TikTok: The Beginning of the End of American Tech Supremacy

TikTok is one of those of those apps that was honestly barely on my radar.   Oh man, if there were ever a sign that I’m super-old and practically prehistoric, this would be it.  That some new “short video sharing” app had skyrocketed into the stratosphere, somehow succeeding where Vine had failed, that also managed to defeat long-entrenched incumbent powerhouses like YouTube and Facebook Video.  I was genuinely shocked, I tell you, shocked.

But last week, a16z ran one of their handy “news summary” episodes that happened to cover TikTok and so I got to learn all about this newfangled, shiny object.  To me, TikTok is noteworthy not because it suddenly became super-popular among teens and tweens, but because it is the first super-popular global app that’s gotten a foothold in the American market that was built in China.

How were internet super-giants such as Google and Facebook outflanked by the much-smaller, nimbler TikTok?  The always-thoughtful Eugene Wei wrote a great in-depth analysis of how TikTok was built from the ground-up to prioritize a watcher’s “interest-graph” over his/her “social-graph.”  Dinosaur-era networks like Facebook were built on the foundational theory that you’ll most probably like what your friends like.  And that may or may not be true.  But what’s incredibly more powerful is if the algorithm can simply understand you— TikTok’s super-granular tagging (done by armies and legions of humans in China) is a large part of what makes this possible.

The young blood today likely doesn’t know this, but I’m old enough to remember a time when “Made in China” was actually a sign of extraordinary cheapness and low-quality.  It was a kinda pejorative label applied to some commodity item being built by the lowest bidder in the middle kingdom.  Well, that era has certainly ended.  Software prowess, innovation, and invention –which many thought for the longest time was the sole dominion of Silicon Valley and the Americans– has been taken over by the Chinese.  I’ve written before how I believe this next century will be The Chinese Century and this whole latest TikTok saga just further reinforces my belief in that sad inevitability.

What I think is especially intriguing (if somewhat predictable, I guess?) is that America’s response, under Trump, towards this new changing of the guard is to simply threaten to ban TikTok in America, or at least force ByteDance’s divestiture.  At the moment, it’s increasingly looking like ByteDance will be selling and handing over all US operations to Oracle (which is fascinating).  Oracle, the enterprise colossus run by Larry “It’s not enough I win; everyone else most fail” Ellison.

Buckle in for the ride folks; this is probably the Fort Sumter moment of the global geopolitical tech wars.  Things are about to get interesting.