Much Ado About TikTok

When this is over, I want to see a 15 second TikTok summarizing it

It’s been a busy summer for me and my writing has fallen by the wayside. I don’t feel too bad about that - summer is fleeting in Canada, after all. But the days are getting shorter and I am starting to plan my rides to take place between 11 am and 5 pm because it’s too cold to be barreling down the highway at any other time. But soon, far too soon, I will pack the bike away in storage for the winter and that’s the signal that I need to get back to writing.

It’s been a fairly slow summer, tech-wise. The only story with legs is the U.S. TikTok saga that has been broiling for several months and is just now showing signs of coming to a resolution. It’s an incredibly silly situation, manufactured by an incredibly silly President, almost certainly attributed to the fact that it’s campaign time in the US leading up to the Presidential election in November. But what the hey, let’s take a look at it just for fun.

What’s a TikTok?

Let’s start at the beginning. First, some background. TikTok is a social media platform owned by a company named ByteDance which is a Chinese technology company. Not to be confused with the Ugandan silent short film by the same name (or perhaps because of it…mind blown!), TikTok takes the form of allowing users to record and upload short video clips, complete with music. The service is considered massively addictive, primarily because of the proprietary algorithm that suggests next videos to watch and a user interface that encourages free form scrolling, so the fun never stops.

At first glance, I assumed that the name came from the ominous “tick-tock” phrase which is usually used by some evil character warning a hero that they’re running out of time. It fits with the short nature of TikTok videos. However, apparently it means “vibrating sound” which is…weirder and makes less sense.

What’s Trump’s problem with TikTok?

I’m not a US political pundit, but thankfully Trump’s moves are so linear that I don’t need to be. Trump runs his administration entirely through fear. His base is primarily composed of people who are afraid of something. They’re afraid of Mexican “criminals and rapists”, to the point that he’s trying, and failing, to build a wall, they’re afraid of immigrants taking their jobs, they’re afraid of companies moving their operations overseas because it’s too expensive to operate in the US, and they’re deeply afraid of China spying on them.

Let me be clear, I am not defending China at all. China has a terrible record of human rights abuses, including kidnapping and torture. But within all that fear is more than a little FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt).

The Trump administration’s stated concern about TikTok is that it will now, or in the future, send all the juicy tracking data it has on its user to the Chinese government. Specifically this:

[TikTok] "threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans' personal and proprietary information -- potentially allowing China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.”

I am not arguing that this is not true, but this is hardly a Chinese problem. The US-based social media networks have been called to Congress, some multiple times, to defend their actions doing exactly the same thing. Facebook has built a multi-billion dollar empire specifically by tracking users and selling access to their personal data that is mercilessly harvested by the Facebook app, website, and associated properties like WhatsApp and Instagram. Even worse, Facebook has been caught selling this data to anyone who will pay for it. Cambridge Analytica became a household name for all the wrong reasons a few years ago over just this issue.

Wouldn’t it be much easier for China to just buy this information from Facebook than to try to penetrate the US market with a video app that nobody over 30 has even heard about?

It’s my humble opinion that Trump was surprised to learn how little power the US President actually has, and as such he’s resorted to the only unilateral tool the President has that can bypass the house - the Executive Order. Trump has issued about 120 EOs so far in his first term which sounds like a lot, but Obama issued about 280 in his two terms. So while the quantity will probably even out, the quality and silliness of Trump’s EOs are pretty wild.

Anyhow, as you’ve probably surmised, it’s much more difficult to prevent a company from operating in the US through proper laws than it is to just issue an EO and be done with it, so that is what Trump did. He gave ByteDance 45 days to sell itself to a US company or stop operating in the US. In fact, that timeline runs out on Sunday.

Who wants a TikTok?

That’s a really good question. I mean, just because El Prezzo says a US company has to buy TikTok in order for it to continue operating in the US, that doesn’t mean any US company wants it. However, as usual, there’s always someone willing to wade through the mud and there were three companies that actively pursued it: Microsoft (OK), Walmart (wut?), and Oracle (who?)

This is a weird cast of characters. Anyone who has spent any time working for an enterprise-level company has used Microsoft tools extensively. And, consequently, over the years, has been shuffled from MS Chat to Lync, to Skype, to MS Teams and has come away solid in the knowledge that MS has absolutely no clue how humans communicate with each other. The best thing MS has ever done to social media is what it did with LinkedIn: it bought it and then put it in a hermetically sealed chamber and did not touch it. LinkedIn was never a top-tier social network to begin with, but the fact that MS has resisted its urge to “fix” it since its purchase in 2016 is the wisest thing MS has done in a long time.

