and (b) witnessing the ball’s minimal returns, Rinab’s video still somehow made me desperately want one.

That Rinab has the tools, resources, and know-how to make such an effective #affiliate #ad speaks to her quick mastery of TikTok, but it also illustrates the Chinese-owned social media network’s growth since it relaunched in 2018. In the past year, the platform’s lovable videos, which range from upbeat dance routines to absurd, self-referential critiques of digital subcultures, have penetrated the hearts and minds of the larger public. TikTok is the world’s fastest growing social media app, and has been downloaded more than 1.5 billion times globally, and 122 million times in the United States, according to the data company Sensor Tower. Six hundred and fourteen million of those global downloads were in 2019 alone. It has also been dubbed the breakout social media app of VidCon, helped a 20-year-old musician shatter the record for longest consecutive run in the no. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, earned its own segment on Ellen, coined at least two new subcategories of hip young women, and inadvertently spurred an intergenerational class war. It has also failed to prevent child predators, become a recruitment tool for ISIS, starred as the opening subject of a recent congressional hearing on data breaches, and been placed at the center of a global free speech controversy. Like the many platforms that blew up before it, TikTok has been credited with simultaneously driving and dirtying pop culture.

As is customary of the “it” apps of internet’s past, TikTok is now in the throes of a grand corporate makeover. As the social network continues to gain users, many of whom are digital natives, it has followed the steps of predecessor social networks like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube in monetizing its feed and cementing its status. In some cases that means onboarding established entertainers like the Rock or Mariah Carey, and hiring music industry veterans to guide its cultural agenda. In others it means building a small network of power users to which it can funnel opportunities, beta features, and support staff. And, inevitably, it also means finding opportunities for ads in every nook and cranny of the app.

On the global stage, TikTok is simultaneously maneuvering around the unprecedented fact of being a Chinese-owned app that is also an international hit. “Until recently, the internet in almost every country outside China has been defined by American platforms with strong free expression values,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who knows quite a lot about defining the internet for better or worse, said during an October speech at Georgetown University. “There’s no guarantee these values will win out.” Though Zuckerberg’s definition of “free expression values” is itself a controversial topic, his subtle TikTok dig is not unfounded. The app’s $75 billion parent company, ByteDance, has reportedly censored posts and used the Chinese version of its app, Douyin, to spread propaganda for the Chinese government. Amid an ongoing trade war, growing concerns from regulatory bodies, and reports that its executives in Beijing have the final say on content moderation, the U.S. branch of the company has sought to distance itself by shoring up its public image. Like so many apps before it, TikTok’s constant goal to Make the Internet Fun Again has become a familiar, cacophonous chorus over its myriad problems. “TikTok is different,” the company’s U.S. general manager, Vanessa Pappas, wrote in an October announcement that it would be hiring a third-party law firm to advise on moderation policies related to child safety, hate speech, bullying, and misinformation. “Our mission is to inspire creativity and bring joy.”

TikTok’s sudden entanglement with moderation and geopolitics is both a sign that it has reached an enviable social media company milestone and a warning that the creative life force that makes it attractive to Gen Z could be in jeopardy. A graveyard of social networks has long reinforced the online dirge that, on the internet, nothing pure can stay. And TikTok’s precarious footing may be a test case of that theory on a global level: What happens when a genuinely entertaining, youth-driven platform is co-opted by celebrities, capitalism, and various government interests? Put another way, as TikTok bursts into a new decade like a Kool-Aid Man, what can it teach us about the perils of the modern tech company? And for all those students of the internet in search of an unsullied online community: Can it stay weird?

It took just one of Caleb Natale’s signature special effects videos to grow his TikTok following from about 100 users to 300,000. It was at that moment he realized TikTok was different from Instagram in one fundamental way: “Every video has a chance to go viral on its own, regardless of how big your platform is, based off their algorithm,” the 23-year-old Lynchburg, Virginia, resident told me.

But a little celebrity power still goes a long way. Natale experienced that firsthand this fall, when someone from Will Smith’s production company DM’ed him; two weeks later, Natale was on a plane to Budapest to meet the actor on his Gemini Man press tour. The subsequent 15-second video they filmed together—a skit in which Natale peels a miniature Smith out of his iPhone and drops him on the floor—was used to launch the A-lister’s TikTok page in October. He has since watched the entertainer’s following balloon to about 10.8 million followers. Natale’s rise on the app was surprising, but growth like Smith’s? “It seems kind of unprecedented,” Natale said.

