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Apr 23

Weekly Report: April 16, 2023



I was asked for my thoughts on TikTok. My thoughts are pretty simple.

The potential for social media to do harm in various forms has been recognized for many years now. Ad-driven social media business models rely on engagement and attention, and their algorithms optimize for that. That often means displaying content that is provocative or even incendiary. It leads users down rabbit holes and into echo chambers. It influences emotions and perspectives and messes with adults psychologically. For kids, it’s even worse. I believe it can really mess up kids during their most formative years — especially if they are left with it for hours unsupervised, each day. (Gen Z believes it too. See “Do the Kids Think They’re Alright?” in the Articles section below.)

TikTok has incredible engagement and reach. People spend hours on it each day. It has over 100 million users in the U.S. As a business, I wish I could invest in it. As a product, I’m not a user. But some of the content on there and the creativity on display is pretty incredible.

Overlaid on top of all of this is the fact that TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a $300B Chinese company. Chinese companies (and particularly tech companies, as of late) are vulnerable to interference by the Chinese government far beyond a level that exists in the U.S. The Chinese government even has a board seat and some ownership of a key ByteDance company. (ByteDance also has several other apps that rank very well in U.S. app stores.)

Facebook has been used by domestic and foreign actors to spread misinformation, influence hearts and minds, and generally damage the fabric of society.

It then doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realize that if the company responsible for the algorithm itself were trying to set an agenda (in this case, at the behest of the CCP), it could do so by directly altering the algorithm in a way that could have much more significant impact than by external actors trying to game the system. It’d be a good way to subtly spread propaganda or stoke social discord in a mostly inscrutible way.

Data surveillance is also an issue, but that doesn’t seem as significant. The U.S. government certainly has the ability to covertly compel production of certain data from private companies. You’d also think someone would notice if the apps were trojan horses for spying on whatever else is happening on a user’s device.

TikTok is banned within China itself, which is pretty telling.

The result is a national security threat that seems very real. It’s hard to see another outcome from this situation other than for TikTok to be spun, or banned. I won’t be sad if either of those things happen.

Some may argue that banning TikTok would be hypocritical of the U.S. The U.S. regularly decries China for muscling out U.S. tech companies from the Chinese market — only to threaten to turn around and do the same thing. This is a whataboutism-type argument which doesn’t respond to, nor undermine, the genuine concerns above. Nor does it undermine the notions of sovereignty and what’s in the national interest that allow countries to engage in this behavior. It’s not ideal, but there’s no reciprocity here.

Further Observations

  • I found out what happens when you forget to remove crayons from the pockets of your pants before you throw them in the wash. It looks like my toddler drew all over our clothes. Bits of melted wax everywhere. The internet’s solution of washing the clothes in very hot water, dish detergent, vinegar and washing detergent was not completely effective. ChatGPT was unhelpful. Wife not amused.
  • And while I was at it, my wallet also took a bath in the washing machine.
  • We’re almost at the end of Season 3 of Picard and not only is it far superior to the other two seasons, they dialed the nostalgia up to 11, and they did it pretty tastefully. This week’s episode is the penultimate one for the series, and it was amazing. TNG was an indelible part of my adolescence, and it’s kind of wild seeing the entire cast re-assembled, 30 years later.


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