This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.
Ryan Knutson: One day in September 2020, Nathan Apodaca was driving to work at a potato warehouse in Idaho when his truck broke down.
Nathan Apodaca: I was just driving, it broke down. I was like, “Okay, I’m not going to sit here and cry about it and call my mom. Work’s right there.” I could see it over the hill, and everything like that. It was right over the interstate.
Ryan Knutson: Nathan realized he could still get to work by riding his skateboard and before he took off, he decided to film himself and post it on TikTok. He opened the app and chose the song Dreams by Fleetwood Mac to play in the background.
Speaker 3: (Singing)
Ryan Knutson: As he rode a skateboard down a hill, he took several big swigs from a bottle of Ocean Spray Cran-Raspberry juice, and lip synced into the camera.
Nathan Apodaca: I didn’t plan any of it. It was just so insane, and it was one take. I was just going so fast. I had like think it was five or three minutes left to get to work. I just hurried up, went to work, punched in before I lost my bonus.
Ryan Knutson: You might remember this video because it went viral, supercharged by TikTok’s powerful recommendation engine.
Nathan Apodaca: After that, everything went wild.
Ryan Knutson: Nathan’s TikTok got millions of views, with celebrities and creators making their own versions, including the CEO of Ocean Spray and Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac. The video was so popular it catapulted the song Dreams back onto the charts, a full 43 years after it was released.
Nathan had created a vibe and that short video changed his life.
Nathan Apodaca: I was homeless, you know what I mean, when this started and everything. I was living at Walmart and everything. And then, yeah, after the video hit, all my audience, my soldiers is what I call them, started sending me donations. That number got crazy insane, and so then my next thing was to get a RV.
Ryan Knutson: After getting the RV, Nathan bought a house. These days he’s working as an actor. Last year he was cast in the FX series Reservation Dogs. He says he hasn’t had a shift at the potato warehouse in two years.
Nathan Apodaca: It’s been a crazy ride, and I’m loving it.
Ryan Knutson: Just as Nathan’s ride has been fast, so too has TikTok’s. The app is now five years old, so we decided to look back on how it became such a phenomenon with some of the people who rode the wave firsthand.
TikTok has more than a billion users, but the app’s future still looks uncertain because with success comes scrutiny of TikTok’s powerful algorithm, it’s Chinese parent company and what happens to the data the app collects.
Welcome to The Journal, our show about money, business, and power. I’m Ryan Knutson. It’s Friday, November 4th.
Coming up on the show, how TikTok became the world’s favorite app.
TikTok is one of the most popular apps in the United States, but it took a lot of work to get there. The story starts in 2014 with the launch of another app called Musical.ly.
Speaker 4: There’s a new video app that has teens singing its praises. It’s called Musical.ly, where users, or musers as they’re called, record 15 second music videos of their favorite song, then edit the speed of the video, add filters, and even play the video backwards before sharing it with others.
Ryan Knutson: Musical.ly was fun and kids loved using it to upload videos of themselves lip syncing over music or comedy clips.
Loren Gray: I had heard about Musical.ly from friends at school, and I was 13 at that time.
Ryan Knutson: This is Loren Gray. When she was 13 in middle school in Pennsylvania, she started making short videos of herself lip syncing to rap and pop hits. The videos found an audience on Musical.ly and turned her into one of the app’s biggest stars.
Loren Gray: I did a lot of facial expressions. I was very animated. And I had a lot of fun with it. There really was no planning or process. It was just doing whatever I wanted to do in that moment.
Ryan Knutson: Loren might have been goofing around, but Musical.ly’s popularity with teens like her caught the attention of a big Chinese technology company, ByteDance. ByteDance wanted a slice of the US market, and they saw Musical.ly as their way to get it. So in 2017, ByteDance approached Musical.ly and offered to buy it.
James Veraldi was the head of product strategy at Musical.ly at the time.
James Veraldi: We discussed it and just all felt that this was the best decision, given that there’s a high degree of risk being independent in this space because trends can change pretty quickly.
Ryan Knutson: ByteDance bought Musical.ly for nearly $1 billion. James says he was happy about the acquisition, but he had some reservations about the app’s name.
