Before I sit down to talk to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, he apologizes for the noise. The evening’s guests have been doing sporadic sound checks all day: Peso Pluma running through his opening number, Offset ad-libbing over a backing track. I passed by throngs of One Direction fans to get into the park (Niall Horan for $25 is a solid deal). This isn’t where I imagined I’d be talking to the head of the most influential social media app on the planet, but the only way I could get on Chew’s calendar was by meeting him at TikTok’s first-ever music festival—a sold-out, two-stage program at the Cubs’ training facility in Mesa, Arizona.
The location makes no sense until you realize that for TikTok, location doesn’t matter. Only numbers do. The whole festival will be streamed exclusively on the app, for free (highlights would later air on Disney+ and Hulu); it’s the digits on the top left of everyone’s phone screen tonight that will be the ultimate metric of success or failure for this event.
I’m also here because it seems like Chew never really got to introduce himself on his own terms. When he stepped in as TikTok’s CEO in mid-2021, there was little fanfare; the official @TikTok account didn’t even make a TikTok about it. Instead, Chew’s introduction to the wider public took place during a barrage of questions at a congressional hearing in Washington, DC, last March. “It was a circus,” a TikTok employee tells me, speaking under condition of anonymity. “They didn’t even let him talk. They had the attitude of ‘You’re a Chinese spy, and we’re gonna beat the shit out of you.’”
This is a bit over-the-top, but the sentiment can’t be wholly dismissed. Three things can simultaneously be true: First, that China’s government openly watches its citizens and an app with origins there will naturally raise a red flag in many countries, especially in the US after parent company ByteDance was caught tracking journalists there in late 2022. Second, that people have been handing over increasing amounts of data for years, including to companies like Uber and Facebook (both of which have also reportedly tracked journalists), and any company collecting so much user data should be heavily scrutinized. And third, that thinly veiled anti-Chinese xenophobia has become a reliable part of the US political playbook.
TikTok has made a show of addressing the first two issues: During the hearings, anyone listening heard Chew promise to move all of its US data to US-based servers, though some TikTok employees say that some US data is still being shared with their parent company. At best, Chew's promise has been slow to deliver in full. The company has less control over the third issue: It is hard to imagine that the app will ever be “non-Chinese” enough for, say, the governor of Montana, whose reason for banning TikTok in the state was to “protect Montanans’ personal and private data from the Chinese Communist Party.” (A federal judge has since temporarily blocked the ban.)
Chew seems to have the right temperament to keep TikTok in various governments’ good graces. He gives off none of the abrasive “tech bro” energy of his peers, instead exuding the folksy persona of someone perpetually running for town mayor: a handsome, charming man who seems genuinely curious about everyone he meets—savvy enough to know who evening headliner Cardi B is, but not quite savvy enough to know that he was supposed to remove the white baste stitches from his blazer before wearing it to the event.
He’s quick to steer any potentially dicey conversation to a story of a user he met in whatever locale suits the current situation—deftly rattling off how many followers one user or another gained overnight, how many items were sold after a shop went viral. He remembers faces and names, and he visits small businesses. He (or his comms team) even arranged for tacos from AZ Taco King, a local TikTok success story, to be conveniently delivered during our interview.
When I ask Chew who he looked up to as a kid, he doesn’t name music or sports stars, but Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister of Chew’s home, Singapore. Lee is widely credited with lifting the country from poverty into an economic powerhouse over his 31-year tenure. He has also been called a “benevolent dictator.” He’d be an obvious North Star for a certain sort of politician; less so for the head of a social media company that got started with selfie dance videos.
But let’s be clear: TikTok is no longer in competition with other social media companies, especially if your metric of success is immersion. It outclasses every other app in this regard. X is chasing away advertisers; TikTok integrates them. Meta has promised a metaverse where we create, work, shop, and play. With TikTok, it’s already here—no headset required. YouTube is a good place to post videos, but not to make them; TikTok not only lets you post videos, but its in-house editing app rivals expensive pro-level software.