The arrival of established celebrities on any social media platform signals that there’s a lot of money to be made. A handful of TikTok rappers and pop stars—aided by various dance trends like the “Git Up” challenge and the “Be Gone Thot” challenge—have proved the platform’s advertising power, and the recording industry has since focused its efforts on scouting and shaping artists who cater to the platform. Smith’s presence on TikTok, alongside names like Tom Brady, Reese Witherspoon, and Bob Saget, means that their social media managers are now responsible for feeding TikTok content to gain exposure among a younger generation. “They see that it’s the thing that all the kids are doing now and they’re like, ‘Oh, I can reach a new audience,’” Rinab said. “So they just kind of join in on the fun.”

Handling this influx of talent has become a major initiative within the company in the past year. Following Lil Nas X’s ascendance, TikTok’s U.S. branch hired a staff to manage music licensing and, according to a LinkedIn post from the summer, aid with “the creation of music, playlist, and recommendation [sic], as well as artist partnerships management.” It now regularly meets with artists and celebrities to offer tips on how to excel on the platform. Perhaps because its spiritual predecessor, Vine, notoriously took its most popular users for granted, TikTok has also established a support program for a select group of influencers. This group, which Rinab is a part of, keeps everyone abreast of updates and tools and advises them on ways to stay compliant with copyright and ad disclosure rules. Some are even assigned a “partner manager” whom they can text for feedback. “If I have a video that I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m unsure. Do you think that this would be good?’” Rinab said. “Or like, ‘Is there any trending hashtag that this might fit into?’ they’re able to give me insight like that.”

With these relationships, TikTok launched a database in September called TikTok Creator Marketplace, where brands can search for influencers with whom they can partner. Companies that want to launch a sponsored campaign on the app are able to browse major accounts and better understand user demographics and search by parameters like follower count, content creation topics, and audience analysis, according to a TikTok spokesperson. Alessandro Bogliari, the founder of an agency that specializes in TikTok deals called The Influencer Marketing Factory, estimates that this online resource currently contains only around 700 content creators. “Out of 800 million–plus people, that is really a little fraction,” he said.

Sponsored content on TikTok usually takes two main forms, according to Rinab: song placement and product placement. Because the app allows users to grab audio from people’s videos, sound bites of all varieties go viral on the app. The ascendance of artists like Lil Nas X, Sueco the Child, and Stunna Girl has proved that the platform can make songs go viral. Record companies, in particular, have begun to rely on the social media network to spread new music or older hits that Gen Z has yet to discover. Mariah Carey’s enthusiastic participation in the #holidaycountdown challenge, set to “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” is the most recent example of an artist’s effort to popularize a relatively old song among a new audience.

Those same challenges often act as promotional vessels for products, meaning users who want to replicate or riff off of a video must automatically buy the necessary props to do so. In May, Chipotle partnered with influencer David Dobrik to launch something called the #ChipotleLidFlip challenge, which asked users to flip and land a Chipotle container. The hashtag launched a trend that inspired more than 100,000 copycat videos, and presumably that many Chipotle purchases. In September, Rinab worked with a hair dye company to do a “transformation” video, in which she dyed her hair pink. After she posted it, she saw users re-create the video down to the frames where she showed a close-up of the product.

“That’s what’s unique about the app and Gen Z,” the company’s then–director of U.S. marketing, Stefan Heinrich Henriquez, told Fast Company in June. “They’re not just passive consumers anymore. … They aren’t just watching. They’re creating in response. You’re turning them into brand ambassadors without even doing any influencer marketing.”

In tandem with the advertising deals that brands are making with individual influencers, TikTok debuted its own platform-based ad packages this year. Like any major social media network, it now integrates ads into the app’s main video feed, and has a marketplace where advertisers can bid against one another for impressions. It has also integrated advertising into the structural makeup of the app. Brands can “take over” TikTok by staking out a digital banner when a user opens it, much like the way advertisers would plaster sleeves or inserts on newspapers and magazines. In the same way that Snapchat and Instagram work with brands to create sponsored camera lenses, so that users can take interactive photos or videos that include the mention of a certain advertiser, TikTok offers sponsored augmented beauty effects. But the ad option that has the most potential to influence the culture of TikTok is sponsored challenges. The app now mixes in promoted challenges with organic viral ones on its “Discover” page, and offers the option to include a purchase link to a product on a video. Ahead of Black Friday, for instance, Walmart promoted the hashtag #DealDropDance, which encourages users to dance around in their stores.

