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Imagining America Without TikTok
This week the Wall Street Journal reported that the Biden administration is considering an ultimatum for TikTok: Either its owner, ByteDance, a Beijing-based AI company, sells its stake in the company or it will face a total ban in the US. The Washington Post has a great timeline of how we got here. The news has, as you might expect, kicked off a wave of conspiratorial chattering on the platform, with users making videos about how they think Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg is somehow secretly behind the proposed ban (doubtful).
A full ban of the site is completely uncharted territory. The US has never pulled the plug on an entire social network before. And the idea of banning one as high-profile as TikTok feels unimaginable. Which is why I think it’d be fun to imagine it! So let’s game this out.
The easiest question to answer first is about what it looks like from the outside when a country is suddenly no longer on TikTok. We have a couple good examples to look at, namely, India and Russia.
India banned the short-form video app in 2020, putting an end to my favorite TikTok subgenre, which was Indian guys pretending to be demons and crying on camera. According to a great Rest Of World article about where everyone went afterwards, over a dozen local startups tried to replace TikTok, but few got anywhere. Ultimately, users just ended up using Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts. Though, one creator that Rest Of World interviewed said he dropped from six million followers on TikTok to around 600,000 on Instagram as of this year.
The Russia ban was a bit different. After the country invaded Ukraine last winter, TikTok effectively carved out a pocket universe just for Russian users. They can only see Russian content, they can’t upload new content (sorta, more on that in a sec), and can’t livestream. So for Russians, the app is more or less frozen where it was at the beginning of March 2022. In November of last year, however, a European nonprofit called Tracking Exposed discovered a handful of state-affiliated accounts were evading the ban and getting promotion on the For You page.
The Russian zombie TikTok is actually pretty frustrating for average users. In January, I interviewed a Russian music producer who had inadvertently become the center of a conspiracy theory on TikTok and was completely unable to deal with it. He had to try and address users on his Instagram, but it did little to slow down the outrage cycle happening inside TikTok.
Seeing as how this whole ban is being floated as a solution to national security concerns, I assume we’ll get the India treatment. One day you’ll open the app and it just won’t load anymore. The app currently has around 130 million users, the most of any country on the platform. And as of 2021, we were spending around 24 hours a month on the app. If Americans suddenly couldn’t use it anymore, the next biggest country that would take our place would be Indonesia.
The harder question to answer is what happens to American pop culture if TikTok were to suddenly go offline. The biggest hit would be to the US music industry, which has completely reoriented itself around TikTok’s virality. But it would also likely wipe out an entire class of creator that I can’t really see moving to platforms like Instagram or YouTube because Silicon Valley still doesn’t really understand what makes TikTok work.
I could spend all day listing all the problems I have with TikTok, but as ace reporter Chris Stokel-Walker concisely put, “Banning TikTok is a bad solution to the wrong problem.” But to go further, it would mean the death of the last app where a normal person can “go viral”.
The TikTok viral loop works like this: You open the app. You scroll mindlessly for a while. And, as you do, the For You feed updates in near-real-time, providing you more content based on what you’ve already seen. The app also bombards you with hashtags, trends, and prompts for commenting on or dueting with other people’s videos. When it finally baits you into engaging in some way, its editing interface makes that almost seamless. The fact the app prioritizes trending content over specific users makes this effect even more pronounced. This creates a fairly coherent internal conversation inside the app. And makes TikTok videos more of a delivery mechanism for discourse than something to be watched on their own in a vacuum. But it also means that you can fire off a post from your couch and suddenly have millions of people watching it. All of the apps that spent years contorting themselves into TikTok clones require a level of “professionalism” that make this entire loop impossible. In 2023, there is simply nothing you can do in 15 minutes that will get you a million views on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or Spotify. (Please don’t take that as a challenge.)
So while all of these apps have invested a lot in their handy dandy new TikTok-like interfaces, likely hoping to be a life raft for users if TikTok really is banned in the US, all they’ve really done is figure out how to copy the aesthetics of the app. Which don’t really matter. The lifeblood of TikTok — the bored college students, the bad and the bad-on-purpose home chefs, the bedroom DJs, the eels guy, that lawyer with the big rings that kind of looks like he’s wearing Hillary Clinton cosplay — they can’t just easily move to a new app. I mean, they can, but they’re not going to have audiences the same way.