An entire culture is rising up of users to whom it doesn’t occur to leave the app for, well, anything. TikTok’s true competition, then, is the politics of each territory in which it operates. And Chew’s newest strategy seems to be taking his stump speech on the road, virtually and IRL. ByteDance is spending millions on lobbying, yes, but Chew is also ramping up his charm offensive, making TikToks on his own account (@shou.time), encouraging users to tell everyone about how much they love the app.
I should mention that I was an early user of the app, downloading it right after it became available. I have covered TikTokkers who were using the app for positive impact, and I know people whose lives changed forever after a single post—whether an in-joke about local weather or humanizing stories about incarcerated people. Some of these same users also say that being TikTok-famous has made them anxious, that they feel obligated to make the same kind of videos over and over lest the algorithm punish them. This all makes me think about how, while Chew has been pressed on TikTok’s security practices, he hasn’t had much to say about how dependent global pop culture has become on the app. That’s something we should think about as TikTok continues to extend its influence over how we experience culture, including food, music, and fashion. [On Tuesday, Universal Music Group announced that it would not renew its licensing agreement with TikTok, which could result in music by artists like Taylor Swift and Drake vanishing from the platform.]
TikTok has irreversibly bent our culture’s trajectory, but that doesn’t guarantee it’ll be around to reap the benefits. (India banned the app long ago, and it’s under growing scrutiny in a handful of other countries.) It has walked the political tightrope this far, but any bad PR could knock it off. Maybe that’s why TikTok’s chief comms officer—who used to work in US politics herself—made a show of recording my conversation with Chew with her phone.
The overprotectiveness isn’t surprising, of course. TikTok knows Chew can’t play the game in quite the same way many of his Silicon Valley counterparts do (taunting the media, for example, will always be off-limits for him). Instead, he has chosen a gentler kind of evangelism, telling people that things really are nicer in his walled garden, if only they’ll give the app a chance. And that the garden will be even nicer if we all produce more content.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Shou Zi Chew: Almost every time I visit a new city, I try and meet a few creators. And then I follow them on my TikTok. So it becomes like a friendship, sending messages, and we just stay in touch.
Dexter Thomas: That is cool.
It’s really fun, yeah. [Chew pulls out his phone.] Follow me, I’m @shou.time. I’m going to follow you.
This is you, right? [reading from my first post] Uh, your caption says, “This is a terrible app.”
Well, I didn’t like it back then because it was all Musical.ly kids. My opinion has changed.
You have only two comments on this post. OK. You should post more.
I should. But right now, here we are in Mesa, Arizona, at the first live TikTok concert. Why Mesa?
Well, the weather is fantastic this time of the year.
I guess, but why not Los Angeles? Why not New York? Is this a soft launch to see if it works?
With the first time, you make sure you manage your expectations, right? It is important that the event goes smoothly. The whole point was, how do we make the best of technology offline, online?
I also hear you’re sponsoring the Met Gala.
Why not? Did you see the press release about it? It’s very cultural. Fashion is an incredibly important part of TikTok. Louis Vuitton has 12 million followers on our app.
I think the world doesn’t know much about you as a person. So let’s leave TikTok alone. Who is Shou Zi Chew?
Oh, who am I? I grew up in Singapore. I was born there, my great-grandfather moved there many years ago. I had a typical Singaporean childhood. I wanted to see the world, because Singapore is fantastic, but it’s tiny. So I went to the UK for college. I joined Goldman Sachs, worked there for a couple of years, met an internet entrepreneur who started an investment company to invest in Facebook. So I joined him, and through that I met the guy who founded ByteDance. And in his earliest iteration, the idea was so simple, but so powerful. So I met him in 2012, and … [The door opens and a couple walks in. They are the owners of AZ Taco King.]
Taco King: Sorry to interrupt. We’re dropping off food.
Chew: Oh, hello! Nice to see you. I promised you if I were in Phoenix, I was going to look you up. Thanks for bringing the food. I’m looking forward to trying this. And have you started using TikTok Shop?