None of these ads are cheap. In May, Digiday reported that traditional in-feed ads cost $10 per impression, with a minimum ad buy of $6,000, and a brand takeover costs $50,000 per day. According to Bogliari, the company charges $150,000 to promote a hashtag challenge for six days. (A TikTok spokesperson declined to comment on current rates.) And this is all separate from the estimated $75 million in in-app purchases of virtual currency that the company has reportedly raked in. By integrating its advertising so closely to the content itself, Bogliari says these ads may run the risk of souring the app’s culture. “Nowadays people are going away from Instagram because every three photos there is a sponsored post from someone that you don’t know,” Bogliari says. “That’s something TikTok for sure needs to look out for. Not to be greedy like Zuckerberg.” ByteDance hasn’t released revenue figures for TikTok, but if growth continues, the company is, at the very least, positioned to earn a tremendous amount of money.

Beyond the possibility that TikTok’s push to monetize may dilute its authenticity, its Chinese origins have primed it for American scrutiny. For much of the United States’ tech arms race with China, both politicians and business leaders have relied upon the common refrain that a free democracy is a far better environment for innovation. In an infamous 2000 speech, then-president Bill Clinton went so far as to say that China’s attempt to censor the internet was “like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.” “I just remember it was like yesterday that we were all so disparaging of China’s ability to innovate,” Kaiser Kuo, a journalist who has worked in the Chinese tech industry and cohosts Sinica Podcast, told me. “Freedom was not only the necessary condition for being innovative, but it was also even, more hubristically, a sufficient condition.” But in recent years, China has gradually disproved that theory with its mastery of dockless bikes and mobile payments. The two countries are now competing to control the growing sectors of artificial intelligence and global telecommunications. And in May, the Trump administration moved to essentially ban the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei from the U.S. market. “It’s really only been the past few years that this has happened,” Rebecca Fannin, the author of the new book Tech Titans of China, told me. “That tech has risen to this level [in China] and become a challenger to the U.S.”

TikTok is not just a fast-growing tech company, but also a social media platform whose main product is entertainment (which, in 2019, is often how people learn about the world). Alongside its explosive growth, the A.I.-driven app has proved to be a major driver of American culture. And researchers, analysts, and government officials have only recently begun to imagine how its influence might shape the global information war. When tens of thousands of antigovernment protesters gathered in Hong Kong this September, The Washington Post reported that entering the city’s name on TikTok produced few, if any, search results related to the movement. That revelation was followed by a Guardian discovery that, as a way of “advancing Chinese foreign policy aims abroad,” the app was censoring certain topics, including mentions of Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, and the banned religious group Falun Gong. A month later, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support of the protests, setting off an international feud between the NBA and China. In the fallout, some pointed to evidence that TikTok had censored the Chinese term for “Rockets” on its app. “This should raise serious concern in the United States and other Western countries,” the Taiwan-based tech and business analyst Ben Thompson wrote on his website Stratechery. “Is it at all acceptable to have a social network that has a demonstrated willingness to censor content under the control of a country that has clearly different views on what constitutes free speech?”

Around the same time, a bipartisan chorus of U.S. government officials began to zero in on TikTok. In early October, Florida Senator Marco Rubio asked the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to open an investigation into ByteDance. “The Chinese government’s nefarious efforts to censor information inside free societies around the world cannot be accepted and pose serious long-term challenges to the U.S. and our allies,” he wrote in a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. His complaints were echoed by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who, in their own letter to the director of national intelligence, questioned TikTok’s data-collection practices and whether it purposely censors what U.S. users can see, and asked the intelligence community to assess whether it’s a national security risk.

TikTok defended itself in a blog post, saying that its American branch stores user data inside the United States, and that it’s not “subject to Chinese law.” “We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked,” the unsigned letter said. “Period.” The Washington Post again challenged those claims with a report that Beijing-based moderators had the final call on whether to censor suggestive or political posts, and often did. TikTok’s next move was to hire a third-party law firm to evaluate its moderation system. But before it even had the chance to offer those results, the tech-focused German outlet Netzpolitik found that the app was intentionally limiting the reach of a handful of disabled, overweight, or LGBT users so as to preemptively prevent bullying. TikTok was again forced to run damage control. “This approach was never intended to be a long-term solution and although we had a good intention, we realised that it was not the right approach,” a spokesperson from the company said.