James Veraldi: I mean, I know I was a little concerned that TikTok sounded a little young, like how kids learn how the clock works. I was so oriented around trying to age up the app because we had inherited that need at Musical.ly and so I was a little resistant to the name TikTok for that reason. Obviously I was wrong.
Ryan Knutson: He might not have liked the name, but James liked what ByteDance had developed, a powerful algorithm which would turn TikTok into a success story. The secret sauce known as the For You feed.
The For You feed is the heart of TikTok. It’s the first thing you see when you open the app and it’s where you watch whatever the app thinks you want to see. For me at the moment, I’m getting a lot of home improvement and dog videos. To keep serving you what you want the For You feed needs sustenance, and what it snacks on is data.
James Veraldi: The more data it gets, the smarter it gets. So when you download TikTok for the first time, it doesn’t really know much about you, but then as you interact, it gets smarter. And it just takes a ton of engineering talent, of human talent, to build that robustly. And you’re talking in the thousands of engineers and ByteDance had that.
Ryan Knutson: TikTok’s algorithm doesn’t require users to follow anyone. People just open the app and it starts playing videos. It decides what you see next based on how long you’ve lingered on certain types of content.
James Veraldi: It makes it effortless to get to the content that you find the most interesting. And the less effort you have to put into that, the more convenient, the more addictive, and the more success it’s going to have.
Ryan Knutson: When Musical.ly relaunched as TikTok in the US in 2018, it was an instant success, and it was helped along the way by some celebrity fans like Jimmy Fallon.
Jimmy Fallon: Guys, there’s a really cool app that I’ve been getting into lately called TikTok. Do you guys know that?
Ryan Knutson: And Reese Witherspoon.
Reese Witherspoon: I’m obsessed with like, “What is TikTok?” Everybody’s talking about TikTok. All the teenagers are on TikTok and then they come over to my house and they make the TikToks.
Ryan Knutson: And it turned unknown musicians into stars.
Lil Nas X: (Singing)
Ryan Knutson: Like the singer Lil Nas X, whose song Old Town Road became a viral sensation on the platform in 2019. And then in 2020 the app got a boost because in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, TikTok became the destination for bored quarantine shut ins.
This is when I really got into TikTok. I suddenly had a lot more time on my hands and I got hooked on trying these weird challenges that went viral on the app, which is how I found myself making a video of trying to slide an Oreo down a measuring tape.
All right, here we go. 3, 2, 1.
People also film themselves cooking
Speaker 10: Hash browns are for wimps. You can do better. We’re making a potato galette. It’s French.
Ryan Knutson: They were singing.
Speaker 11: (Singing)
Ryan Knutson: And there were people goofing around with their families.
Speaker 12: We’re not perming his hair.
Speaker 13: He wants to perm his hair. Respect the drip, Karen.
Christen Nino De Guzman: I think the most interesting thing to me about TikTok was that it didn’t matter the type of house you had, your income, your background. Anyone, if they were entertaining and they were putting out content and saying something interesting, they could find an audience.
Ryan Knutson: This is Christen Nino De Guzman who worked at TikTok. Back in early 2020 she was responsible for managing some of the app’s creators.
Christen Nino De Guzman: The whole world and the creator economy was changing because of TikTok and you were seeing people in their kitchen in Ohio becoming superstars, signing to Hollywood agencies and being propelled to fame. And the most interesting thing about it to me was like all’s it really took was one video for a lot of these people to grow a following that prior to TikTok would’ve taken years and years on other platforms.
Kahlil Greene: My very first post got a million views within the first day.
Ryan Knutson: Kahlil Greene was one of the creators to enjoy instant fame on TikTok. He makes videos under the name The Gen Z Historian about American history and racial injustice. He has nearly 600,000 followers.
Kahlil Greene: So has anyone else noticed the intense amount of whitewashing that happens during MLK day?
My very first post on TikTok was about the whitewashing of Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy. It got over a million views, which I was surprised because I thought it was like a deep, academic, super insightful, but maybe not necessarily accessible conversation for the masses. But people really latched onto the short form video essays that I was putting out. And really quickly I gained a huge following.
The only quotes from him that you’ll see in the mainstream or on social media are the ones that are super positive, super optimistic, and don’t mention anything about race or class or any of the other things MLK commented on and fought for.
