July’s been a rough month for ByteDance, the China-owned parent company behind TikTok.
At the start of the month, the Indian government announced a nationwide ban on 59 Chinese mobile apps, with TikTok at the top of the list. The full pretense for the removal has been murky, but the core of the reasoning lies in “national security risks” to India.
This past week, as of writing this, the US has announced an investigation potentially leading to a similar outcome for TikTok.
This week though, we’re largely going to avoid the geopolitics of the situation.
Instead, we’re going to take this opportunity for an exploration into a thought experiment that’s been on my mind as the headlines around this news have appeared these last weeks.
It begins with an important premise.
Let’s imagine a world in which the US has announced an all-out ban of TikTok in the US. Google and Apple have honored the request. The app no longer runs on your device, it’s disappeared from the App Store, and any TikTok-recorded content not already saved onto your device is now unavailable.
As of this moment, in the US at least, TikTok is no more.
As a result of this, there’s now a TikTok-shaped hole in the American social media market, with massive existing demand (to the tune of around 40M users) in the country, and no obvious alternative to take its place.
Gather round, everybody — we have ourselves a power vacuum!
To understand what happened here, we have to take a quick look at exactly what a TikTok’less world means.
TikTok (or Musical.ly, before its TikTok merger) exploded into the mainstream social media world for its outsized creative community.
TikTok made it possible for anyone to be creative.
While plenty of apps have come and gone over the 2010s, each with a different approach in “empowering creators”, it’s difficult to argue that pretty much any of them have achieved their goal at any scale even remotely comparable to TikTok.
The one exception to this, arguably, was Vine.
Vine, in many respects, was a sort of spiritual predecessor to TikTok, all the way back in 2013.
At its peak reaching the position of #1 video sharing app on the App Store, Vine largely came out of nowhere and made quite the splash in the social media world.
With its minimal camera interface, the ability to record multiple scenes within a single workflow, and a 6-second video limit, Vine was, by all means, a much simpler service than TikTok, but both serve(d) their core mission faithfully: make it easy for non-creators to create.
Vine’s subsequent disappearance left a massive hole in the extra-short-form content market, which established players raced to fill.
Today, TikTok is faced with the same position.
“Horror vacui” refers to a concept attributed to Aristotle — “nature abhors a vacuum“.
In fairness, ‘multinational technology conglomerates building short-form content apps primarily aimed at the < 18-year-old market in middle/upper-class households‘ does somewhat push the definition of “nature” as Aristotle likely saw it.
The humans at the helm of these companies, though, pretty well fit the bill of being “natural” beings, so let’s run with it.
Aristotle’s concept, in market terms, then, can be interpreted with a function straight out of economics 101: supply shifts to meet demand.
In this world in which TikTok has been banned, demand takes the form of ~40,000,000 newly single fans of short-form, creative video content.
When demand has that many zeros in it, supply tends to shift quite hastily.
The question then is not “will someone replace TikTok?”, but rather “who will replace TikTok?”.
To answer that, though, we need to answer what it means to be a “TikTok replacement”.
To Have What it Takes
It’s tempting to look at Vine in search of clues on what a post-TikTok world looks like. After all, it did birth the first extra-short form video power vacuum.
In a similar fashion to TikTok, demand for the platform was at an all-time high, when it suddenly came crashing down.
The context, though, was very different.
When creators left Vine in a mass exodus, it was already more than 2 years into its massive hype cycle in the US market. By this point, many creators, and almost all of the largest creators, had already begun diversifying, namely to YouTube.
Sure enough, when the day came to jump ship to a new home, YouTube was the perfect destination for many creators.
YouTube had a focus on longer-form content than Vine. Beyond just being relieved of the time constraint, this served creators immensely in brand-building, all while building new revenue channels.
For top-performing Vine creators, the newfound ability to build relationships and depth with the audience proved invaluable to creating a number of the YouTube superstars of today.
These 2 years deep into Vine’s hype cycle, the app had already far surpassed the average lifespan of most new social platforms.
The widespread shift to longer-form content was part of a larger trend, as Vine shut its doors.
Social platforms rarely see a sudden exodus from one to another, dethroning the old guard, without the new platform offering an entirely different core format to its content.
Communities & culture are to thank for this. Once a critical mass of users establishes a platform as their go-to, they have very little incentive to up and move their entire community, their ‘local’ culture to a new service.
With that in mind, Vine’s downfall happened relatively late into its life-cycle. For a new social app to survive (and grow significantly) for over 2 years is a rare feat.