Taco King: We’re trying. I’ve just been having a little bit of trouble, and obviously I’ve been really, really busy.
Chew: That’s awesome. If you need any help, just tell our team. [Turning to me] Sorry about that. Do you want to grab some food? It looks amazing, right? [We both start eating the tacos. They are pretty great.]
Did you play video games as a kid?
Oh, a lot. I still play video games.
Really? What do you play?
Well, I still play Clash of Clans. I recently played Diablo IV.
How are you awake right now? Every friend I know who plays Diablo IV, I don’t see them for days.
At some point you start to pace yourself a lot better. I had my first Nintendo set when I was maybe 5 years old, and my first 286 computer very shortly after that. I’m born in the ’80s, which means that—
We’re the same age.
We’re the same age. So you know what I’m talking about. When you were born, it was all analog. You still had that phone with that curly wire, you remember that? And then video games were sort of invented during that time. So I grew up digitally very native.
I would say you and I, maybe we’re more digitally fluent. We’re not native. We remember the time before the internet. People younger than us are native.
I consider myself native. I remember getting my first dialup internet connection. Remember that beep? I remember getting online for the first time. I remember that very clearly.
What did you do?
Oh, well, we started searching for … I think my first thing was to search for artists, the musicians that you care about. Sheryl Crow, I think.
She was popular at that time.
Well, we’re at a music festival, so let’s keep talking music. Who else were you listening to as a kid?
Back in the ’90s, the radio was the most important distribution channel, and the discoverability of music was more or less constrained to what you heard on the radio.
But did you have any favorite artists?
I really liked Green Day. It’s a ’90s band.
Right. I’m interested in how you see TikTok fitting into the music space. There are musicians who’ve blown up on TikTok overnight. But there are a lot of musicians who’ve publicly said things like, “My label is making me make TikToks. I used to be able to concentrate on albums; everything is being shortened to a 15-second clip.” Or that they feel pressure to put something in their song that will go viral.
The key thing the recommendation algorithm has done is lower the barriers of people discovering music. I think that in itself is the most fundamental and powerful change. So in the past, if you had a very good song, it was difficult for many people to hear it, to be honest. But now, there are so many examples of people just posting a song that they write on TikTok and it goes viral. I think the net positive that we bring to the industry, of course, is this lowering of the barrier of discoverability.
You think what you’re doing is a net positive?
Definitely. It means new talent coming into the market. They have a good song. The chances of you getting heard by many people now are much higher.
Remember the song “Video Killed the Radio Star”? This discussion reminds me of that. The perception is, it used to be if you were musically talented, that’s all you needed. With music videos, you needed to be talented and pretty. Now with TikTok, you need to be talented and pretty and social media savvy (or work with someone who is). I hear what you’re saying about it lowering the barriers. But what do you say to artists who say TikTok is ruining music?
I don’t think so. You mentioned you have to be social media savvy. It’s actually not really true. If you look at some of the songs that have taken off on our platform—I’ll show you a few examples. So if you look at the way Paul Russell did it …
Oh, I mean, I’ve seen people who have been successful at it.
Look, the cost of producing a TikTok like this is actually not very high. And to the point of whether we have truncated songs to 15 seconds, a lot of times it actually drives people to want to discover the music more. So I’m not very sure that it’s 100 percent cutting people’s attention span. A lot of these songs then become proper hits on Billboard charts, on the radio. There’s so many of these examples. I think Gayle had a huge hit last year as well. You know that song, “abcdefu”? Consumers are consuming things slightly differently. Of course that will mean that people have to adapt to this new way that the consumers are demanding to consume. But generally speaking, I think it unleashes more creativity. And if you look at the music industry as a result of TikTok, I think it’s thriving more than ever.
I think that’s the key there, what you just said: “have to.” Because this new platform exists, musicians and artists do have to adapt. This is the new norm. You have to.
TikTok Comms Officer: [interrupting] You don’t have to.
