Could this be the end for TikTok?

4 Aug 2020

Image: © meskolo/

TikTok’s demise is more likely to be driven by corporate interests and user disenchantment than a bitter US president, writes Elaine Burke.

It’s only day four and already TikTok has had a tumultuous August. Over the course of the long weekend, the US president vowed to ban the app by executive order, only to soften following a discussion with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

Now instead of an immediate ban, TikTok is facing a deadline: secure an acquisition from a US company by 15 September or the ban will be enacted. And that deal, in Donald Trump’s own words, needs to be such that “the Treasury of the United States gets a lot of money”.

Apparently, TikTok is only “too big, too invasive” if it’s not American. It’s a brash position to take following antitrust hearings in US Congress that were already looking like a futile gesture even before the country’s leader made it clear that no tech company is too powerful as long as it benefits the US bottom line.

Infographic: Microsoft's History of Billion-Dollar Acquisitions | Statista

Infographic: Statista

Even more evidence of the US’s soft stance on Big Tech is that Nadella was not even part of these recent antitrust hearings. Microsoft is certainly big enough and bold enough, and currently drawing the ire of Slack in an antitrust filing in Europe.

Microsoft is already known to own a large portion of the market when it comes to tools for working professionals. It has long shown interest in taking on social media but, having failed to build its own viable product, a $26bn acquisition of LinkedIn in 2016 was the more effective move.

And it was through another major acquisition that Microsoft got its first real foothold with the online youth. Mojang, the company behind Minecraft, became a Microsoft company in 2014 for a much more palatable $2.5bn.

‘Microsoft’s association might boost TikTok’s cred with US politicians, but it certainly won’t impress the teens’

I spent the long weekend being awed by my niece and nephews’ creations in the sandbox video game, and marvelling at how they were learning the principles of game development in the process. It reminded me how many in my generation learned basic HTML and CSS thanks to the desire to spruce up our Myspace pages.

Myspace, 21st-century-born readers, was the OG social network. It was a hugely popular phenomenon that was bought by News Corp in 2005, then peaked at 300m registered users and a valuation of $12bn in 2007, and was later sold for a fraction of the purchase price.

The simple narrative is that Myspace was superseded by Facebook, but there is more to that story. On an anecdotal level, I could see that Myspace suffered the same rise and demise as many teen-driven sensations. The more mainstream and commonplace it became, the less interesting it was. For me, Myspace was the social network of my teens and Facebook didn’t make an impression until my twenties. (And let’s not forget the brief dalliance with Bebo in between.)

Infographic: 6 in 10 American Teens Use TikTok | Statista

Infographic: Statista

Like Minecraft, TikTok could be a gateway into the world of Gen Z for Microsoft, but chances are the acquisition could be the app’s undoing. Microsoft’s association might boost TikTok’s cred with US politicians, but it certainly won’t impress the teens.

Another dead social network this episode has resurrected in my memory is Vine. TikTok isn’t all that novel if you happen to recall the short-form video app that preceded it. Much like TikTok, Vine was a hub of chaotic creativity powered by the app’s clever creative tools and potential for virality. TikTok has taken the same blueprint and enhanced it with innovative features, repetitive challenges and an impressive discovery algorithm. And all that can be quashed as soon as the app has to start delivering for a company’s bottom line.

It didn’t take long for Vine to decline after being acquired by Twitter in 2012. On the surface it seemed like a compatible match, just more of the same big tech fish eating its smaller competition. But Vine didn’t easily assimilate into the Twitter model. In fact, the acquirer completely missed the boat in adopting any of Vine’s mobile video editing tools and left the gate wide open for a player like TikTok to enter.

Vine was a chaotic creative environment, and its allure relied on that. Trying to harness that kind of online space into a monetised platform has already been proven difficult, and may well be impossible with a digital-native audience.

This generation is not only supremely tech savvy but often highly digitally literate. They know about tracking and targeting, and they know how to circumvent the tools of massive corporations to game the system and have their fun.

‘A major social media platform can easily weather a data protection scandal. What it can’t survive is becoming uncool’

This may well be the reason – other than hostile relations with China – for Trump’s vested interest in destroying TikTok. Let’s not forget that credit for his desolate rally in Tulsa was widely given to TikTokkers and K-pop fans. (Clearly, the might of the K-pop fandom was not something the president was ready to take on.)

TikTok’s widespread use comes with security concerns, as any app with its potential would. But we’ve already seen, post-Cambridge Analytica, that a major social media platform can easily weather a data protection scandal. What it can’t survive, however, is becoming uncool.

TikTok won’t be thrown off course by Trump or data harvesting, but by the peaks and troughs of what’s hot and what’s not. Trends fall in and out of favour with valuable audiences all the time, and it’s hard to see Microsoft, the brand of business and workplace productivity, bringing the playful app back on track when that happens.

Facebook is now the home for mams, dads, intrusive aunts and nosy curtain-twitchers, not the next generation of tech-savvy talent. TikTok is a new base for young people online but it will suffer from its own popularity eventually. And once you can’t use a platform for teasing your inept president, what’s the point? The next big teen trend will already be happening by the time we’ve realised this one is over.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.