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TikTok Is the New King of Social Media. Now What?

Illustration: Doug Chayka

One way to understand the past five years of social media is as a race to see who can copy TikTok the fastest and with the least dignity. Instagram (Reels), YouTube (Shorts), and most recently Facebook (Suggested for You) have all undergone covetous and occasionally disastrous renovations inspired by the video-sharing service. It was notable, then, when TikTok announced a copycat of its own on September 15, “a daily prompt to capture a ten-second video or a static photo to easily share what you’re up to.”

This, the company says, is a way to share “your most authentic moments with the people who matter the most.” Users of BeReal, the French photo-sharing app that rocketed to popularity this year, will recognize the concept: the surprise notification; the apparently simultaneous double-camera image capture; a suggestion of “realness” or “authenticity.” Lest it be said that TikTok isn’t innovating, it will give users three minutes rather than BeReal’s two to come up with posts.

TikTok winning the race for second place is a small sign of a big shift. For the past decade, Facebook, now Meta, was the one to worry about: the internet’s supermassive object around which competitors, upstarts, and internet users were trapped in orbit. It was the industry’s agenda setter and then innovation eater, a metonym for mainstream social media before and during the backlash against it. But lately it’s TikTok that’s drawn the scrutiny of the media, regulators, and users: What’s it doing to the kids, to our brains, to our kids’ brains, to work, to politics, to food, to music? Who’s really in charge of it, and who’s in charge of them? Like megaplatforms before it, its sheer size and presence in users’ lives means they’re using it in unusual ways that fortify its dominance — as a search engine; as a how-to resource; as a source of news; as a vector for disinformation; as a tool for harassment; as a general cultural and commercial context, for, well, everything everywhere else.

As writer Ryan Broderick recently argued in his Garbage Day newsletter, soon “every platform on the internet will be completely downstream of TikTok.” TikTok, in other words, has achieved the dream of every young platform: unavoidability. Now comes the nightmare.

TikTok broke through in 2019 as public sentiment around social media was turning; users piled in anyway. It was an unreformed engagement machine that didn’t bother posturing as the new town square. It promised only to be less miserable.

TikTok’s rise was a geopolitical story, too. Meta is a public American company over which Mark Zuckerberg has unusual but not total control; TikTok parent company ByteDance is a privately held Chinese firm. The Trump administration threatened to ban the app entirely. The Biden administration says it intends to continue to investigate TikTok, which it has described as a product controlled by a “foreign adversary.”

On September 14, Congress grilled tech executives in a way that exemplified the political hazards inherent in TikTok’s corporate situation. The company’s COO, Vanessa Pappas, tried to assuage concerns that it would share user data with the Chinese government by claiming that “ByteDance was not headquartered in China because it did not have any headquarters at all,” according to the New York Times. This is not, I’m guessing, a tenable long-term position for a firm handling more than a billion users. (BuzzFeed uncovered documentary evidence that “China-based employees of ByteDance have repeatedly accessed nonpublic data about U.S. TikTok users.”)

The pre-TikTok era of social media was a genuine, full-spectrum privacy disaster. It was, however, a disaster constructed by domestic companies and exported to the rest of the world (although notably not to China). Digital privacy is a notoriously difficult concept around which to mobilize politically. Nationalism, less so. With TikTok at the center of the discourse, we can expect to encounter the former through the distorting lens of the latter with the help of politicians who, despite a prior blindness to matters of privacy, will have a point. Zuckerberg knows a bit about this sort of thing — the issue of social-media disinformation took on an exaggeratedly Russian character despite its native roots — and TikTok appears to be following Facebook’s election playbook to the letter. In 2018, Facebook vowed to fight “false news and misinformation” ahead of the midterms. Ahead of the 2022 midterms, TikTok announced the creation of an “Elections Center” to help “counter election misinformation.”

For TikTok to become the new Facebook, the old platforms needed to get out of the way. There’s been a great deal of devastating reporting about the decreasing centrality of Facebook Facebook, the blue site, which is now clear to basically any user. Nearly as obvious, to close observers, is a comparable crisis within Instagram. An internal presentation circulated in 2018 warned that declining interest from young users represented an “existential threat.” Four years later, the app’s relentless push to get its fatigued users to adopt TikTok-style Reels seems to be making its situation worse, not better. In a memo acquired by The Information, Instagram head Adam Mosseri — whose video addresses to the “Instagram Community” have increasingly resembled a youth pastor’s sermons to a waning flock — warned that it has now fallen “behind TikTok and YouTube on all the dimensions that” really matter, including “fun, reach, fair algorithm, and care.”

More broadly, Meta has seen the value of its stock fall by more than half and is reportedly trimming staff. Where it was once a ruthless acquirer of future competitors, it has, in the context of antitrust investigations, become more cautious. It’s easy to understand why Zuckerberg, who reportedly attempted to buy TikTok in 2016, has shifted his focus to what he hopes are new frontiers: virtual reality and “the metaverse.”

But TikTok’s rapid rise raises the specter of a rapid fall. It is already showing signs of slowing down, according to app analytics firm Sensor Tower, signaling a possible transition away from hypergrowth and into uneasy incumbency. TikTok’s rush to copy BeReal also tells a story about what, for all its success, TikTok doesn’t have that allows its predecessors to lumber on even as they deteriorate.

People follow one another on TikTok and keep up with individual influencers. But unlike most social platforms before it, which emphasized follower-and-friend-style connections, TikTok’s main attraction is its automated For You page, which places users at the bottom of a massive algorithmic content funnel. TikTok is a platform of targeted content and loose ties — a post-social social network that doesn’t rely on your friends to keep you engaged and entertained but rather on “recommendation,” which is the flip side of surveillance.

BeReal is best known for buzzing users into action once a day to share candid photos, resembling a familiar, small, friend-centric feed. It feels a bit like Instagram felt in its early days. Its users skew young, which alone would be enough to explain TikTok’s frantic reaction. As it’s become more popular, it’s started catching older users who remember that last time they signed up to see mundane photos from their friends on services they now resent, or even blame for some of the world’s ills, but have not yet been able to quit.

It turns out that social platforms built around networks of people who actually know one another are pretty durable. Compared to Facebook’s rise, TikTok’s was dazzling but impersonal, the product of a supreme emphasis on content over connections, on breaking out of networks rather than formalizing them. Users’ sense of obligation to one another, though, is what bought Facebook more time at the top. To quit Facebook, however little one uses it, is to sever some sort of contact, and to leave Instagram, however dull it has become, is to know a little less about your friends. A bored or restless TikTok user, however, can simply watch less — only TikTok will notice they’re gone.

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TikTok Is the New King of Social Media. Now What?