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:

It posits that most people are not interested in activism; instead, they want to use the web for mundane activities, including surfing for pornography and lolcats (“cute cats”). The tools that they develop for that (such as Facebook, Flickr, Blogger, Twitter, and similar platforms) are very useful to social movement activists, who may lack resources to develop dedicated tools themselves. This, in turn, makes the activists more immune to reprisals by governments than if they were using a dedicated activism platform, because shutting down a popular public platform provokes a larger public outcry than shutting down an obscure one.

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:

TikTok presents a very different conundrum [from Huawei]. For one, the app is already on millions of American smartphones. Washington’s concerns about data security in regards to China have been heightened by two recent hacks: of the credit-reporting firm Equifax in 2017, and of the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management in 2015. In both cases, security experts blame Beijing. The assumption is that Chinese authorities are compiling dossiers on U.S. citizens for unknown, but probably compromising, purposes. TikTok could be a handy device for stuffing the files with juicy new details. Even more, TikTok is in the business of content. It can just as readily act as a conduit for spreading information as collecting it — and therefore could be a propaganda tool for the Chinese state.

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:

The Internet’s Warring States Period will define what it means to be a digital power in a global context. Each government’s attempt to define the rules either projects its policy globally or fragments what was once the common ground of some aspect of the internet. The earliest and most obvious examples of fragmentation came from website blocking, a common technique to control information among authoritarian states such as China, Russia, and Iran. In the early days, accessing the internet outside these countries’ borders generally required a relatively simple mix of proxies and virtual private network services.

Around the world, we are beginning to see another hundred schools of thought emerge around data rights, privacy, free speech, net neutrality, content credibility, and even financial transfer systems and protocols. The field of contention straddles the spectrums of data privacy and rights versus widespread surveillance; of full net neutrality versus tiered networks and systems like “zero rating”; and of “radical free speech” versus state censorship versus content moderation practices grounded in international human rights norms. Through laws, infrastructure development, corporate investments, malware attacks, and digital propaganda, states and multinationals assert their power while shaping internets based on their beliefs and values. These different schools will come to define our varying experiences of online life for years to come and, as artificial intelligence and the internet of things begin to embed themselves in daily routines, to critically affect our everyday lives as well. As the frontiers of states online thicken, the border between the offline and online is thinning.

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

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

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