What Makes TikTok Such a Challenge? Look to the Cute Cat Theory.

What a 2008 theory about online creative content explains about the geopolitics of today’s internet.

an xiao mina
Aug 4 · 5 min read

TikTok’s been in the news lately, for obvious reasons.

It’s worth noting what the challenge is here. Ethan Zuckerman’s Cute Cat Theory of the Internet is instructive. Here’s a summary from Wikipedia:

TikTok is a different beast from Huawei, another Chinese company that’s had its own snafus in the West. Here’s how Michael Schuman explains it in The Atlantic:

Now, while TikTok is being used for activism, it’s generally a place for the proverbial cute cat: funny videos, addictive algorithms and catchy music. Shutting it down in the US and India wouldn’t simply work against the principles of an open internet, it would anger (and has angered) a lot of people.

This is exactly what the Cute Cat Theory predicts: shutting down access to a popular platform risks angering more people.

But it gets more complicated, and the internet’s recent history offers a lesson. In the early 2010’s, the Chinese government was facing this exact problem. Sites like Twitter, Facebook and Google were enormously popular, and the Chinese government couldn’t control content there.

Rather than simply block social media, an entire local app ecosystem was allowed to thrive: Sina Weibo, Douyin (which eventually gave us TikTok), Baidu and many other platforms flourished, enabling all the cute cat elements of the social web to grow on China’s internet while enabling the government to limit activist messages.

One extension of the cute cat theory, as we’ve learned, is that when a government shuts down a popular platform, it has to make room for another one to fill the void and temper the anger.

The initial visions of an open, interconnected internet now are being challenged: as countries begin to more regularly ban and/or consider banning platforms with origins in other countries, our internet is steadily becoming defined by geopolitical boundaries and alliances.

That doesn’t just mean platform blocks (remember, blocks alone end up anger more people) but entirely new and different visions of what the internet can and should look like. As Schuman wrote, “That raises the ugly prospect of destroying one of the main purposes of the internet — to knit the world together and strengthen contact with other societies. If we begin banning apps or restricting access, we will end up with many separate internets, more likely to divide than unite.”

Sean McDonald and I wrote about this last year in Foreign Policy, pointing out exactly that: the internet has splintered into many internets, and the trend is clear. We call this new period the Internet’s Warring State Period, named after the historic Warring States Period of what would one day become China:

Behind every cute cat is the story of infrastructure— the cables on the ground, the data centers scattered around the world, the hardware we use to access this and the platforms on which we engage with content. With infrastructure comes advantage, and with advantage comes policy, politicking and power.

As each piece of infrastructure gets scrutinized, expect to see more divisions of the internet along geopolitical lines. In other words, cute cats will continue to flourish — they’re what make the internet run, after all — , but they’ll have to navigate geopolitical firewalls with greater regularity.

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an xiao mina

Written by

author and technologist. words and commentary in ny times, bbc, atlantic, hyperallergic, etc. meedan.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +720K people. Follow to join our community.

an xiao mina

Written by

author and technologist. words and commentary in ny times, bbc, atlantic, hyperallergic, etc. meedan.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +720K people. Follow to join our community.

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