NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – It was a weekend of chaos on TikTok – unleashed Friday (July 31) night when United States President Donald Trump said, while aboard Air Force One, that he might ban the video app.
The surprise announcement sent influencers in droves onto live streams to give possibly premature teary and heartfelt goodbyes to their fans, asking them to join them on apps such as Instagram, YouTube and Triller.
For agencies that manage talent on the platform, it was a long weekend of hand-holding and downloading TikTok archives for posterity. Some users, in a last-hurrah bid for virality, reposted TikToks they said had previously been removed by the service for violating nudity or profanity guidelines.
Others tried to make light of the situation. Ms Addison Easterling, 19, a TikTok star who dropped out of Louisiana State University (LSU) to pursue a full-time influencer career, posted a video of herself pretending to knock on the college’s doors to let her back in.
“Me at LSU tomorrow,” she captioned it.
TikTok is known mostly for dance videos and comedic skits, but that silliness can obscure two facts: TikTok has become a powerhouse in the entertainment industry and the primary platform that music executives and talent agents use to scout the next big act. And, at the same time, especially as the election nears, the app has become an information and organising hub for Generation Z activists and politically minded young people.
TikTok has had a fraught relationship with the US government for some time. Several administration officials, including the president, fear the app is a security risk because its parent company, ByteDance, is Chinese, potentially giving the Chinese government access to American user data. TikTok and ByteDance have vehemently denied any relationship with the Chinese government.
Mr Trump’s comments suggesting he would shut down TikTok in the US stalled ByteDance’s negotiations to sell the app to Microsoft as a way to address the security concerns. On Sunday, Microsoft said that it had resumed talks after consulting with the president, giving some hope to users that the app would survive.
Young users say TikTok is a crucial outlet for education about climate change, systemic racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. The talk of a ban only politicised them further, with many TikTokers believing Mr Trump’s threats were a direct response to their campaigns against him.
“TikTok is to Black Lives Matter what Twitter was to the Arab Spring,” said Mr Kareem Rahma, 34, a TikTok creator with nearly 400,000 followers on the app. Mr Rahma’s TikToks from the Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis garnered tens of millions of views.
“I saw a lot of youth on the ground TikToking the protests as opposed to live streaming, tweeting or Instagramming,” he said. “The conversations these kids are having with each other are essential.”
In June, teenage TikTok users claimed responsibility for inflating attendance expectations, leading to rows upon rows of empty seats, for Mr Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after thousands of them registered for tickets to the event that they had no plans to redeem.
TikTok users have also waged coordinated campaigns to rate Mr Trump’s businesses poorly on Google, to spam online surveys aimed at his supporters with useless information and to damage the Trump campaign’s e-commerce store by collecting in their shopping baskets items they never intend to buy.
Ms Ellie Zeiler, 16, who has 6.3 million followers on TikTok, said that Mr Trump’s threat to ban the app may even sway more young people to vote against him.
“I think that a lot of people didn’t like Trump before, and this has driven people to not like him even more,” she said.
“For many kids, politics feel very distant,” said Mr Eitan Bernath, 18, who has 1.2 million followers on TikTok. “This might be the first time it hits home for a lot of kids.”
On Sunday, nine TikTok creators with a collective 54 million followers, including Ms Brittany Broski, Ms Hope Schwing and Mr Mitchell Crawford, published an open letter addressed to Mr Trump on Medium.
“TikTok has enabled the kinds of interactions that could never take place on the likes of Facebook and Instagram,” they wrote.
“Our generation has grown up on the Internet, but our vision of the Internet is going to require more than two gatekeepers. Why not use this as an opportunity to level the playing field?” they urged.
Ms Vanessa Pappas, general manager of TikTok North America, attempted to quell concerns on Saturday.
“We’re not planning on going anywhere,” she said in a statement released on the app.
THE NEW SHOW BUSINESS
TikTok creator Curtis Newbill, 24, is one of thousands of young creators who has found fame through the app.
When he walked into a friend’s house in Los Angeles on Friday night, his stomach sank. He was there for a gathering with fellow TikTok stars known as the Sway Boys.
“They were like, ‘Did you hear about TikTok? It’s getting banned’,” Mr Newbill said.
Mr Newbill’s next few hours were a blur. He remained at the gathering and tried not to think about the situation, but a pit in his stomach grew throughout the night. He went live on the app, telling his 4.3 million followers to follow him on Instagram.
All night, he fielded a barrage of texts from concerned family and friends. He stayed up until 6.30am, waiting for any information about his future.
Like thousands of other entertainers who have made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles in the most recent West Coast entertainment gold rush, Mr Newbill relies solely on income from TikTok to make a living.
“I live song deal to song deal,” he said.
The loss of TikTok would upend large swaths of the entertainment industry that have just been completely reoriented around the app.
TikTok has rewritten the pop charts, becoming a new default for how labels and aspiring artists promote their songs. And TikTok is where major brands such as American Eagle, Chipotle and others spend millions to reach the next generation of consumers.
“I’ve lost brand deals in the past week,” Ms Zeiler said. “They’re saying, ‘We don’t want to do this anymore.’ They’re worried if TikTok gets taken down, they’re not going to get their full potential on the deal.”
Management teams worked all night on Friday to back up their clients’ videos using FYP.RIP, a tool that downloads users’ TikTok videos and e-mails them copies. Several managers held conference calls with skittish brands that were seeking to cancel deals.
“We’re preparing for the worst,” said Mr Mario Ayuso, an influencer manager.
“A lot of the newer talent I work with began their career on TikTok and it has been the foundation for everything they know today,” said Mr Keith Dorsey, another talent manager.
“They are concerned, worried and somewhat freaked out. One of them actually planned on quitting his job tomorrow to take his TikTok career to the next level. Our group chats are on fire right now.”
OPENING FOR COMPETITORS
If the app’s potential shutdown or instability around a sudden sale has any silver lining, it is a flood of new users to smaller platforms. Clash, a new short-form video app founded by Mr Brendon McNerney, a former Vine star, became available on Friday night after the news and shot up the app store rankings on Saturday. Byte and Dubsmash, two other short form video apps, have also begun actively recruiting TikTok stars.
Last Wednesday, Triller, an app that functions similarly to TikTok, announced it had hired 18-year-old TikTok star Josh Richards as the platform’s chief strategy officer, and successfully wooed Mr Richards along with two other large TikTok stars, Mr Griffin Johnson, 21, and Mr Noah Beck, 19, to join the platform as investors.
Instagram is also offering TikTok creators deals of hundreds of thousands of dollars to create content on Reels, its new product with similarities, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Mr Perez Hilton, a long-time celebrity news chronicler who has amassed 850,000 followers on TikTok, said he hoped that just the threat of a ban would serve as a note of caution for the young talent on the app.
“These influencers on TikTok can’t have all their eggs in one basket,” he said. “You have to be everywhere,” he said, if you want to stay famous.
“You need to hustle,” he said. “A lot of the TikTokers that are just pretty, those are the ones that are really going to struggle. Pretty doesn’t age well and it doesn’t translate. The ones that are willing to work on and off TikTok and other platforms, they’re the ones that will be able to continue to thrive.”