What happened?

The Chinese short-video sharing app TikTok is among the most popular apps in both the U.S. and Europe and, as such, it is set to become the most important social media platform for teenagers. While its Chinese roots are mostly invisible to its users, those roots are, nevertheless, quite relevant. Its highly centralized model of control over user experience (including heavy moderation of “inappropriate” content) clearly reflects a Chinese perspective on technology and everyday life which is starkly different from Western ideals about digital technology and social liberty. As such, the app’s popularity can be regarded as a sign of our willingness to embrace a stricter model of online governance. Moreover, albeit speculative, TikTok’s success may also reflect a broader openness to Chinese values in relation to society, the role of government and limits to freedom ofspeech that diverge from traditional Western values.

What does this mean?

The nation or region that leads the world in a technological and political sense will also seek to lead the world in a cultural sense. Exporting culture not only serves economic goals, it is also an important vector for soft power on a strategic and ideological level (e.g. to convince other nations of the merits of capitalism and free trade). This happened with American (pop) culture and ideas in the 20th century, which were given a piggyback across the Atlantic by radios and automobiles. Japan has also sought to spread Japanese culture with its cars and electronics (e.g. its animation industry), but, in contrast to American culture, success has always been limited to small groups of aficionados. The same is true for K-Pop (Korean Pop), which, despite its popularity, is still regarded as “exotic” and is unlikely to take root in the everyday lives of Western teenagers the way TikTok is doing.

What’s next?

TikTok represents one route to “fixing the internet” by means of stricter control over content (cf. Europe’s article 13 and online safety laws in the U.K.). In a broader sense, it also resonates with calls, in both the U.S. and Europe, for a bigger role for government in order to deal with challenges related to, for instance, healthcare and climate change. China may provide Western societies with inspiration for how to go about this and TikTok could very well prove an important vector for this kind of soft power. Previously, we have speculated on how China’s social credit system could provide inspiration for the West as well, but, in contrast to TikTok’s friendly appearance, the credit system (still) conjures up too dreadful an image to the Western mind.