Creating a handle with his stage name, Spencer X, he made a promise. “Every single day for the next year, you’re going to produce a beatbox video,” he told himself. “This is going to be your record.”
Today, the 27-year-old sits atop the TikTok totem pole with nearly 40 million followers, his videos having amassed nearly 1 billion likes. He’s gained corporate sponsorships and met celebrities such as Alicia Keys and Marshmello.
“TikTok’s given me my entire life. There wasn’t any profession in beatboxing in mainstream media before this,” he said. Naturally, President Trump’s announcement Friday that he planned to ban the Chinese-owned app in the United States — which stems from national security concerns, sources told The Washington Post — came as quite the blow. “I have 40 million people following me on this app,” he said. “Where would those people go?”
When Spencer X spoke about the potential ban, he became choked with emotion. “Seeing that news hurt my heart so much. TikTok is much more than an app. It’s a culture, and you can’t really delete culture.”
Microsoft said Sunday that it is in talks to buy the short-form video app from its parent company, ByteDance, but nothing is certain. A U.S. ban on TikTok, which has been downloaded at least 2 billion times worldwide, would be a huge blow to an online ecosystem that’s come to dictate the cultural conversation. Since Trump’s statement, popular creators have rushed to promote their handles on other platforms, such as Instagram and YouTube. Less-established ones have mourned the possible termination of a creative outlet or a bit of extra income. Everyone has considered what might be lost.
Sixteen-year-old TikTok star Madi Monroe said she would miss the ability “to inspire kids my age to be strong, stand up for themselves and use their voices for change.”
“People might think it’s just an app where people do 15-second dances, but it’s so much more,” Monroe added. “The app speaks to my generation — yes, we share music and dances, but we also share ideas and views on the world."
Avani Gregg, 17, has been on the app since it was a lip-sync platform called Musical.ly, and she also feels that it’s often misunderstood. “People don’t realize that this app is a job … literally anyone that’s on it,” she said. But “it’s also an app that lets people cope with feelings."
If it were banned, she said, “I genuinely don’t know what a lot of people are going to do.”
Others, such as Carrie Berk, a 17-year-old actress, author and Instagram influencer, have attempted to find workarounds. She said TikTok serves as a “means of self-expression, where I express my individuality.”
“There’s something so fresh about TikTok. Every day you can wake up, and there’s a new trend or hashtag you can try. … It would really be a shame if it was taken away,” she added. Though she has several other avenues to reach her fans, she decided to fight for the app’s survival — using the platform itself. When rumors of a ban began in earnest in early July, she posted a TikTok video in which she suggested that users go into their app’s settings and change their “region” to Canada. It soon went viral, garnering more than 5 million views and 650,000 likes.
“To be honest, I don’t know if that works,” Berk said. “But in desperate times, we have to try whatever we can.”
She followed it up with one suggesting that users also download a virtual private network (VPN) to mask their public IP addresses and sign a Change.org petition to keep TikTok around, which more than 50,000 have done.
Zach King, one of the app’s most popular creators with more than 46 million fans, knows the drill. He was one of Vine’s most popular stars when the TikTok precursor was shut down. The 30-year-old filmmaker has diversified during the past decade by using various platforms, but he knows that many TikTokers don’t have a presence elsewhere. For them, a shutdown could be devastating.
King said one thing that makes the app so special is its algorithm, which promotes videos by everyone from amateurs to celebrities. Anyone can create an account, “and because she’s good at telling a certain joke or stories or whatever it is, she can make a living creating these TikToks and grow a following overnight,” he said. “It’s really leveled the playing field in a way.”
Spencer X agreed: “You don’t have to be a super-big celebrity. You don’t have to have 30 million followers on other apps to be seen.”
Chris Equale, 32, who was “heartbroken” at the news, is that kind of creator. Since the coronavirus shutdown began, he and his fiancee, Sarah Rasmussen, have been posting videos of their two corgis, Hammy and Olivia, and adding “subtitles” to translate what they’re saying. He quickly gained 1.5 million viewers by showing the pups playfully bickering with each other or with their dad. A recent one, though, found Hammy devastated by the news of the potential ban and Olivia worried that their fans wouldn’t follow them to another platform.
The Los Angeles resident doesn’t rely on TikTok for income — he works in sales — but has found that it fills “that creative void for me, where I could step away from my 9 to 5,” and helps him spread the joy his pets bring him.
“If we’re just able to put a smile on someone’s face during what’s been a very tumultuous year for a lot of people, that’s where we feel most fulfilled,” Equale said. “When we get emails from a child on a hospital bed struggling with chemotherapy treatments where Hammy and Olivia are able to put a smile on their face every single day — those are the connections we feel like we’d be missing out the most on.”
Because, without TikTok, there isn’t really a great place for a creator like Equale. “YouTube is too much of a time commitment,” he said, since the videos are typically longer. “Where a lot of creators are saying, ‘It’s okay, we have these other social media platforms,’ the value propositions of TikTok were great for us.”
If Microsoft buys TikTok, Spencer X said, “they should keep it as TikTok.” King said, “The culture of an app is created by the people who are contributing it, the people who are creating and those who are consuming.” Which means it might be resilient, but a new owner would have the power to upend this culture.
And if Microsoft doesn’t buy it, other apps might fill the void — but they haven’t yet. Berk has signed up for potential rivals Triller and Byte, and is excited for Instagram’s version of a short-form video app, called Reels, to go live this month. But she wants to do whatever it takes to save TikTok.
“I would do anything to sit down with Trump and talk some sense into him about why TikTok should stay around,” Berk said. “I just feel like he needs to hear it from a teen creator like me.”