The Trump administration’s possible ban on TikTok in the U.S. could prove to be a golden opportunity for the viral video app’s competitors.
This past weekend, President Trump announced that his administration was going to ban TikTok due to national security risks related to its Chinese-parent company, ByteDance. If the proposed ban moves forward, its users will undoubtedly defect, and look for a new but similar app to create and post social content. However, it’s going to be very hard for those competitors to recreate the cultural phenomenon that is TikTok. After all, it’s not just a social media platform — it’s a discovery tool; it’s a community; it can ruin the President of the United States’ rally attendance.
Some users have already flocked to competitors’ apps upon hearing the news. One of those apps that’s gaining a lot of attention now is Triller.
Can Triller replace TikTok?
Early last month, shortly after India banned TikTok for similar China-related security issues, Triller boasted about having 50 million monthly active users. Sure, that’s still tiny compared to TikTok’s 800 million monthly active users, but Triller is definitely growing. The app suddenly of Apple’s App Store charts over the weekend. On the day Trump announced the ban, Triller app downloads hit nearly 62,000 in the U.S. alone.
Much like TikTok, Triller has a focus on short-form music video creation. It even has from some major music stars like Snoop Dogg and Lil Wayne. As of now, it seems Triller may become the main alternative choice for TikTok users.
However, TikTok has one important feature that Triller and other competitors don’t. And it’s a feature that will be very hard to replicate. I am talking about TikTok’s recommendation algorithm.
TikTok’s secret weapon
There’s a reason why TikTok has become such a time-suck for its users. The app is insanely good at surfacing content that each individual user would find interesting. You really can’t login and watch just one TikTok video. After you finish a clip, TikTok automatically serves you up another must-watch video related to your interests.
As Jia Tolentino wrote in The New Yorker last September: “Although TikTok’s algorithm likely relies in part, as other systems do, on user history and video-engagement patterns, the app seems remarkably attuned to a person’s unarticulated interests. Some social algorithms are like bossy waiters: they solicit your preferences and then recommend a menu. TikTok orders you dinner by watching you look at food.”
An article on women’s interest site Man Repeller by writer Amalie MacGowan drives home just how attuned TikTok’s recommendation engine is to its users’ interests. In the piece, MacGowan highlights how the TikTok algorithm seemed to figure out her sexuality even before she fully came to terms with it.
“My feed has become curated so specifically to my tastes that it has alerted me to parts of myself I hadn’t fully embraced yet,” MacGowan wrote of the app’s prescient algorithm. “It’s a medley of absurd animal videos, spooky happenings that are more than likely hoaxes… and queer femmes.”
TikTok is powered by an AI-based recommendation algorithm. This algorithm is the product of years of tweaks and enhancements from being used across ByteDance’s various other China-based apps. TikTok probably wouldn’t exist as the sensation it is currently without ByteDance and its algorithm. Ironically, ByteDance is also source of all of TikTok’s problems with the Trump administration.
Social media needs to be…well, social
The algorithm is an important part of TikTok’s popularity, but there’s another major piece to the puzzle which its competitors will still need to figure out: the social aspect.
No, it’s not just about having users “like” your posts and follow you on the platform; TikTok is all about the collaborative features. Creators can react to and play off of other users’ content with TikTok’s split-screen function. There are hashtag challenges which inspire people to one-up other users’ themed videos.
If you’re a musical artist, you can get your music in front of millions of potential new fans simply by publishing it on TikTok so creators can (legally) use it in their videos.
TikTok’s rivals have yet to replicate much of these standout features, but that could change.
Snapchat, an already established online platform, has announced that it will bring some TikTok-like features to its app. However, just bringing those features to Snapchat won’t properly replicate TikTok. It’s just not the same type of community. Snapchat is all about ephemeral messages and video — disappearing content that lives for a short time within its app.
TikTok is a different beast entirely. It facilitates content creation on its own app through these tools. But it also encourages users to download video content from TikTok and post it elsewhere, ensuring it gets in front of as many eyeballs as possible. There are no third-party workarounds necessary like other video platforms, either. TikTok offers users the tools to download a video, complete with the creator’s username added as a watermark, right within the app.
The next challenger: Facebook?
TikTok has blown up in the U.S. and around the world because it provides tools and a community that can’t be found anywhere else. What’s out there now on rival apps just doesn’t come close. Unless the app’s potential Microsoft acquisition falls through and the Trump administration actually goes ahead and bans it, TikTok will be hard for any competitor to take down. And, even if it is banned, it’s just as likely that nothing currently out there will take its place.
But that’s not stopping Facebook from trying with the company’s soon-to-be-released rival app, Reels. So can Mark Zuckerberg’s next project successfully take on TikTok? For now, it remains to be seen. Reels will have to bring the aspects and features outlined above and execute them better than TikTok. But if past attempts are any indication, Reels could very well fail to launch. Just take a look at Lasso, Facebook’s previous grab at TikTok’s dominance. That app on July 10.
It’s possible Lasso was a Facebook trial run for Reels and the intent was always to phase it out. Or maybe it’s a harbinger of things to come for yet another TikTok clone.