Around 11:30 PST today, TikTok Likes disappeared. For a brief moment, just about every creator in my notifications tab went live, panicking that their beloved platform was kicking the bucket amid xenophobic dog-whistles from the Trump administration that the app is a “national security threat.” Was the plug being pulled on the app? Probably not; TikTok explained that the platform was having technical issues. But the swiftness with which creators panicked, sharing their handles on other platforms so their fans could find them, speaks to the ephemeral nature of internet virality, and how desperately creators rely on metrics and visual “popularity” meters, some for their livelihoods.
When the views disappeared, TikToks rapidly cropped up claiming that videos on the discover page, and on individual profiles, seemed to be most affected:
Soon, creators rushed to livestream in a last-chance bid to connect with fans. A friend of mine, Kendall Close, who works in social media, sent me this video as an illustration of the mass panic that ensued. Take note of just how many livestream announcements include some variation of “Is TikTok dead?” or “This might be goodbye!”
The panic, it seems, is rooted in recent comments from Trump that he is “looking at” banning TikTok altogether, per a CNN report Tuesday. On Monday, Secretary of Stare Mike Pompeo made similar claims in an interview with Fox’s Laura Ingraham, in which he said the app will put “your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.” CNN reports that in response to Pompeo’s xenophobic claim, which follows a thread of increasingly racist remarks about China since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic—and Trump’s entire presidency, really—a spokesperson for TikTok retorted:
“TikTok is led by an American CEO, with hundreds of employees and key leaders across safety, security, product, and public policy here in the US. We have no higher priority than promoting a safe and secure app experience for our users. We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.”
With the government breathing down the neck of the popular social media app, creators continued wishing their fans and followers goodbye. Like @thejonathanmoss, who shared his other social accounts “in case this was the final chance you get to see me.”
When asked for comment, representatives for TikTok directed Jezebel to a tweet from the official TikTok support account, which claims the platform is “aware” of issues, and is working to address them. As of now, likes have seemingly returned to normal, at least per my own “For You” and discover pages. Cecilia Gray, a user familiar with TikTok’s internal workings who regularly posts videos explaining its algorithm, chalked up the problem to a “simple glitch.”
But the speed at which creators rushed to share their other platforms illustrates, in a somewhat morbid way, how futile online virality really is. In the wake of Vine’s spectacular death in 2016, users understand that at any moment, social media profiles could just up and vanish, and that users don’t really “own” their accounts. Likewise, user agreements largely favor platforms over individuals, particularly in their ability to promote or remove content. Instagram has long been accused of censoring female creators, and TikTok has, in the past, been similarly accused of “shadow banning” queer, fat, and black creators from appearing on people’s discover pages. (TikTok has since claimed they’ve put a stop to the practice.) Perhaps it’s laughable that for a brief half-hour, the entirety of the TikTok community had a collective meltdown over something as seemingly inconsequential as “likes.” But when these metrics dictate creators’ online lives—and for many, their income—can you really blame them?