I don’t think a federal ban of a social network is a good idea. And I don’t think a ban of TikTok specifically would do much in terms of national security. Though it might ruin your chances at a reelection. But what it would do is further consolidate existing monopolies and wipe out casual creators in a way we haven’t seen since the death of Vine or the end of the Tumblr book deal era. And the internet, as a whole, in the US would be worse for it. Also, what would everyone spend all day talking about on Twitter?
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Twitter Bookmarks Are Public Now
Seemingly, for no reason reason at all, bookmark counts are now visible on Twitter. This has resulted in two things. First, tech bros who make threads on how to make AI prompts that can help you fire your HR department or whatever now have a new metric they can brag about on LinkedIn. Second, almost every woman I follow (along with some men) have discovered that many of the personal photos they’ve shared on Twitter are very heavily bookmarked 🥴
I personally think it’s very funny that Elon Musk launched a way to privately catalog Twitter content to crank your hog to and then, out of the blue one day, made that feature public. Do DMs next!
Midjourney Can Do Hands Now (Mostly)
Midjourney launched version five this week. I was messing around with it, as you can see above, and, yes, it can mostly figure out how to render hands now. But, jokes aside, it’s completely surpassed other image-generating AI tools like DALL-E 2 and Stable Diffusion. And in a way that is borderline scary.
An AI Is “Running” This Business
So this is Green Gadget Guru. It’s an “eco-friendly product reviews” site. It has one review on it so far, but the link doesn’t really work. None of the links on the page work really actually. But the design, the name, and the very idea behind it all came from GPT-4. It’s an AI experiment being run by brand designer Jackson Greathouse Fall who asked GPT-4 yesterday how to make as much money as possible with a starting investment of $100.
Greathouse Fall has been updating a thread as he goes along. And it’s been fascinating to follow. Perhaps the funniest thing about this idea is how it is actually making money, but not in a way you might expect. According to Greathouse Fall’s thread, by livetweeting this process he’s received around $600 in investments from other human beings. Apparently the best business is just monetizing hype.
A Good TikTok
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(Twitter mirror in case Biden takes TikTok away from us.)
Lord Miles Might Be Missing In Afghanistan
An English-language Twitter account claiming to be associated with Taliban’s PR department announced recently that a British travel YouTuber Lord Miles, real name Miles Routledge, appears to have gone missing while visiting Afghanistan.
Routledge is one of those guys who travel to the world’s “most dangerous places” for YouTube content. Routledge has gone viral a few times. He was the “British student” that got stuck in Kabul during the US evacuation in 2021 and posted about it on 4chan. He’s also the guy that went viral last October for saying he felt unsafe in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The right-wing content creator last updated his Twitter in late February, when he posted a photo of himself soyfacing in Dubai. Then the possibly-Taliban-affiliated account announced he was missing on March 15th. According to their most recent updates, they believe he’s somewhere in Wakhan Corridor, which is on the country’s Chinese border.
But this whole thing is also extremely sketchy. Routledge is a pretty big shitposter. And a lot of his fans are impersonating him, as well as Taliban officials, and spreading rumors that he was beheaded by ISIS. There also isn’t, as far as I can tell, any sort of vetted list for official Taliban-affiliated social media accounts. Taliban accounts were verifying themselves via Twitter Blue, but that seems to have been shutdown or paused. Also, the Taliban PR account shitposts A LOT and in pretty good English. But most of what it posts are, I suppose, in line with Taliban values?
Making things weirder, Callum Darragh, another right-wing British YouTuber affiliated with Routledge, confirmed that Routledge is missing and said that the UK’s Foreign Office has been notified, but also said he doesn’t think the Taliban PR account is official.
So as I see it, there are three possibilities here: Routledge isn’t missing and this is all some weird prank. Routledge is actually missing and a Taliban parody account found out. Or Routledge is missing and the Taliban has an English-language shitposting department.
Some Stray Links
P.S. here’s AI Matthew McConaughey.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***