(NEW YORK) — What happens when a social media company succeeds at building a community, then threatens to destroy what its users spent years building?
Devoted users of TikTok face that very question, as the app faces bipartisan criticism and a potential ban stemming from its political and national security issues.
Having built niche followings on the short-form video site, content creators told ABC News that their communities might be unable to migrate to another platform if TikTok were banned, shattering the rare progress of a social media company accomplishing part of their community-building mission.
“If we lose this, I lose a very large community,” Rayne Loucks told ABC News.
With about 52,000 followers for his account @StarTrekGuy, Loucks is a part of the Star Trek community on the platform, though he is far from the archetype of a TikTok influencer. Lacking the hallmarks of TikTok — millions of followers, lucrative brand deals, prolific dance videos — Loucks posts in his spare time between working as an assistant teacher and delivering food for Pizza Hut.
“An important thing to know about me is that I am autistic. I do not have very many friends in real life,” he said. “Most of my friends are there, so I would be devastated.”
Though the timeline and potential for a nationwide ban of the platform are uncertain, the threat of a ban lingers for creators like Loucks, who worries he would lose his community, friends and support system that has allowed him to come out of his “shell.”
As TikTok grew to have over 200 million downloads in the United States, its initial success was primarily built on viral videos created by the slim minority of app users. More similar to YouTube than platforms like Facebook and Instagram, users grew accustomed to a steady feed of targeted content, according to Ted Murphy, the founder and CEO of social media marketing firm IZEA.
“The majority of people are there to be entertained, and they’re not being entertained necessarily by their cousin or their co-worker,” he told ABC News. “They’re being entertained by other people who are producing content that they’re interested in.”
Rick Mason, who posts to his 9,000 followers with the username @randomgotham, described that he initially thought the platform was “just a bunch of dancing videos” that didn’t appeal to him. Jimmy Shoffman, with about 1,000 followers for his account @TREKNOPOD, shared that initial view of the app. Another user Mary Faulds, who posts to her 15,000 followers under the username @flutemusik, told ABC News that she joined the platform to embarrass her kids.
As dance videos made normal teenagers into megastars, TikTok also began to foster niche communities with devoted content creators making videos for smaller, albeit committed, viewers.
All four creators eventually gravitated toward the Star Trek community on the platform, where they found a strong group of friends and collaborators.
“Star Trek is about people coming together from many different backgrounds and finding a sense of self, a sense of family, community, a place where you can be accepted and be yourself,” Mason said. “And I think that’s pretty much how I feel about the people I meet online. They really have become my family.”
Faulds, 33, added that finding friends in her small town of Galion, Ohio, a community she shares with her ex-husband, can be difficult.
“People will say, ‘Oh, I like Star Trek,’ but then when you start talking about like cosplay and conventions and stuff, suddenly you’re just a little too weird,” she told ABC News. “And I found people on TikTok who did not think that I was too weird.”
They attribute the company’s success to the platform’s approach to curating content on a “For You” page, which aggregates videos the platform believes users prefer based on their scrolling patterns and likes. The app also pushes users into niche communities, such as TrekTok, DatingTok, or PowerToolsTok.
“It’s like going to a party where you don’t know anybody,” Mason said to describe the way TikTok curates content. “I feel like TikTok tends to be like [the] host who tends to say, ‘Hey, so and so likes this, you guys should talk.'”
Despite these redeeming qualities, TikTok and its parent company ByteDance appear constantly embroiled in controversies, with critics accusing the company of giving Chinese government officials access to sensitive user data, including the specific profile that TikTok uses to curate its successful and individualized “For You” page.
“I don’t think that spying is the right way to describe it,” TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew told members of Congress when asked if his company spies on US users.
ByteDance has denied this allegation multiple times, yet the company faces a ban in Montana and a threat of a federal prohibition.
Despite the national security risk articulated by politicians and federal law enforcement officials, some users see the risk as menial compared to other social media platforms.
“Google steals our data, Facebook steals our data,” Loucks noted. “Stealing data is the price of having a free online. I am willing to pay that price.”
Other users recognized that a foreign company might collect their data. Still, they opted to accept that risk considering the benefits that the platform brings to their lives — not just enjoying videos, but the feeling of finding a community at a time of overwhelming loneliness. Research from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education found that Americans’ mental health during the pandemic suggests that 36 percent of Americans, including 61 percent of young adults, experience serious loneliness.
“All of the sudden, I had friends, and it’s really difficult where I am to make friends,” Faulds said of the niche community on the platform.
However, the political headwinds TikTok faces in the U.S. threaten to damage or remove that community and others. Other platforms like YouTube and Instagram have embraced the short-form video platform that drove TikTok’s growth, but some users expressed doubt if the community they built could successfully migrate.
“A TikTok ban would result in me really feeling isolated because the community is so close,” Faulds added. “The loneliness would be real, whether or not they are ‘just virtual friends.'”
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