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The TikTok Ban Is Bad, Stupid, And Bound To Blow Up In The Government’s Face

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This week, United States president Joe Biden signed into law a kludged-together bill that – among many other things, including supplying billions more in aid to Israel – will effectively ban TikTok if owner ByteDance fails to sell the app within nine months. TikTok’s 170 million US-based users, or about half the country, are mad about this, and they have every right to be. On the latest episode of Aftermath Hours, we talk about why.

This time around we’re joined by Matt Kim, senior features editor at IGN, to discuss Stellar Blade, a culture war battleground that, as it turns out, is a perfectly alright video game and nothing more. Seems to happen a lot! Maybe we could all learn something from this. But we probably won’t. Oh well. 

Then we discuss the impending TikTok ban, which is a load of dumb bullshit that doesn’t seem like it will pan out the way the United States government is hoping, but it’s happening anyway. Lastly, we round out this lighthearted episode by touching on NYU Game Center’s support of campus protesters and the conditionality of free speech in a country that purports to be rooted in it. Fun! But if that all sounds boring to you, we also talk about browser tabs.

You can find this week's episode below and on Spotify, Apple, or wherever else you prefer to listen to podcasts. If you like what you hear, make sure to leave a review so that we, the staff of Aftermath, can throw our hat into the ring as potential TikTok buyers, right after we become titans of industry by purchasing what little remains of G/O Media.

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

Nathan: I think [the TikTok ban] is worth being up in arms about for a few reasons. One of them is that the US government has historically been absolute trash at regulating anything related to tech, and this is their first really big swing. They’ve done hearings about Facebook and stuff, but there hasn’t been much to address actual concerns around these platforms. But now, suddenly, they can get bipartisan support to unilaterally ban one app. This is so fucking stupid!   

Chris: It’s real dumb.

Nathan: Because we do need good government regulation of tech. So many of the problems that tech has created could have been at least curtailed by decent regulation from an informed government. But they’re not choosing to do that. They’re doing all this political grandstanding around China, and it’s a bunch of fear mongering. It’s so frustrating. That part, I think, is worth being up in arms about because it’s a clear failure of our government.

Matt: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately: the American-made social media products that are the dominant ones – that [the US government] is propping up in the face of this foreign popular app – are also unusable now. They’re so bad! Facebook’s garbage, Twitter’s garbage, YouTube’s bad, Reddit’s also bad. All of these things used to be useful and good websites that I was able to navigate easily or get the content that I wanted or have content that I needed sourced to me. They’re just unrecognizable now. Google is hot trash. I remember YouTube almost being at a TikTok level of being able to show me videos I was genuinely interested in. Now I literally only stick to the 40 channels I’m subscribed to, because everything else is awful.  

Chris: I think a part of it is also the “I drink your milkshake” thing. They’re mad that [TikTok] got a better algorithm. They’re mad that [TikTok] got something that was a way better Skinner Box. They lost the juice when it came to actively engaging with people. Not to defend TikTok, but they got better at doing the thing everybody was scared of: the weird, oddly-invasive algorithmic shit. We were like “Should we be doing this,” and we had a moment. And [TikTok] was like “Yeah. Boom.”

But also, the free ride is over, man. TikTok was also really smart at monetizing. All the shop stuff that Instagram – that was debatably one of the better things they’ve done – [TikTok] got way better at. Selling merch on TikTok is fucking huge. 

Nathan: It’s become a cornerstone of the platform in the past year. There are tons of creators whose whole thing is reviewing products on the TikTok shop. That’s their income. That’s it.  

Chris: It is! And YouTube tries that with Shelf integration, but you have to sign up for Shopify, and it’s annoying. [TikTok] just doesn’t have the same reservations that other platforms have out of either apathy or laziness, and then those platforms degrade over time and become worse to be on. So you have this accelerationism. But now TikTok creators are noticing that the gravy train is over, because that’s every platform. Every platform is really good in the beginning, and that’s when you can make a name for yourself, and that’s when they turn all the levers all the way up. Then once they realize they have to make money, they turn them down, and they turn the payout down. Every single fucking time.  

Nathan: Yeah, and also when they realize they have  to make money, they graft all this other shit onto it, whether that’s a bunch of shopping features or, in the case of Twitch, more and more ads. Because the way the tech world works is, you get all this money upfront, and you put it all into the thing you’re making, and then eventually you’re like “Oh crap, we’ve got to become profitable, or at least something that resembles profitable.” 

All that said, a key thing to keep in mind here is that TikTok in America is not that much of ByteDance’s business. I was reading a Reuters article on this a little while ago, and they talked to some sources at TikTok and ByteDance. Those sources said that just within TikTok itself – and it’s important to also note that ByteDance has another app that is basically TikTok but in China, that is way bigger than TikTok and accounts for a large portion of its business – the American population on TikTok is only 25 percent of TikTok’s, not all of ByteDance’s, worldwide revenue. And so it makes more sense for a company like ByteDance to just not sell it, to hold onto it. 

Because the other thing is, if they sold it, the thing they’d be selling – or at least, that people would want – is the algorithm, which also powers the Chinese version of the app. ByteDance does not want to give up that algorithm, nor would it make business sense for them to do so. It’d make more sense for them to just hold onto all of this and be like “OK, I guess it’s banned, but y’all are shooting yourselves more in the foot than you’re shooting us.”

Chris: There’s also an assumption of a unipolar world – this idea that if America bans it, it must be dead. But it’s like nah, man, they’ve got a lot more people. Even just China itself is bigger. Number bigger! I’m sorry; I hate saying it like that. But the audience outside of America is a bigger thing. They don’t have to give this shit to you. They will take the loss.

I don’t even know if it will happen, though. I’m still not convinced it’s gonna happen. I think that whoever is in office might get cold feet, and if they do, there might be a legal challenge. I’m not counting on it. 

Nathan: TikTok has already said that they’re gonna challenge this legally, so it’s going to some form of court. Presumably in that court, whoever is representing the government will need to prove that TikTok poses a credible threat in conjunction with the Chinese government. Otherwise it’s just First Amendment shit.

Chris: Or not even First Amendment stuff. Even just the idea of forcing a business to sell because they’re a foreign business, [that probably wouldn’t fly]. I think they care more about business owner rights than they do personal free speech.

Nathan: Buried in all this also is the fact that if you look at the actual language of the bill that got passed, what they’re outlawing isn’t just TikTok in its current form; it’s any app that has ties to a foreign government. That’s such a broad way of stating it. I think that’s probably why they want to pass something like this. They want control in perpetuity and they want to reserve the right to get rid of any app they feel like is maybe linked to a government, as spurious as that claim may be. Which is awful. It’s a horrible precedent. 

Matt: RIP Genshin Impact.

Nathan: That was the real reason for the ban: Biden didn’t get the gacha anime character he wanted and said, “Argh, I hate this game. I’m ready to ban all of these things now.”        

(Podcast production by Multitude.)

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