I’ve been annoyed reading the daily hot takes for the last few weeks on the shock and nationalistic handwringing about the rise of teen sensation TikTok.
First off, anyone in tech shocked by the rise of TikTok had their heads in the sand. I wrote a book on emerging markets in 2011. Before I spent some 40 weeks doing on the ground reporting in a dozen countries, I, too, bought the Silicon Valley talking points common back then that Chinese founders lacked originality and were just a bunch of copycats.
But what I saw on the ground nearly a decade ago showed a much different story. First off, dismissing Tencent or Alibaba or even Uber spoiler Didi as a copycat was about as intellectually honest as dismissing Google as a mere copycat of AskJeeves or Facebook as a warmed over Friendster or Instagram as a Flickr reboot. Almost all massive consumer Internet companies could be called copycats of something that happened in the dot com bubble. Where multi-billion dollar powerhouses are built is in iteration, monetization, and execution. In 2011, China was hitting its stride on all three, building a formidable bench of talent in scaling and growth hacking to rival Silicon Valley’s ecosystem.
Given the market size, taking the lead was inevitable. And that’s what happened in the Uber versus Didi war, which we were way out in front of on Pando. It was notable, we wrote at the time, because it was the first time a dismissed Chinese company was destined to become the largest global player in a category. And it was all the more poignant—or should have been—because Uber was the top company of its era. This was a sea-change few paid attention to.
Now, alarm bells are going off about what it means for a Chinese company to be the one on every American teen phone. Tech companies are peddling the shame of a censored Chinese Internet taking over the world. But American tech companies have long played that game to get into the Chinese market.
It feels like American tech companies are trying to force the US to do what it accused the Chinese government of unfairly doing: Artificially giving a boost to the local player claiming it was a national security issue.
What’s more, American tech companies have lost the soft power game in recent years. The idea that TikTok threatens some American democracy ideal being protected by Facebook and Twitter is laughable.
I get that American tech companies and VCs and maybe even everyday Americans are scared by this turn in dominance when it comes to something many people thought would always be dominated by American ingenuity. But it’s been coming for a while, and American tech companies and VCs largely have themselves to blame.
I’m mostly writing from my point of view as a (recovering) tech journalist here. As a mom, I don’t know that I have strong feelings. I tend to fear that all social media can be a haven for bullying and I’m worried about my kids using the American stuff as much as the Chinese stuff.
We’ve got a few threads about teens and social media on the site if you have thoughts for those of us with small kids or those of us worried about screens and the next generation…
Read some of our favorite threads about social media and parenthood and add your insights:
- TikTok: Are you more or less worried about your kids using a Chinese social network than a Facebook owned one?
- Parents of teens and tweens: Have you found a good way to raise kids so they are uninterested in social media?
- What is your take on sharing photos of your kids on social media, especially for the promotion of your own company / brand?
- What’s your approach to parenting re internet safety?