Unless a platform continually expands its offering, giving creators new tools and techniques to explore, its moat is almost entirely defined by its user culture and community — both elements that are (mostly) out of the platform’s control.
Through this lens, the shift from Vine to greener pastures was a fate rapidly approaching anyway, given a relative lack of innovation by the Vine team in offering new ways to create and share on the app.
The 6-second video limitation birthed an entirely new style of content at the time.
While every social platform was increasing capacity for longer videos, more complex content, etc, Vine took the opposite route — using constraints as a creative driver.
Over 2 years though, you can only be so inspired by constraints. Fatigue began to sink in, as it got progressively harder to create a regular flow of innovative content with such harsh limitations.
TikTok, though, is a different story altogether.
Where Vine’s creativity was born out of scarcity, TikTok’s is born out of overwhelming abundance.
Offering a wide-spanning range of content formats and production tools, TikTok has made itself into a home to some of the most creative content on social media today.
In the long run (geopolitical concerns aside), abundance will always win, when faced with the opposite philosophy.
Beyond the technical capabilities available, the core driver to TikTok’s success, as we touched on earlier, is its community and platform culture.
The types of content on TikTok are wildly varied. In a 15 minute session, I was met with comedy routines, dancing, lip-syncing to movie dialogue, self-deprecating mockery, cute animals, and so much more.
Despite what appear like largely siloed verticals, TikTok’s platform culture is wildly powerful. If there’s one idea that sums up the spirit of the platform, it’s this:
This strong community, this shared feeling of belonging to an in-group is no accident by TikTok. The trending music/challenges features are the cornerstone of inspiring platform-wide trends and cultural waves — and it works.
Just as Vine birthed a tight-knit feeling of community through a new content format, TikTok builds it through relentless effort in community empowerment.
Culture has never been an afterthought for TikTok. It’s never been the mere byproduct of a large user base — it’s a moat that TikTok works day and night to dig.
In turn, a constant flow of new features and production capabilities are the water with which the moat is filled.
As we saw last week in the case of Mixer, creator communities thrive when users are given both the tools they need to express themselves creatively and the culture they need to foster that same expression.
The “new TikTok” can never, and will never, be just a platform for creating creative videos — it must be a home for creators to feel safe and encouraged to try, experiment, learn, and try again.
The New Guard
So, in our proposed TikTok’less world, who takes the throne?
In his book Historical Mechanisms, Andreas Boldt described power vacuums brilliantly, succinctly, in the context of political structures:
New power centers develop around former peripheral vassals […] which take the power of failing centers
Put into the context of TikTok, the “peripheral vassals” Boldt suggests take the form of corporations, apps already well established in the social media and short video space.
More concretely, that primarily means Facebook (Instagram), Snapchat, and curveball, Byte.
Instagram and Snapchat have already long been circling TikTok, but so far have been woefully unable to compete with the platform’s meteoric numbers.
Just as Instagram and Snapchat were the sharks circling Vine, already smelling the blood in the water long before the day Vine ended operations, both platforms, among others, have been getting into position to strike once again.
Both platforms though, as they stand today, are swimming up-current in the quest to be the lighthouse that attracts TikTok’s best and brightest.
And this is where the answer to who is best placed to take over from TikTok gets blurry.
As we discussed, TikTok’s leading benefit stems from its culture. From the outset, even in its Musical.ly days in the US, creativity was the leading priority beyond all else.
The “for you” curated discovery system serves to massively reduce hierarchy and size imbalances between creators. The organic reach for small creators is unrivaled.
Let’s look at Instagram as a counterexample.
On Instagram, and most social media platforms, content discovery is largely tied to user discovery.
Let’s break that down.
On Instagram, a new user looking to discover content is initially onboarded with recommendations to follow top accounts across their various categories of interest.
Until very recently, browsing to find new content was largely focused around finding new profiles to follow. You come across an account, and if you like what they do, you’d be recommended more of their back-catalog.
At the heart of the Instagram experience, until recently, profiles were the core of the platform. You followed individual profiles, not themes, individual creators, not a type of content.
This is changing with Reels, Instagram’s TikTok ~clone~ and its new recommendation engines, but has been fueled almost exclusively by the TikTok model.
This model, where the rich get richer, and organic discovery for smaller creators is difficult was turned on its head with TikTok — and it’s this model that fuels the root of the platform-wide culture.
TikTok rewards you for your creativity, in some sort of creative meritocracy, in a way that no other platform can.