Chew: I think a lot of them are. So Cardi B’s going to perform today. She’s adapted very well. She had a number of campaign sessions she did on TikTok over the year, and it’s really, really successful. Charlie Puth as well, he’s performing here today. He shows people how he makes his music. It’s amazing how talented this guy is.
It is amazing.
Fans want to know how the music is made. They want to know about the thought process, the creative process. And this is the key thing. They don’t want this to be overproduced. They want this to be super authentic. And one of the key things that you will find on TikTok is that most of the content, everything I just told you about, has to be really authentic. If you try to make it very polished or very refined, it’s not going to be that organic. People will see through this.
I can see both sides. I definitely also hear the pressure from a label saying, “Fans want authenticity, but they want this specific kind of ‘authenticity.’” It creates pressure. I’ve seen a musician argue that we wouldn’t have had Radiohead if they had to come up in the TikTok era. Thom Yorke’s an unusual dude. I don’t think he would’ve been down to make a TikTok to say, “Hey everybody, join me on my musical journey to make this song.”
If you’re talking about the more classic songs, we have also had many examples. Remember the Ocean Spray guy a number of years ago?
What was that song? “Dreams.” Fleetwood Mac. It went back into the charts again as a result of that video.
But totally randomly. You can’t predict that.
It’s a feeling. It’s that moment in time, and it captures the feelings of the cultural zeitgeist. A lot of these things, you can’t engineer it. This is organic. Our role as a platform is to provide the three things: the window, the canvas, and the bridges to connect. And then these things will emerge organically. You have things like BookTok, people sharing about books, 200 billion views. You have people sharing science content. It’s this mesh of diversity. That’s what we’re trying to achieve. There’s so many people around the world with talent, and we have just opened up the pool for more people. For creativity to emerge, you need to have that kind of competitive, I guess, competitiveness of ideas.
Music is a tough business. It’s almost a cynical joke at this point, an artist posting something like, “Hey, I got a million streams on Spotify. Thanks, everybody, I’m going to go buy a burrito.” Somebody’s making money, but it doesn’t seem to be the artists. Where does TikTok fit into how artists are going to be able to continue to make their art?
That’s a great question. We are always thinking about providing more tools for musicians and other creators and users to be able to connect with their base. One of the reasons we’re doing this event—and by the way, super excited about this festival—it’s not only about the people who show up today, it’s about the livestreaming. I’m certain that we’re going to reach a lot more people online through the app.
Than in person?
Than we are offline, yeah. By a significant difference. Have you discovered a new song on TikTok?
A couple. I can think of one, specifically. But I’m pretty sure he didn’t make any money on it.
Well, we are also developing new tools that allow partnerships with Apple and others. Initially the focus was on discoverability, but then as that sort of becomes more and more established, we are creating new channels for artists to be able to find some monetization opportunities, including connecting directly to, say, Apple Music to do that.
It seems that, of all the social media platforms out there, TikTok is truly the one in the spotlight right now. Why do you think that is?
Well, I think we are probably one of the youngest ones. As in, we are the most recent ones to emerge onto the scene, and we do bring a different proposition with discoverability. I think trust has to be earned in every company. As you grow and have more and more users and nonusers who are looking at your platform, you just have to earn their trust. I actually see this as an opportunity for us to explain ourselves.
I don’t want to relitigate the congressional hearings. But I watched them, and the main topic, of course, was China. China, China, China. A lot of fans of TikTok thought it was unfair and posted TikToks making fun of it. Have you seen the edits of you answering questions and looking confused?
What do you think?
It was important that we showed up at the hearing. It was important that we answered the questions, which is what I tried to do. But some of these moments, you never know when the moment becomes a meme like that.
Did you have any inkling that a politician asking you about TikTok connecting to the home Wi-Fi was going to be funny to somebody out there?
No. I was genuinely trying to answer the question.
Have you felt that there is an unfairness or an extra scrutiny of TikTok because of the origins of the company?