TikTok has opened so many doors, whether it be book deals or social media brand deals and podcasts, and all of these more traditional forms of media. That really blossomed from the TikTok platform that I built for myself.
Ryan Knutson: By 2020 TikTok wasn’t just an app that hosted political content like Khalil’s. It was also making mischief in American politics.
That year, a group of TikTok users decided to prank the President.
Speaker 16: TikTok users may well be President Trump’s latest adversary after fewer than 7,000 people attended his weekend campaign rally in Tulsa.
Ryan Knutson: The videos encouraged people to reserve tickets for the Trump rally, but not actually attend. The reservations made it look like it was going to be a huge event, but only a small fraction showed up.
Speaker 17: We spoke with a couple of TikTok kids who told us they successfully trolled the President.
Speaker 18: It didn’t necessarily keep people out from going, but it made the numbers seem so big compared to what the actual show up was that it kind of was a success.
Ryan Knutson: But this wouldn’t be the only time TikTok got attention in Washington. That’s next.
As Americans were spending more and more of their time on TikTok in 2020, lawmakers in Washington were growing increasingly worried.
Speaker 19: The app that’s taken teenagers by storm now facing a storm of a different kind, accused of posing a possible security risk.
Speaker 20: Would you recommend that people download that up on their phones tonight, tomorrow, anytime currently?
Speaker 21: Only if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.
Ryan Knutson: Politicians were concerned that ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, could be sharing Americans data with the Chinese government. Here’s Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer.
Chuck Schumer: There are 110 million Americans who have information with TikTok and the Chinese government could be grabbing every one of them.
Ryan Knutson: And Republican Senator Josh Hawley.
Josh Hawley: TikTok is currently a major security risk, both to our data security, and to our national security.
Ryan Knutson: TikTok says it’s never shared US user data with the Chinese government and wouldn’t even if it was asked. In July 2020, President Donald Trump intervened.
Donald Trump: We’re looking at TikTok. We may be banning TikTok. We may be doing some other things, or a couple of options, but a lot of things are happening. So we’ll see what happens. But we are looking at a lot of alternatives.
Ryan Knutson: Trump issued an Executive Order and a deadline for ByteDance to sell TikTok to an American company. Two competitors emerged, software firm Oracle and Microsoft.
Speaker 22: The video sharing app TikTok has apparently reached a deal with Oracle to take over its US operations. Microsoft confirming on Sunday that its offer had been rejected, leaving Oracle as the only remaining bidder.
Ryan Knutson: After Joe Biden was elected, he put the deal with Oracle on hold. TikTok says it’s, “confident that we are on a path to reaching an agreement with the US government that will satisfy all reasonable national security concerns.”
But there are some in Washington who aren’t satisfied and still want to see TikTok banned.
Brenden Carr: Well, I certainly wouldn’t lose any sleep if TikTok didn’t exist anymore.
Ryan Knutson: We spoke with Brenden Carr, one of the leading voices in Washington pushing for a ban of TikTok. Carr is a Trump appointee at the Federal Communications Commission.
Brenden Carr: Right at the end of the last administration, there was a lot of concerns being raised about TikTok. There was a lot of people that were very strongly for banning TikTok. And I actually didn’t weigh in that much on the issue when it arose at that point in time.
Ryan Knutson: Brenden might not have weighed in back then, but now he’s clear about where he stands on TikTok.
Brenden Carr: And a lot of people say, “Well, that’s just what it is. It’s a fun video sharing app.” And the reality is, is that’s just the sheep’s clothing, and beneath the surface, TikTok functions as a very sophisticated surveillance tool.
It is pulling everything from location information, to search and browsing history. It discloses that it may be collecting biometrics including face prints and voice prints. So there’s a lot of interesting things there, including keystroke patterns.
Ryan Knutson: The decision to ban TikTok though, isn’t up to Carr, but he’s met with officials from TikTok to raise his concerns. And he says he wasn’t satisfied with their answers.
