What young TikTok creators think about a possible ban: 'People will freak out'
TikTok's CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before Congress yesterday, but he's not the only one who's in a bind if the app is banned in the U.S.
The people who are on TikTok the most, the influencers – also called creators – whose livelihoods are entwined with the platform, are also in the crosshairs. In some ways, they have just as much at stake. And they are not standing by idly. Some TikTok creators have descended on D.C. in recent days to lobby lawmakers; others have been vocal about their opposition to an all-out ban of TikTok, a unit of China's ByteDance, which has 150 million monthly active users in the U.S.
"I think there needs to be a reframing of this conversation,” said Joel Bervell, a medical student and TikTok creator whose channel focuses on medical education. “TikTok may be owned by a Chinese company, but so many of the moments that are created there are specifically and uniquely American."
TikTok's creators are fervently devoted to the platform and, for many, it’s about how TikTok's algorithm uniquely works. For Sasha Allen, whose channel has 1 million followers and often offers a humorous and vulnerable experience about being young and transgender, TikTok’s algorithm rewards authenticity.
“On TikTok, a lot of creators share so much more than surface-level videos,” he said. “The videos for me that do the best are the ones where I’m authentic.”
Adrianna Wise, who goes by Bae, has focused her channel on cooking and her bakery Coco’s Confectionary Kitchen. She says that TikTok has invested in her profoundly as a Black creator.
"I’ve honed in on TikTok because I’ve really found what they do for creators of color and diverse creators is really creating a space where we feel safe to contribute,” said Wise. “I don't want to advocate for a platform that sets us up to fail. On other platforms, I’ve seen the intentional suppression of content for people of color, but TikTok isn’t about that. They have invested in us in a way that no platform has."
The programs that both Wise and Bervell pointed to include the "TikTok for Black Creatives" incubator, a three-month program launched in 2021. Additionally, there's a grant tied to the incubator, called the MACRO x TikTok Black Creatives Grant, which gave 10 participants $50,000 to build their "dream creative project." Bervell, a Yale graduate who's devoted much of his time to communicating about inequalities in American healthcare, was among the first recipients of that grant.
"TikTok knows the power of paying people what they're worth," he said. "Black creators are often told 'teach us this information,' but they're not paid for their time."
'TikTok offered me a microphone'
Bervell, Allen, and Wise said that their time on TikTok has changed their lives for the better.
"I never thought I’d be doing brand deals, or negotiating contracts, but that’s what TikTok has taught me,” said Bervell, who has collaborated with brands like Neutrogena (JNJ), Samsung (SSUN.F), and Google (GOOG, GOOGL). “My parents are immigrants from West Africa, and I now have an opportunity to pay off my student loans even before I finish medical school."
Bervell’s success on TikTok has vaulted him into high-level medical policy conversations. He’s participant in the White House Office of Public Engagement’s Healthcare Leaders in Social Media Roundtable and has worked with the World Health Organization to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 misinformation. Bervell is concerned that a TikTok ban will stifle much of the work that’s been done on the platform.
He told Yahoo Finance: “These (potential) bans for me feel like an effort to shut down a conversation that needs to happen—and I think that's how so many creators of color feel right now. There are conversations happening on TikTok that aren't happening anywhere else on the Internet."
For Allen, TikTok has been a creative outlet, one that’s propelled him to TikTok stardom and opened him to perspectives he never would not have encountered otherwise.
“I think the insane thing about TikTok is that it’s really unlike any other social media site, because you can spread ideas so rapidly,” he told Yahoo Finance. "I’ve had people reach out to me and say, ‘You’ve changed my views about being trans,’ and I also feel like I’ve been exposed to things on TikTok I never would have experienced otherwise.”
Allen, Bervell, and Wise all understand lawmakers' concerns about the platform—but they're not convinced. Wise feels safe on TikTok, even and especially compared to other platforms.
“I can’t be upset or angry at these lawmakers. I think they believe they’re doing what they intend to do – protect Americans. But my call to action for them, change-makers and lawmakers, is to get on the platform, experience the community. For them, the best way to spread their message is actually on TikTok.”
'They have no idea how many people will freak out'
Allen, who's 21, said that lawmakers should also worry about pushback from teenagers and young adults.
“If they ban TikTok, they are absolutely clueless, because they have no idea how many people will freak out," he said. "For young people, this is the equivalent of someone saying, ‘We'll, take the television away, take books away.’ This is that serious for us.”
Some say too serious in come cases.
"Social platforms should be used to build an audience, not a place to build a business," said Ahad Khan, CEO of Kajabi, which develops platforms for creators.
He added: "Unfortunately, creators who rely solely on these platforms are at the mercy of changing algorithms that can drastically impact their ad revenue, hard-to-predict and often uninspiring brand deals, and a community of followers that could disappear at a moment’s notice. Imagine spending all your time, energy, and resources building a house on sand."
How do creators respond to that? Or the suggestion that they could, well, just find another platform for their work and ideas?
Bervell has an answer: "We've tried that. TikTok is unique in the way its algorithm highlights creators who are overlooked… TikTok connects you to people you don’t know, but should know. So, when people say, why can’t you go to another app? The answer is that we’re already there, but the impact won’t be the same.”
Allie Garfinkle is a Senior Tech Reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter at @agarfinks and on LinkedIn.
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