TikTok’s biggest creators imagine what would happen if the app went away

TikTok’s biggest creators imagine what would happen if the app went away

TikTok creators can’t seem to escape a maelstrom of policy and security concerns lately. On Wednesday, President Joe Biden signed a $95 billion national security package into law. Nestled inside it was the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, which gives TikTok parent company ByteDance 270 days to sell the platform or cease operations in the United States. Policymakers maintain that the bill is not a “ban,” but a way to get the China-based ByteDance to divest from TikTok. The battle over TikTok could play out in the courts for far longer than the roughly nine-month window before the deadline, but the uncertain future of the app has kicked up a fervor among its many creators, who depend on it for community, connection, and their livelihoods.

Over 150 million Americans used TikTok in 2023, and a potential ban — or other action that would radically change the app — would alter the fabric of modern American culture. It’s a hub for cute anime edits, the perfect four-ingredient salad recipe, tips on how to clean your home, other users’ personal diary entries gone viral, and, in contrast to Washington’s action, a place where lawmakers can speak directly to constituents. TikTok is home to a plethora of communities and conversations, and people who make content for the platform are having to contend with a potential end to it all. As creators and experts tell Polygon, TikTok is a nexus for audience building with ties to every other social platform, and losing it would erode the livelihoods of people trying to stay connected in a splintering online experience.

Casey Fiesler, a professor in the University of Colorado Boulder’s department of information science who has amassed more than 115,000 followers on TikTok herself with videos about the cultural significance of the platform, says TikTok’s greatest achievement is its recommendation algorithm. Compared to other apps, it’s “exceptionally good” at helping people find what they need — specifically, viewers who are often suppressed in other areas of life. Fiesler points to political organizing, LGBTQ rights, and chronic illness as topics where TikTok’s recommendation engine has allowed people with shared experiences and perspectives to cluster. “They literally find lifesaving information and support,” she says.

TikTok’s astonishing ability to connect people to audiences who share their specific interests is reflected in the rise of some of its biggest creators. Eleanor Barnes, better known by the handle Snitchery, built a massive audience of over 4.1 million followers on TikTok by sharing videos showcasing inventive makeup looks and offbeat cosplays. If you don’t know her by her handle, you might have seen her as the cabbage salesman from Avatar: The Last Airbender or a cursed Thomas the Tank Engine.

“I’ve been working as a full-time content creator for almost a decade, and within the first year of signing up, TikTok quickly became the platform with my largest audience,” Barnes tells Polygon. For her, losing TikTok wouldn’t just be about missing out on that audience, but on using the platform as a way to find information for herself. “More than anything, I’d miss all the things I learn from TikTok on a regular basis. Everything from obscure historical facts to how to tie a tie, I typically go straight there. I’ve been in the industry long enough career-wise; I think I’ll be all right regardless of what happens with the ban. I still have my other platforms. But to lose access to all of that information would be a huge shame,” Barnes says.

Barnes and most creators have other platforms to turn to, but as many note, TikTok serves as a catalyst that brings viewers to the other platforms. Umi, better known online by her handle, Uwumi, rose to TikTok fame in 2019 after going viral for dancing to a remix of “Jump Up, Super Star!” from Super Mario Odyssey. Uwumi says TikTok jump-started the “entirety” of her online presence and community. The platform remains the easiest place “for anyone to go viral on without necessarily being dependent on quality” or video length. Her 900,000-plus following is also instrumental in securing sponsorships. “All of the opportunities I’ve been afforded—my community, connections, sponsorships, and platform in general—have been thanks to my initial rise on TikTok in 2019,” she writes via email.

Nina Kemper, talent manager at Grail Talent, an agency that represents over 650 creators worldwide, says a TikTok ban would not just take away direct platform revenue streams, like the TikTok Creator Fund Program, but could result in creators losing brand deals that go beyond the platform. “Many of them have been on the platform for years and have built a loyal following that primarily resides on TikTok,” Kemper says over email, “so many are fearful that years of hard work and dedication could soon be taken away with no resolve to be found.”

Kevin Espiritu, the person behind Epic Gardening, which gives people gardening tips, estimated that any fracturing or complete ban of the app would result in him losing 3.1 million followers — many of whom are in an 18-24 demographic that likely wouldn’t cross back over to Instagram, YouTube, or other social platforms. And for Espiritu, that audience is the “proving ground” for experimentation that other algorithms could reject.

“I’d be hopeful that the ‘gap’ would be filled by an increase in YouTube Shorts viewership or Instagram Reels, but wouldn’t be sure,” he says. “It would definitely be a big hit to our brand. A lot of awesome collaboration opportunities have arisen as a result of using TikTok exclusively.” Espiritu points to appearances on national talk shows that plucked him off the platform.

While it’s easy to focus on larger influencers, Fiesler also emphasizes that the loss of TikTok could impact smaller and mid-size creators who rely on the app for much-needed extra income. Anecdotally, during the COVID-19 pandemic, she heard that TikTok became a significant source of income for creators with disabilities — a second job that could dry up if ByteDance doesn’t find a viable buyer.

“When people talk about loss of income, I think what they have in mind is huge influencers with six-figure brand deals,” Fiesler says. “That’s not what I’m talking about when I talk about loss of income. I mean someone who is working a full-time minimum-wage job, and in their free time, they can do something that’s kind of fun. They’re talking about Stardew Valley on TikTok, and they can make an extra $100 a month from the TikTok Creator Program. Losing that $100 a month could mean that they suddenly have problems paying their rent.”

Erynn Chambers, known on the platform as Rynnstar, a creator whose commentary ranges from contemporary political issues to in-depth discussions of Steven Universe, has amassed more than 1.2 million followers. Her profile serves as a center of conversation dissecting politics and popular culture. If TikTok went away, Rynnstar would likely shift to Twitch and YouTube, but for now, she’s biding time by speaking out about the legislation.

“I think it’s unconscionable that the government would make such a blatant attempt at limiting the free speech of its citizens,” Chambers says. “TikTok is no greater threat to our data security than any other social media platform and frankly perhaps even less so. Once again our so-called representatives have completely failed to represent the interests of their constituents in favor of lobbying groups.”

Lawmakers argue that TikTok owner ByteDance has shared, or could share, TikTok user data with the Chinese government. There is some evidence, albeit not overwhelming evidence, to suggest that this has taken place. TikTok definitely has its share of problems, and despite making a case for the power of TikTok, Fiesler acknowledges its failures. However, just taking it away altogether would have enormous impacts on its many creators. In the end, it’s about accounting for the fact that the platform can be improved, and for the negative effects of banning it.

“There are a lot of problems,” Fiesler says. “There are privacy problems. There are content moderation problems. There are bias problems. There’s a lot that I can say — there’s problems about how they pay people. There’s a lot that I can say. Most of the things that I can say are also problems on other social media platforms. And those things don’t mean that there isn’t also a lot of good on the platform.”