Brenden Carr: And I asked them point blank, “If this data is being accessed from personnel located inside China, how can you be sure that it’s not being stored? That it’s not being cached or locally saved or screenshotted?” They didn’t really have an answer to that. Similarly, I asked them, they make representations that they do not hand over private sensitive information on US users to the government of China. And I asked them, “How do you know that your employees, your personnel back in China, are not themselves members of the Communist Party of China?” And they said they aren’t keeping track of who is a member, who is not. And so frankly, look, the level of trust at this point that I have in TikTok is about zero.
Ryan Knutson: TikTok confirmed that company officials met with Carr, but said his statements contained factual inaccuracies. In February, the Chinese embassy in Washington said the US shouldn’t, “overstretch the concept of national security.” Earlier this year, TikTok announced that 100% of US user traffic is now routed through servers owned by the American company Oracle.
People aren’t only concerned about TikTok because the Chinese government might be accessing the data it collects. There are also concerns about how addictive the app can be. A recent Pew survey found that nearly a fifth of all teens say they’re on TikTok almost constantly. The app’s addictive qualities are something that former TikTok employee Christen Nino de Guzman has noticed in her own life.
Christen Nino De Guzman: I don’t find myself ever watching TV. I think my attention span has gotten a lot shorter because it’s so hard for me to even watch a 30 minute show. I’m like, “Oh, let me check my phone or let me look this up.” So it is addicting by nature to be on the app, but there’s always going to be good things and bad things about social media. And I think it’s kind of up to everyone, I mean, to make sure that they’re setting their own limitations. And TikTok has implemented screen time, and if you scroll through the app for too long, you’ll see someone saying, “Hey, it’s time to put the phone down. We’ve been on here for a long time.”
Ryan Knutson: But James Veraldi, the former Musical.ly employee, has concerns about the impact TikTok might be having on young users.
James Veraldi: Just think about what it does to a developing brain, in terms of training your mind to need stimulation every 15 seconds, and need something new. That part is really problematic. That’s not unique, I don’t want to say that’s not TikTok’s fault, but that element we should all be worries about.
Ryan Knutson: TikTok says it takes a thoughtful approach to help it, “continue to play a positive role in the lives of the people who use our app.”
TikTok has had a meteoric rise in just five years, but what could the next five years look like for the app that’s taken over the world? Unless TikTok is suddenly banned in the United States, people like James Veraldi don’t see his popularity fading anytime soon.
James Veraldi: There’s no reason to think it’s going to stop dominating people’s attention because it is just so good at it and it keeps getting better. The more videos and the more people interact with it, the smarter it gets. So unless regulation comes in and has an impact, I don’t see TikTok’s momentum slowing down.
Ryan Knutson: And for users that have had success on the app, like Nathan Apodaca, whose life has been changed by his viral skateboarding juice drinking moment, there’s little doubt that the app will continue to play a bigger and bigger role in our lives.
Nathan Apodaca: I heard somebody say that they were at their dinner, at their family’s dinner watching TikTok’s on TV, and they were watching just me, countless over and over and over. So like I said, it’s becoming the new entertainment, you know what I mean? For some people. And it’s just cool because it’s real people and it’s real stuff and real happenings and real life facts. It’s just awesome.
Ryan Knutson: That’s all for today, Friday, November 4th.
The Journal is a co-production of Gimlet and The Wall Street Journal. Special thanks to the WSJ reporters who conducted interviews for this episode, Salvador Rodriguez, Meghan Bobrowski, Georgia Wells, and Sarah Needleman.
Your hosts are Kate Linebaugh and me, Ryan Knutson. The show’s produced by Melvis Acosta Chrisostomo, Annie Baxter, Katherine Brewer, Pia Gadkari, Rachel Humphreys, Brendan Klinkenberg, Matt Kwong, Annie Minoff, Laura Morris, Afeef Nessouli, Enrique Perez de la Rosa, Sarah Platt, Aaron Randall, Alan Rodriguez Espinoza, Vladislav Sadiq, Pierce Singgih, Jeevika Verma, Lisa Wang, and Catherine Whelan, with help from Jonathan Sanders. Our engineers are Griffin Tanner and Nathan Singapok, with help this week from Peter Leonard. Our theme music is by So Wylie. Additional music this week from Catherine Anderson, Peter Leonard, Billy Libby, Bobby Lord, Emma Munger and Blue Dot Sessions. Fact Checking by Sky Patterson.
Thanks for listening. See you Monday.