Needless to say, the social network’s moderation policy is still in flux. Which is probably why it was singled out by Missouri Senator Josh Hawley during a hearing on November 5. “TikTok claims they don’t take direction from China. They claim they don’t censor. … But that’s not what former employees of TikTok say,” Hawley said, referencing the Washington Post report. Meanwhile, government officials are awaiting an official report on the company from the intelligence community. “China is known for its censorship of dissent and materials it considers inconsistent with the priorities of the Chinese Communist Party,” Schumer wrote to The Ringer in a statement. “Recent reports of censored content make me even more concerned that China may pressure TikTok, whose parent company is based in Beijing, to export these anti-democratic and repressive tactics to the United States. We cannot allow that to happen.” Government pressure has grown so intense that TikTok’s Shanghai-based leader, Alex Zhu, is scheduled to meet with some of his biggest critics in Washington, D.C., this week. Asked for comment, a TikTok spokesperson sent a link to a company blog post.

When it comes to surviving the global marketplace, TikTok is banking on the kind of opaque company policies that benefit major social media networks like Facebook and YouTube. The less proof that a company’s stance is ideological, the better chance it has of surviving government scrutiny. Platforms like Facebook have attempted to outsource fact-checking and moderation efforts in an attempt to avoid any political bias in regulating hate speech; many tech companies in China have done the same with the censorship required to assuage the Chinese government. “Responsibility has gradually shifted more and more from the central authorities to internet companies themselves, to the extent that there are even outsourcing companies now which offer to handle all of your censorship needs,” James Griffiths, the author of The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet, told me.

From its launch, this lack of clarity has been apparent to TikTok users. Many teens have complained about being surreptitiously booted from the app. Others suspect their content has been intentionally kept away from the all-important “For You” feed. In late November, a 17-year-old Afghan American high-schooler named Feroza Aziz tucked a political message into a standard TikTok beauty tutorial. “Use the phone that you’re using right now to search up what’s happening in China,” she says in the clip, while curling her eyelashes. She then criticizes the Chinese government for keeping Muslim Uighurs in mass detention centers in the country’s far western region of Xinjiang. The video was briefly removed from TikTok, and Aziz was temporarily unable to access her account. But after the incident was picked up by news outlets, TikTok apologized, overrode her ban, and brought back the video, claiming these issues were due to a “human moderation error” and a separate, unrelated issue with Aziz’s account. Whatever happened, Kuo says this kind of lack of clarity keeps with standard Chinese censorship practices. When loading a forbidden website in China, users often encounter the same standard error page you might find with a weak Wi-Fi signal. “The line has always been sort of deliberately blurry,” Kuo said. “They deliberately keep it fuzzy so that the idea is if you’re not sure whether you’re going to step over it, you’re going to self-censor. You’re going to be more careful about what you say.”

According to Griffiths, spreading pro-state material via a social media app would, in his view, require China’s “propagandists becoming far more sophisticated than they have been in the past.” His greater concern is how a company like TikTok might normalize Chinese censorship standards in the United States. “The pressure on TikTok could serve to formalize how countries approach this issue, which is much needed, as many have largely ignored how much Chinese apps are controlling what users see and say even beyond the borders of the Great Firewall,” he said.

Kuo, who worked at the Chinese search engine Baidu, says companies’ willingness to censor is often just a means to an end. “When the Cyberspace Administration of China sends somebody over, or when they’re having these conversations about what videos, or search terms, or topics need to be censored, it’s not like these companies are saying, ‘Oh, hey, let me suggest a few more to add to this blacklist,’” he said. “They’re trying to comply as minimally as possible. What goes on that list will be different every time and it will change day to day.” Just as Facebook, Google, and Apple have adhered to Chinese censorship rules, Chinese tech companies are now learning how to navigate principles of free speech in the United States. No matter where a company originates, it must adopt ideologically inconsistent policies that will best ensure its international survival.

In a similar way, the same logic applies to the content creators on TikTok, from Will Smith to Cosette Rinab, who are enticed by the prospect of a gigantic audience. The rest of the day I spent on set with Rinab, I giggled along as she, Tocci, and Erwin filmed a skit about scaring friends, and then another about greedy trick-or-treaters. TikTok’s platform is designed to carry all the emotions the internet thrives on: laughter, joy, surprise, anger, desire. Discussions of global politics, free speech, and Pete Buttigieg’s terrible dance moves and policies are slowly inching their way into those narratives, but the point is still just to entertain, and Rinab would rather stay out of the politics surrounding the app. “What TikTok has provided me with is a platform and a foundation to start my career within the creator world,” Rinab said. “In five to 10 years, I hope to still be creating. Whether that’s on TikTok or the next new app of the time in like 2030, I don’t know.” In the internet economy, engagement reigns supreme, and, for now, at least, TikTok has our attention.

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