To a large extent, yes. I think it’s one of the reasons we have a bigger trust deficit than most other companies. Maybe our trust starting line is behind other businesses, but I also think that there are very serious approaches that we’ve taken to try and earn that trust and to close that gap. I talked about this during the congressional hearing—you know all this, this is all public information, we built a project to address those concerns. We actually spent a lot of time understanding them. There were concerns about data security, there were concerns about transparency of our code. We have not only talked about it, we have actually put this into action. We built a project where we put all data into a third-party environment, through Oracle. It’s a setup that is unprecedented, and no other company that I know of has established this. If you’re fundamentally addressing all these concerns, then over time the trust will come.
Speaking of trust, let’s talk about moderation. There are truly terrible things on basically every app, because there are truly terrible things basically everywhere.
There are truly terrible things that people try to post.
Is there something that you think TikTok is doing better than other apps to address that?
I think I just want to focus on ourselves. We have invested a tremendous amount in terms of not only the technology to help us moderate content but also evolving the policies, the community guidelines. We have invested in a lot of people to help us with content moderation. We have worked with many experts out there.
You’ve heard of Algospeak?
Yes, I’ve heard of it. Yes.
What do you think about it?
It’s difficult as a technical challenge. But I believe it’s something that can be overcome with advances in technology. I’m optimistic.
Algospeak exists, I’d argue, for good reasons. I can give you an example. [I show him a TikTok.] This is somebody talking about the conflict in Israel and Palestine. There’s a perception that TikTok won’t let him say this stuff, so to get around it, people are saying things in the comments like “Thanks for these beauty tips” or “That’s a great recipe” in order to fool the algorithm into thinking this TikTok is about something else. It seems like there’s a lot of people on the platform who are trying to fool the algorithm.
The overarching thing that we’re trying to do here is to keep the community safe and inclusive for everybody. There’s always freedom for users to express themselves if it doesn’t violate any of our guidelines. As you can imagine, this is a very complex role, and our trust and safety team is always looking into making sure that the content on the platform is not violative.
I suppose the question I’m asking here is, what do you think of the fact that a culture has arisen that is constantly trying to evade things?
I think as long as there have been rules, there have been people trying to bypass the rules. I think what is really important is to make sure that the spirit of what we’re trying to do is well understood, and the spirit is, “Look, we’re trying to create a platform for creativity and for joy.”
But to that end, both creators and commenters feel the need to dodge what they think are censors.
So how do you view that?
I need to understand specifically what you are trying to say. Look, what do we mean by “dodge the censors”? If they’re saying something that is actually hate speech and it violates the spirit of the platform …
Let’s say in this case it’s not. Somebody is saying, “Hey, I think this is really important. You all should pay attention to what’s happening out there.” But then feeling like TikTok won’t like this.
Oh, no, but I think the guidelines are clear on what we do and what we don’t do. If you’re talking about a small group of bad actors who are trying to find a loophole, then our role will always be to stop that. If you’re saying there are a lot of people who don’t understand our rules, well, I actually don’t think that’s the case.
I’m not sure that’s the problem here, that people don’t understand …
TikTok Comms Officer: You can appeal.
Chew: Yeah, you can appeal.
For an example, news outlets have had to, at times, avoid saying things like “Somebody was killed” when it’s a fact. You’ll see respected outlets avoiding certain words, or even using words like “unalived.” These aren’t people doing bad things. These are just people trying to communicate.
I think I understand the question better now. Clearly we prioritize safety very seriously, as you can imagine. And some of it could be us being overly protective, a mis-moderation leaning on the side of being careful. Sometimes we have taken something down as an abundance of caution. The position of moderation is very important. It’s not only getting the violation rates down, it’s reducing overmoderation, which happens. It’s a price you have to pay, and you have to find the right balance. You mentioned certain words like “kill” or “death” that will trigger the content moderation rules. It’s taken down out of abundance of caution first, and then if you appeal against it … it’s not a good user experience. I understand that. It gives users the wrong impression of what your guidelines are trying to achieve.
