The All-American Inspiration for TikTok

For three years now—spanning both the Trump and Biden administrations—Washington has been on a quest to ban TikTok. Earlier this year, the White House announced a ban on the social-media platform on federal-agency devices. And now, a bill that is gaining steam in Congress and has support from the president, the RESTRICT Act, would outlaw communications technologies—including software on American smartphones—from certain “foreign adversaries.” There has been little doubt that the bill was written with TikTok in mind. State legislators are also getting in on the act; yesterday, Montana became the first to ban the app.

Fears about the security risk posed by TikTok’s closeness with the Chinese government are well warranted, including the concern that Beijing may use the app to gather Americans’ personal information—employees have, after all, used the app to spy on journalists. But throughout this entire saga, many TikTok critics have framed the platform as antithetical to an “American” approach to innovation and the internet more generally. In March, when TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before Congress, the Republican Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington declared “We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values.” Citing TikTok, a competitor that is lapping Meta, Mark Zuckerberg has similarly worried that “China is building its own internet focused on very different values, and is now exporting their vision of the internet to other countries.”  

The presumption that Chinese technology companies have rejected an American approach to innovation is not particular to TikTok—what is now cast as a source of danger was once described as a comforting reason that China would never catch up technologically.

But this new narrative is fundamentally wrong. It was in fact the whole-hearted adoption of American ideas about innovation and the internet that gave rise to TikTok. ByteDance, the platform’s parent company, is a mirror of American technology rather than its antithesis. The company’s founding vision, its product ideas, and even its corporate culture are all at their root quite American in origin. Even in its present-day form as a company entangled in broader geopolitical tensions and national demands, ByteDance resembles its U.S. peers. In TikTok, America faces something not deeply alien, but quite familiar.

The most prominent American entrepreneurs of the social web—including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, and Jack Dorsey of Twitter—started their companies with a stated desire to build an internet that was an open, global public square for free expression. Leaders such as Google’s then-CEO Eric Schmidt celebrated the internet’s power to enable the free flow of information. “It used to be that information was controlled by an elite, by the government, by small groups, and now everyone has access to it,” Schmidt said in a 2007 speech.  “[The internet is] empowering, it’s frightening, it’s enthralling, it’s wonderful.”

ByteDance’s founder, Zhang Yiming, shared the same vision. Long before Zhang had caught the eyes of American teenagers—and regulators—he was an early, influential engineering lead at a start-up that has today been largely forgotten. Fanfou, an early Chinese knockoff of Twitter, was launched less than a year after Twitter went live in 2006. This was an era of profitable copying: the public face of Fanfou was the prominent entrepreneur Wang Xing, who had just sold off a Facebook clone before starting Fanfou.

In his role, Zhang played a major part in positioning Fanfou as a channel for free expression at a time when sensitive subjects could still be publicly discussed online in China. It was a hub for famous and controversial Chinese bloggers such as the artists Ai Weiwei and Chen Danqing. In one high-profile incident, two journalists, while investigating a case involving government officials sexually assaulting a hospitality worker, were beaten up by unidentified thugs; the story was widely shared and discussed on Fanfou. In 2009, Fanfou was shut down by the government following a series of violent riots in the Uyghur region of Xinjiang that had been widely reported on and talked about on the platform.

Prior to its closure, the site’s administrators fought the creeping influence of internet censors in defense of free speech. Zhang was a staunch advocate for a web free of censorship and government interference, even after Fanfou’s closure. In 2009, when the Chinese Communist Party partially restricted access to Google, Zhang was furious. “Go out and wear a T-shirt supporting Google,” he wrote in a now-deleted blog post. “If you block the internet, I’ll write what I want to say on my clothes.”

Zhang went on to found ByteDance in 2012. From the outset, the company was infused with Silicon Valley influences. Zhang admiringly stated during an interview, “Google is a company without borders … I hope Toutiao”—an early ByteDance app—“will be as borderless as Google.” The company’s Beijing office featured a poster of the cover of Eric Schmidt’s How Google Works, and consciously attempted to model its slogans and internal practices on those of the American tech giants. ByteDance adopted the goal-setting system known as “OKRs,” made famous by Google, and the company’s statement of values includes “Always Day 1,” invoking Jeff Bezos’s much-celebrated 1997 Amazon shareholder letter which laid out the company’s approach to staying entrepreneurial.

Zhang recognized that Silicon Valley had mastered the recipe of turning a startup into a juggernaut, and it didn’t take long before its product Jinri Toutiao—an algorithm-driven news aggregator—became a household name in China. And in 2017, ByteDance ultimately acquired, which was merged into TikTok. Under Zhang’s leadership, TikTok became a global sensation. This, too, would reenact the wildly successful strategy that led to Google’s acquisition of YouTube a decade earlier: A rising information aggregator makes a big bet on a culturally influential video platform, accelerating its growth with well over a billion new users.

This history complicates attempts to paint a simple picture of TikTok as inimical to American values around innovation and technology. To the contrary, Chinese entrepreneurs like Zhang were rooted in the same kinds of intellectual commitments, aspirations, and business ideas that gave rise to companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter. Wang Xing, Fanfou’s founder, would eventually build the multibillion-dollar ecommerce platform Meituan, which was initially inspired by Groupon. Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei has openly described himself as “pro-American” and an admirer of U.S. innovation culture. Lei Jun, the founder of the smartphone giant Xiaomi, looked up to Steve Jobs and recalled reading the 1984 book Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer as a life-changing moment. As they did in the U.S., this tangle of freewheeling ideas about technology in China spawned powerful, globe-spanning products such as TikTok.

Despite Zhang’s early vision for the open web, ByteDance has over the years bent to a government censorship regime that has grown more severe. After Beijing shut down one of ByteDance’s Chinese apps for “vulgar” content in 2018, Zhang publicly apologized for his product being “incommensurate with socialist core values” and vowed that ByteDance would fall in line with the Communist Party. Zhang’s statement, in sharp contrast with his previous views, can only be read as a reluctant display of loyalty in light of tightened government control of the web.

But the core business model of ByteDance remains one deeply inspired by Silicon Valley giants like Google, Facebook, and Twitter: free, algorithmically-driven media platforms monetized through targeted advertisements. One reason that TikTok now finds itself in the crosshairs of U.S. regulators is precisely that it has followed the model pioneered by American innovators, leveraging user data to fuel its algorithmic feeds. Indeed, the same concerns raised by this business model in the United States—not just surrounding data privacy, but also antitrust and user addiction—have motivated the series of regulations that the Chinese government has implemented in recent years.

Support for the open web has also faltered in the United States. The RESTRICT Act is a sign that we are a long way off from then–Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s 2010 declaration that America stood for “the freedom to connect—the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other.” The tech giants in Silicon Valley have grown even more powerful, making the internet feel smaller than it once did. The industry has also embraced a nationalist posture. Andreessen Horowitz, the storied venture backer of many of the companies that rode the wave of the open web in the early 2010s, now touts a specific “American Dynamism” focus, patriotically targeting investments that “support the national interest.” Eric Schmidt has also adopted a more hawkish tone. “The real issue is we need to compete against China and win,” he said recently. “I want all of the conversation to be with the tech industry—what does it take to produce globally strong platforms?”

Nowadays, it is hard to find advocates in the U.S. or China for the early, utopian vision of the web. This dream of a borderless internet open for free expression and independent of national interference was always fraught: overly simplistic, problematic in its absolutism, and frequently impractical. But the ever more nationalist, ever more restricted internet may be a great deal worse.

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