TikTok was the top downloaded app in the United States in 2021 and 2022, according to data from analytics firm Sensor Tower. It now drives culinary habits (including a 200% jump in Feta sales at one grocery store after a baked pasta dish went viral); countless fashion and beauty crazes (from “skin cycling” to “glazed donut nails”), and propels new and old music (including the 1980s song “Break My Stride”) to the top of streaming charts.
A significant percentage of US politicians campaigned on the app ahead of the midterm elections last year. And legacy news organizations like the 176-year-old Associated Press have recently joined TikTok to reach new audiences.
So as lawmakers have renewed calls for tougher action to be taken with the app, some of its users who have built their livelihoods and found a sense of community on the app say they can’t imagine an America without it.
Callie Goodwin, of Columbia, South Carolina, posted her first video on the app to promote the small business she had started out of her garage during the pandemic.
Inspired by a neighbor dropping off some brownies and a handwritten note for her while she was in quarantine, Goodwin decided to launch a pre-stamped greeting cards company called Sparks of Joy Co. A few months later, a TikTok influencer with some two million followers shared one of Goodwin’s cards on her account and Goodwin saw her business take off.
Kahlil Greene, of New Haven, Connecticut: Known as the “Gen Z historian” across social media, he has amassed more than 580,000 followers on TikTok by documenting social and cultural issues. Greene’s following on TikTok even garnered the attention of the Biden administration. Greene was among the handful of TikTokers who were recently invited to a White House press briefing on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “So much of our culture and lives are driven by TikTok now that it’s not just something you can rip away easily,” he said.
At a time when major tech giants including Meta and Twitter are slashing staff, TikTok is still hiring American engineers. TikTok also appears be to taking aim at a chunk of Amazon’s e-commerce empire by seeking to build out its own warehousing network in the United States, a flurry of recent job postings indicates.
The challenge for the federal government “is it’s almost like TikTok is too big to fail,” said Rick Sofield, a partner at Vinson & Elkins L.L.P., who focuses on national security reviews, export controls and economic sanctions. “I think their minds are made up that ByteDance owning TikTok is a national security concern – the reason that we’ve been hung up is it’s too big to fail, and they’re trying to figure out a soft landing.”
Adrianna Wise, from Columbus, Ohio: TikTok hasn’t just been “essential” for building her bakery, it’s also been a critical tool that lets her reach young Black and brown people in her community and share knowledge and tips on how to build a business.
“I see the impact that I’m having when I go out into the community and people are like, ‘Oh my gosh, I follow you TikTok,’” Wise, who is co-founder of Coco’s Confectionary Kitchen, told CNN. “I had a little girl a few weeks ago tell me, ‘It was just so cool because you have hair like me, and you’re on TikTok and you have so many views!’”
Hootie Hurley, a Los Angeles-based full-time creator with more than 1.3 million followers on TikTok, told CNN that he now makes most of his income through his TikTok following.
While a ban would be “very scary” for him and his livelihood, Hurley said he and other TikTok creators are more focused on entertaining their audience than stressing about it – especially after weathering the first ban threats back in 2020.
“If the government ever did ban it,” he said, “everybody would actually be very, very surprised.”