I think in particular, it gives a lot of users the impression that if they have a less popular or minority opinion, that opinion isn’t acceptable.
I just want to clarify that the community guidelines are comprehensive in covering what we think is OK or not OK. And a lot of times it will take time for people to understand that that is how we moderate. That is how policies are built, that is how tens of thousands of moderators are doing their jobs. You’ve got to give them something to do their jobs, and that’s the set of guidelines. Everything cascades from that.
Let’s move to the shift to longer videos. TikTok just ended the creators program, which is how a lot of people made a living; now it’s paying only for videos over a minute. There are creators who got very, very good at making short videos, and that skill set is not as applicable now. What’s your pitch to creators who are feeling like, “We made this, we made you what you are, and now you’ve changed the rules”?
There are a lot of users who want to see the amazing UGC [user-generated content] that everyone has been creating for the last five, six years. That doesn’t go away. But as more and more people join, there will be a diverse demand for new things, and that’s where some of our efforts in encouraging slightly longer videos come from. It doesn’t take away from the existing ones, because that’s the way the recommendation engine works. It just adds to more integration.
You’re paying only for the longer videos.
A lot of it is because longer videos require more investment in time to be created, and it is an area where it’s still relatively small compared to the rest of the UGC platform. But we are always thinking of ways forward. Not everybody is here to make money, to be clear.
But for those who want to explore more opportunities, we’ve created a whole series of things to allow people to try that. Livestreaming is one of them.
I take, obviously, all this feedback very seriously. I’m not trying to diminish it, I’m just saying that I hear that feedback, and I think what’s important for us is that we don’t mistake launching a program for de-emphasis on anything else. It’s not like that. The community who has always been with us, creating all the wonderful dancing and singing content, this underpins everything we are. It underpins us because it’s creativity and it’s joy. I cannot emphasize enough how important the base is to us and how deeply we care about giving them the best experience possible. I’ve met many creators, by the way, across many countries, in France, in the UK, in this country, in Indonesia, Singapore, even as far as Kazakhstan. There’s always a group of users who’ve been there since 2017, 2018, 2019. In all our work internally, I want to assure that group that they’re incredibly important to us and we are not pursuing something at the expense of them.
Actually, the dancing reminds me of something. Have you seen that researchers from Alibaba have released a paper saying that they used data that had been scraped from videos of popular TikTok dances and used that information to create an engine that shows … [Chew looks puzzled] Oh my gosh, you haven’t seen this?
Oh, you should see this.
The researchers at Alibaba used a data set of scraped TikTokkers doing dances and used that data to create an engine that will allow them to animate anything. These are users who have gotten big themselves, and they’ve given quite a lot to your platform, and now an outside actor is pulling data from your platform.
It’s public data, though.
It’s public data, but I bet a lot of people wouldn’t want their dance to be used in somebody else’s data set.
I think it’s a complex topic about how we deal with public data that’s been used for somebody’s private training sets. I’m paying a lot of attention to this topic. There are a lot of debates about this, as you can imagine. I don’t have any immediate response to this. This is something I need to go back and look into more deeply, because it’s an evolving discussion.
Is there some protection you can offer to users to say that the content you upload here will be used on this platform and not scraped by some third party?
I would need to look into that.
Because in the past, if you publish something publicly, it’s in the public domain. It’s out there.[Note: After this conversation, a public relations staffer introduced me to TikTok’s head of security and asked me to repeat what I’d said about the scraping paper. He said this was the first he’d heard of it and thanked me for telling him about it.]
I know that our time here is limited, and the concert is going to start soon, so one more. You’ve had to answer a lot of criticism about your app and your practices. From your perspective, what do you think is the biggest thing that people have misunderstood about TikTok?
I think the biggest gap in understanding is between users and nonusers. This is the biggest gap.
Yeah, that’s the biggest gap. Every time I meet a user, I feel like the level of understanding and the conversations that we have are significantly different than with someone who’s never used it before. People who use it really understand it.
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