Blog: What are TikTok’s values?
Author: Yang Xu
The short-video social media platform TikTok has become one of the stellar examples of the success of Chinese tech companies overseas, with over 150 million active users in Europe .Launched internationally in 2017, the platform has become phenomenally popular among teens and younger users, raising plenty of academic interest in many areas including, but not limited to, youth media culture, and platform affordances. Nevertheless, the platform has long been at the center of controversies and scandals. The platform has been criticized for its poor content moderation practices, negligence on mis/disinformation,and letting children be exposed to inappropriate and harmful videos such as false health tips, self-harm, and pornographic material . Governments and authorities across the globe have also raised national security concerns about TikTok due to the platform’s potential connections to the Chinese government. Followed by the UK, the US, and Canada, all three EU institutions (The European Parliament, the European Commission, and the EU Council) have banned TikTok on official devices, adding more uncertainties to the platform’s future development.
On the platform side,TikTok has persistently declared its commitment to the local legal framework and regulations. The latest was TikTok’s commitment to the EU’s Digital Service Act (DSA), which came into force on 16th November 2022, aiming to monitor Very Large Online Platforms (VLOPs) and Very Large Online Search Engines (VLOSEs) over core problem areas such as illegal content, advertising, and disinformation(European Commission). In TikTok’s official statement, the platform reported a series of efforts implemented to comply with the new regulation, including increasing transparency in community policies and content recommendation systems .At the end of the statement, TikTok accentuated its ethos with the mission statement: ‘Our mission is to inspire creativity and joy.’
While their mission statement and values may sound like a marketing tactic, value plays a vital role in platform discourses and decision-making. Media scholars have cultivated a handful of ideas on the nexus between digital platforms, ideology, and societal impacts. Van Dijck, Poell, and Waal (2019)argued that values are inscribed in platform architectures, although they often clash with other public values when implemented (increasing transparency for law enforcement versus protecting user privacy) . For social media, ‘interactivity,’‘participation,’ and‘algorithmic power’ have long become values that platforms strive for. These values have undergone constructions and transformations at scales across the personal, cultural, and infrastructural levels .
Platform values also clash with each other when geopolitical tensions within the global platform ecosystem are considered. In the presence where the global platform market is dominated by US powerhouses that inherit Silicon Valley ideals, the global success of TikTok is seen as a ‘threat’. In the US congressional hearing on TikTok on March 23rd,2023, TikTok was heavily criticized for being ‘unfitting’ to the US society and American values, as one Republican Representative stated:
We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values, values of freedom, human rights, and innovation (Cathy Mc Morris Rodgers)
Regardless of their scathing statements, we do have some unsolved questions for TikTok: What are the values of TikTok? If TikTok doesn’t fit the ‘American values,’where can it fit? With these questions in mind, I looked into TikTok’s official discourses (policy documents, press releases, and user guides) over the years with the following research question: What values have TikTok articulated in its official discourses?
The centrality of ‘creativity’
Since the Musical.ly era, TikTok has cemented its positioning of becoming a social media platform that fosters creativity. At its core, TikTok’s creativity points to the users (coined as ‘creators’) who make short videos using various tools and features embedded in the platform’s interface.Users conduct digital storytelling in the form of short videos in an everyday context in which memetic processes (turning a media text into a meme) occur through imitation and competition. Creativity in TikTok’s discourse is also anchored to youth culture, as younger users become the platform’s main user demographic. In my study, I have noted that the value of creativity sits at the center of TikTok’s value system and discourse. Creativity is a conceptual ideal that is difficult to measure or evaluate through sets of criteria. Due to this nature, the value of creativity became highly malleable and readily justifiable in TikTok’s discourses, as the platform often packaged it with expressions such as ‘fun,’‘joy,’ and ‘celebrate’ to invoke a positive platform experience. Other values such as ‘safety,’ ‘authenticity,’ and ‘diversity’ function as either prerequisites or supports for the value of ‘creativity.’
With the value of creativity at a central, overarching status in TikTok’s value discourse, we are left with many problems to ponder. Scholarly literature has already initiated a wide discussion about platform values including safety/security, privacy, community, and freedom of expression. Many of these are rooted in the Silicon Valley, cyber libertarian ideology that can be traced back to the metaphor of ‘the marketplace of ideas’ developed in 1919 . Can we say the same to TikTok and the values it promotes? TikTok, being a totally foreign platform with a primary focus on the US market since 2018, has gone on a different trajectory than other platforms. Situating creativity, entertainment, and youth culture at the center of the platform’s value system is clearly a strategic move as the platform faced exponential growth during the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat of being thrown out of the US market under the Trump Administration’s Executive order in 2020.With the platform’s growing focus on the European market, it is perhaps more important for the regulatory bodies to negotiate values that are fitting to the European demand. Therefore the EU needs to hold TikTok and its values accountable, instead of using the easy response: ‘TikTok is not fitting our values.’
About the author:
Yang Xu is a doctoral researcher in media and communication studies at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki. His PhD project is titled A cultural approach to internet governance: Diverging norms and values in the US, China, and the EU. He is currently working in the Media Platforms and Social Accountability (MAPS) and Nordic Observatory for Digital Media and Information Disorder (NORDIS) -consortium.
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