In addition to recreating TikTok’s algorithms, an American acquirer would also need to work quickly to preserve TikTok’s other valuable asset: its creator culture. As my colleague Taylor Lorenz has written, TikTok is home to a large, vibrant community of creative talent, some of whom make a full-time living from the app. Those people are attracted to TikTok partly because the platform gives them a way to reach a mass audience. But they’re also attracted to it because TikTok has cultivated an aura of cool through advertising, striking partnerships with music festivals and other popular events, and hosting exclusive parties for TikTok creators at industry events like VidCon.
Already, Facebook is reportedly trying to poach popular TikTok creators for Instagram Reels, its new TikTok clone, by dangling six-figure deals in front of them. And if TikTok is acquired by Microsoft — a company not historically known for its youth appeal — creators could sense that it’s time to move on.
TikTok could try to lower the risk for an acquirer by striking multiyear exclusive deals with its most popular American creators, the way that platforms like YouTube and Twitch have done. It could also accelerate its plans to let popular users earn money from the platform. But without a firm grip on its A-list talent, TikTok’s acquirer won’t be assured that the platform isn’t losing its edge.
Hank Green, a YouTube star and chief executive of the education company Complexly, who has more than 600,000 followers on TikTok, said that a TikTok acquisition could make creators more skeptical of the company’s motives.
“One of the things about TikTok is they’ve been able to make lots of changes really fast, and people are open and receptive to that,” Mr. Green said. “If you see that change as coming from outside the ecosystem, that can feel like a foreign change.”
Many of the people I spoke to agreed that even with the potential pitfalls and unresolved questions, the opportunity to buy TikTok is a once-in-a-decade deal for the right acquirer. Popular, growing social networks are exceedingly rare, and TikTok has already made itself a fixture of American culture in a way that few other apps ever have.
“TikTok is compelling, not just because of its large and growing user base, but also because of its platform potential to expand into e-commerce and livestreaming,” said Connie Chan, a partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. “Video is a fantastic way to sell things and short videos are perfect for product discovery.”