Reels, then, in its current stage, perfectly ticks the box of offering creators new formats and tools, but it falls short on culture. Reels will always be engrained into a platform built on rewarding follower growth, over unfiltered creative ideas.
This doesn’t mean Reels can’t work, though. Just as TikTok has encouraged trends and community collaboration, a more hands-on culture management approach by Instagram puts the platform in a very strong position to take over from TikTok, should this day come.
Instagram’s Stories platform is already fueling a steady flow of creator tools. Half the equation is already solved, only culture remains.
As I mentioned above, there is a less obvious, but non-negligible “peripheral vassal” in the form of Byte.
Created by an initial founder of Vine and launched in early 2020, Byte is being marketed as a sort of enhanced evolution of Vine. Given Vine’s massive success at the time, not a terrible pitch.
Visiting Byte’s website deepens the story. Where solving for community and platform culture appears to be the key to longstanding growth, Byte is about as on-target in its messaging as humanly possible.
On the news that the White House was flirting with the idea of banning TikTok in the US, Byte shot to the top of the App Store’s free app section.
In the same manner as TikTok, Byte understands the importance of balancing being a creative platform with being a social platform. Both go hand-in-hand, but it’s a necessary distinction to view TikTok competitors.
The platform has seen some strong initial traction, but has been relatively little discussed on other social media. Nonetheless, I’m definitely keeping an eye on Byte going forward. The leadership behind it has strong experience in the space, and the TikTok situation couldn’t be better timing for Byte.
As a sidenote, Byte wasn’t the only winner in the White House news. Snapchat’s parent company, Snap’s stock price saw gains of 8% on the day the information dropped.
Overall, Snap’s had a pretty solid year.
In my opinion, Snapchat’s a strong contender for the TikTok throne in a similar way to Instagram.
Their creative tools are next-level. The camera technology innovation, the augmented reality capabilities coming out of Snap these last years have been groundbreaking for the mobile camera market. They check the “creative tools” box perfectly.
Their discovery platform is slowly expanding too. While they’ve recently put a bigger focus on content production, they’re well poised to make a deeper push in organic content discovery, as their Discover feed has already begun to do.
Speed, though, will be a large decider in the new king.
TikTok’s culture, as we’ve discussed, fosters a home for ideas to spread like wildfire.
A recent example of this was fyp.rip — a service to download your entire TikTok library locally. On the potential ban news, and an (unrelated) glitch which led many users to believe the end of TikTok was upon them, word of the service spread quickly, and suddenly was managing numerous requests every second.
Just as TikTok’s memes, in-jokes, and trends move fast, concerted efforts to move the wider community en-masse to a new platform could gain traction extremely quickly.
This is contingent, though, on the value proposition of the destination platform being strongly aligned enough with the two core pillars of social creation apps: creative tools and community.
As such, this is why Snapchat, Instagram, and Byte each fit the bill pretty strongly, each in their own way.
Regardless of which of the short-form apps take the crown, there’s one undeniable winner in the social video world — YouTube.
YouTube benefits over Byte, Snap, Instagram, or any of the numerous TikTok clones already on the market by virtue, in large part, of simply being stable.
While new fad apps come and go, YouTube remains the market leader for video. Almost everyone using any of the other platforms already uses YouTube.
While YouTube won’t be the destination for the short-form content itself, if (recent) history with Vine is any indication, it will gain a large fraction of secondary usage, thanks to creators expanding/diversifying their content offering.
YouTube is arguably the strongest platform for long-term brand building in the social media video space. It’ll gain from the influx of creators bringing young, engaged audiences to the platform. The platform’s renowned straightforward ad-based monetization also serves as a key selling point for many creators undecided where to take their brand.
In a world where TikTok disappears, then, it’s hard to argue for one single, overarching winner.
In the short term, its death in the US market would most likely fragment a 40M+ strong audience across several established platforms.
Just as Vine was a lesson for creators in not putting all their eggs in one basket, a TikTok disappearance would serve as a similar warning — and one I think many top creators are already wary of.
The creator landscape is very different from the 2013~2015 of Vine. Monetization opportunities and wider usage of brand sponsorship models have forced creators to explore more cohesive, cross-platform brand building in recent times.
Perhaps, then, the fall of one king doesn’t —at least in the short term— signal the coronation of another, but rather a cohesive spread of power across those “peripheral vassals”.
Nature abhors a vacuum, but that same nature is entirely agnostic to the who will rush to fill it.