Why I’m Not Bullish On Tik Tok

John Battelle
4 min readJan 3, 2022

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News came last week that TikTok eclipsed both Google and Facebook as the most visited domain and most downloaded app in the United States. The mainstream media response can be summed up in this piece from CBS, which notes the news, then quotes a TikTok public policy executive. I wish I was making this up, but here’s the quote:

“TikTok is about entertainment and bringing joy,” TikTok’s head of public policy for North America Michael Beckerman told CBS Mornings in October. “You put a premium on authentic content, uplifting content. But like all entertainment, you want to watch with moderation, and we put tools in place, take-a-break video, screen time management, and tools for parents like family pairing to make sure that they can have conversations and do what’s right for their family and their teenagers.”

Sounds great, right? “Bringing joy”! Here comes TikTok, the “happy app” that has learned from all that bad stuff Facebook has had to deal with over the past five years. The story goes on to note that there’s been some “controversy” around the platform, like viral vandalism at schools and other “challenges.” When asked about these issues, “A TikTok representative did not respond to a request for comment.”

But nowhere in that coverage, not at the WSJ, or Cnet, or many others, is the problematic reality of TikTok’s ownership structure noted. Nor is it mentioned that Tik Tok’s parent company, ByteDance, sold a stake — and a board seat — to the Chinese government. Even before that governance story broke (in the fall of 2020), I was expressing my discomfort with what TikTok represents given its perch at the intersection of surveillance capitalism and high-stakes geopolitics. More than two years ago, in “Tik Tok, Tick, Tock….Boom”, I wrote:

  1. China employs a breathtaking model of state-driven surveillance.
  2. The US employs a breathtaking model of capitalist surveillance.

We on the same page so far? OK, great.

Now let’s consider TikTok, which is a robust combination of the two. Don’t know TikTok? Come on, you read Searchblog for God’s sake. Ok, well, fortunately for you, there’s the New York Times. Or…maybe not. I almost threw up in my mouth as I watched the paper of record run through its

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John Battelle

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