Walmart is the next weirdest entry into the field. It seems miles apart from TikTok but one industry pundit (I think Mike Elgan, but not sure) points out that TikTok is heavily populated by celebrities, especially in this COVID era, and their followers like to mimic their favorite celebrities’ looks. They head off to their closest retailer to buy similar bling on a budget, and that retailer is usually Walmart. It’s actually pretty easy to see how Walmart could inject ads for “get the sweater Taytay is wearing at your nearest Walmart for $9.99!” into TikTok streams.

And finally, Oracle. Unless you work in the tech field you have probably never heard of Oracle. It is an enterprise tech vendor, serving other enterprise companies. Oracle started as a database company, but is now into cloud engineering and is probably best known for owning the Java programming language. In 2019, Oracle was rated as the world’s second-largest tech company. It’s literally the biggest company you’ve never heard of. But…what does it want with TikTok?

I don’t think anyone has any idea why Oracle wants TikTok. I suppose there’s some synergy between its database offerings and TikTok’s need to store and retrieve millions of videos per second, but it’s a long shot. Well, to be more correct, it WAS a long shot, but then it became more clear. Larry Ellison is the 5th richest man in the world, has held fundraising events for Trump, and…oh yeah, is also the CEO of Oracle.

By the time you read this, the Microsoft/Walmart deal has been declined by ByteDance and the proposal for Oracle to become a “technology partner” with ByteDance is sitting on Trump’s desk for approval.

Where’s the TikTok secret sauce?

Another great question. I will counter that with a “WHAT is TikTok’s secret sauce?” The answer is the ByteDance algorithm that recommends the next video to users. TikTok’s user interface is a non-stop stream of videos. If you liked that one, you’ll like this one…and this one…and this one. There is no “next page” button in the TikTok app; it scrolls to infinity with video after video, each one surgically selected from the TikTok database and presented based on the videos users have watched prior. It brings the concept of Doom Scrolling to a whole new level and it is incredibly addictive. Keeping users scrolling in the app is the holy grail of all social media and TikTok has nailed it.

But ByteDance hasn’t given any indication that it will part with that secret sauce. In fact, China recently updated its export controls to include technology that almost certainly has TikTok under its umbrella. This effectively means that it would be illegal for ByteDance to sell its technology to a foreign entity. So much for the secret sauce - I guess that will say in China.

Enter the “technology partner”

And now we’re near the end game. The Oracle proposal is not a proposal to buy TikTok outright. It is an agreement between ByteDance and Oracle to allow Oracle to be its technology partner in the US. Nobody really knows what that means, but the only way a deal like that makes sense is if it includes Oracle owning the TikTok data which would remove the fear of that data being sent to the Chinese government. Most notably, it also removes the requirement for ByteDance to transfer the TikTok secret sauce out of China.

In theory, this should appease The Donald. It secures TikTok user data under US laws. And, evidently, it appeases ByteDance because it allowed the proposal to go forward, and it allows ByteDance to keep its money-making algorithm. The final checkmark is that approving the Oracle deal will allow the Orange Monster to help out his buddy Ellison with millions, perhaps billions, of dollars in revenue for a company that can’t tell the difference between a social network and lamp post.

How would killing TikTok even work?

Now we’re getting into the nitty-gritty. This is a technology problem and that is where I live.

I am pretty sure the ol’ DJT thinks that there is a giant TikTok switch in the basement of the Whitehouse and if a deal does not materialize, he can send a lackey who can still navigate stairs down there to flip that switch and boom - TikTok disappears from any device within the US borders.

Spoiler: it does not work that way.

Lory Gil, the managing editor of iMore, talked a bit about this on a recent episode of TWiT (This Week in Tech). She asks what happens to the millions of TikTok installations on people’s phones in the US? Does the app just disappear and they have to download a new app? Or does the app continue to sit there, but no longer works? Or are Apple and Google supposed to reach out and delete the app from everyone’s phones? And if the latter…who pays for that effort?

There are more questions than answers at this point. I am fairly certain that the Combover King won’t let his buddy hang in the wind, though, so we will likely never have to find out how this would roll out if it ended in a no-deal situation.

Shortly, we will all find out how this saga ends, and it will just be another interesting thing that happened way back then that we all laugh at over coffee while doom scrolling our UncleSamTok app. But for now, it is opening up a lot of interesting questions about how, or if, political will can be enforced on the global internet.