2020 has proven to be a difficult year for many Chinese-origin apps, including the wildly popular short video app, TikTok. Many Chinese apps with a significant international user base have come under the threat, and reality, of bans from governments all around the world that question their management and utilization of users’ personal data. Many countries believe that data collected by Chinese tech companies automatically fall into the hands of the Chinese government for the purpose of manipulation and propaganda.
Given TikTok’s massive international presence, it has now become the first target for any tech-related action against China. But this international presence means that banning the app comes with consequences for millions upon millions of users. In many cases, these consequences involve losing one’s means of earning a livelihood, and these concerns have become even more pressing as the US has followed up their threats of a clampdown with a real one.
Much like the lucrative albeit demanding profession of being a “YouTuber” which gained a lot of momentum in the early 2010’s, TikTok emerged as a similar platform for Gen Z and younger millennials. While the format and production needs for both platforms vary, they are similar as users get paid for the content they put out. While YouTube’s mode of payment is primarily ad revenue, TikTok has attracted brand partnerships from a multitude of popular brands like Zara, NBA, and Mac Cosmetics.
The way this partnership works is that users with a significant amount of followers and reach get paid (often handsome) sums of money to feature a brand’s product in their videos.
According to a piece by Variety, the highest-earning TikTok star, Addison Rae, earns up to $5 million USD per annum via the short-video app. Similarly, other stars in the top 7 earn anywhere between $4 million and $1.2 million USD per year.
For another TikTok star, Aidan Williams, interviewed by CNet, TikTok was his ticket to moving to Los Angeles, one of US’ most high-profile metropolitans, at the young age of 17. For Williams, TikTok was a permanent gig for the foreseeable future, a prospect that might now be impossible.
In the same piece, CNet spoke to other TikTok stars, two of which were teams of fathers and their children who gained popularity due to their unique use of this particular dynamic. For Nick Casas, the money he earns from TikTok goes into funds for his 5-year-old daughter’s future plans. However, unlike Williams, TikTok is merely a side-gig for the Sherriff by day. For beatboxing sensation Spencer Polanco, TikTok gave him his entire life.
Similarly, after the ban in India came into effect, many users came forward with their experience with sponsored content. One star earned 40% of her monthly income from creating videos for the platform.
But tanked monthly earning and survival are not the only challenges for TikTok stars.
Most of TikTok Stars who have migrated to alternate platforms in a bid to continue creating the same magic as TikTok are finding tough to make their followers migrated on their preferred platform.
Attracting a similar number of followers on alternate platforms is proving to be a tough feat to achieve for artists and TikTok stars. It’s like reinventing the whole wheel again – if not completely then partially, for sure. Unlike TikTok which is meant for short 15-second videos, the competition on bigger platforms is fierce. Besides, users’ preferences and their content consumption pattern are other challenges for TikTok stars to deal with.
Nick Casas and his 5-year-old daughter Sienna record TikTok videos for fun. The duo has garnered more than 11 million followers on TikTok. However, they failed to attract a similar number of eyeballs on Instagram and YouTube, as they have 475,000 and 246,000 followers, respectively.
Josh Cooper, the creative director of Speak Creative in Memphis, Tennessee, said he started creating videos with his two sons Jackson and Calvin, who are 11 and 8, on TikTok along with other popular social media platforms. After they heard about the possible ban on TikTok in the US they started focusing more on Instagram Reels. But soon he realised that creators have had to pay to promote content in the past. His popular channel Uploads of Fun has 1.3 million followers on TikTok but only 17,000 on Instagram.
According to various reports, app open rates and average session time are comparatively very low on alternative apps when compared to that of TikTok.
TikTok: Time is Ticking
As mentioned earlier, TikTok’s future has become even more uncertain in a matter of days with Trump’s newest executive order.
To elaborate a little on the matter, an order was passed on Thursday instructing all American businesses to stop trade with Chinese companies in the next 45 days.
Given the one-track attention TikTok gets, the order naturally targeted it as its main kill. The implications of stopping trade with Chinese companies are huge. Much like TikTok, many other companies in China have a significant number of US stakeholders.
The order, however, is believed to be a direct attack on TikTok to expedite Microsoft’s plan of a complete buyout of the company. While Microsoft previously planned on acquiring TikTok in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the US only, its plan has now changed to a worldwide acquisition, owing to the global growth potential of the app. Additionally, Microsoft seems to be the only company equipped to handle the technological complexity that comes with handling an app as big as TikTok. These developments have come right after ByteDance considered selling the major stake in TikTok to US investors at a valuation of $25 billion.
TikTok also recently reorganized its corporate structure to instill more trust in US lawmakers and security watchdogs, but it seems these efforts didn’t produce potent enough results.
Given these developments, creators on TikTok are scrambling to strengthen their presence on alternative platforms such as Snapchat and Youtube. One major contender that has emerged is Instagram’s Reels. These short-form videos are similar to TikToks in some ways but lack the embellishments TikTok has.
Instagram Reels was released right after India banned TikTok along with 58 other Chinese apps a month ago and has been increasing in popularity ever since. The feature has since been rolled out to 50 other countries, including the US.
For the time being, Reels seems to be the most comfortable transition for those exploring options other than TikTok, but many other competitors are bound to come up just as they did in India. However, if the Microsoft deal does come through, TikTok might re-emerge as the most major player among short-form video apps.