Can TikTok Ever Be “Managed”?

John Battelle
4 min readJan 16

(original post at Searchblog) Today let’s think out loud about TikTok, perhaps the most vexing and fascinating expression of Big Tech power since Google in the early 2000s. I’ve written about TikTok several times, and today’s news, from the Wall Street Journal, raises fresh questions that feel under-appreciated.

First, the background. As most of you likely know, TikTok is owned by a large Chinese company called ByteDance. In less than five years, TikTok has hijacked the very heart of Big Tech’s consumer business in the United States — our attention. Nearly 100 million US consumers will spend an average of more than 90 mins a day watching TikTok this year. That’s time that Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and every other consumer tech and media company can’t get back. Here’s Scott Galloway’s visualization of the trend, from a piece last Fall:

Of course, time is money when your money comes from advertising. TikTok is hands down the most significant threat to the US digital media business that’s ever emerged — and it came not from a garage in Palo Alto, but from a massive Chinese company under the direct control of the Chinese government.

And how has TikTok effected such a breathtaking success? According to pretty much everyone — including TikTok — it’s the company’s super charged package of advanced artificial intelligence plus a highly effective algorithm — a black box paying attention to what we pay attention to, then giving us more of what we want.

Here you have the ingredients for a narrative everyone wants to believe — a seductive mind virus from a hostile nation, driven by scary algorithms and possibly sentient AI. No wonder US politicians — both in the statehouse and in Congress — have begun to take notice, voting to ban TikTok on government devices, and even threatening to ban the app from the US market altogether.

Which brings us to today, and back to the Journal piece. Ever since the Trump administration’s ham-handed attempt to force TikTok into divestiture, its parent company has been hard at work trying to win over the hearts and minds of regulators in the US government. A nearly two-year…

John Battelle

A Founder of The Recount, NewCo, Federated Media, sovrn Holdings, Web 2 Summit, Wired, Industry Standard; writer on Media, Technology, Culture, Business