Since TikTok was introduced to the U.S. in 2018, the app has become an integral part of many people's lives, affecting how they shop, connect with others and laugh. The app has spurred lifestyle trends and conversations; pop culture theories and moments — and sparked concerns about mental health and body image.
And for some creators, it's become a livelihood.
All that might change as Congress weighs a potential ban of TikTok due to national security concerns from the Chinese-owned app. TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew said, in a congressional hearing, that the company was not spying on Americans at Beijing’s request through the app, nor was the app a propaganda tool.
With U.S. lawmakers vowing to move forward on legislation around the app, and sweeping bans of TikTok from university campus networks and government devices in the U.S., Europe and Canada, creators like Jorge Alvarez, 24, are now considering what their future might look like now that they've built platforms and careers on the platform.
Alvarez began posting on TikTok under @ijorgealvarez in April 2021 after noticing a lack of mental health content created by men, especially men of color.
Then an undergraduate student at Rutgers University studying public health, Alvarez posted videos recapping conversations he’d had in therapy and with his parents and friends. “I was bringing people along for the ride with me,” Alvarez says.
Within four to six months, Alvarez's platform on TikTok grew, enough so that he launched his own mental health campaign.
Through TikTok, Alvarez felt he could make more immediate change than he could through continuing on with his plans to medical school. And so, last year, he made the pivot from future doctor to current content creator.
Speaking to TODAY.com Alvarez and other TikTok users opened up about what the ban could mean for them, and predict what might come next.
Why content creators are concerned about a TikTok ban
For content creators, TikTok is more than an app — it's their life and livelihood. So, on March 16 when the Biden administration announced a potential TikTok ban in the United States if the Chinese company ByteDance didn't sell its stake in the app, creators like Alvarez became alarmed.
Among Alvarez's concerns is his income, a portion of which comes from brand partnerships through TikTok.
Alvarez says TikTok has changed the definition of influencer, expanding beyond the "copy and paste influencer," taking #Wanderlust pictures and posting aspirational pictures of avocado toast.
“It’s not just one single community. It’s young people like me who support their families. I pay my mom’s bills. People’s livelihoods are attached to this," Alvarez, who attended a protest in Washington, D.C against the ban, says.
Gohar Khan, a first-generation college student from a low-income neighborhood who uses TikTok to share college application advice and study tips, says he currently makes about half his income through brand deals for his @goharsguide account.
"If TikTok were to get banned, a majority of my income on the business end would disappear and on the brand deal side, most of my income would disappear," Khan, 23, tells TODAY.com.
Khan's concerns extend beyond income: He's thinking about impact, too.
A few months ago, Khan received a message from a student who attended a summer program he’d recommended through a video. The student messaged to thank him for a "life-changing summer."
Without TikTok, Khan wonders how he could share his message to a similarly large audience (right now, he has 2.8 million followers on TikTok).
“The fact that through my videos, I’m able to help students in the position that I was once in, is incredible. I’m grateful that TikTok has given me the platform to do that,” the MIT grad tells TODAY.com.
"A lot of these students are not only watching my videos, but also taking action based on the advice that I give. It's really heartwarming. Seeing how that changes their lives renders me speechless."
Although Khan plans to continue his business if TikTok gets banned, he's not sure if his videos will have the same reach without the algorithm.
Vitus Spehar, a news creator who goes by V and uses they/them pronouns, also wonders how a ban would impact the community they have found among other content creators who use the app as a creative outlet.
"A lot of us started at the same time. We went through the pandemic together. TikTok was our window to the world. It was how we were meeting friends, how we were talking to people and how we were seeing the world when we were home," the 40-year-old, who hosts the TikTok news show @underthedesknews, tells TODAY.com. "It became our canvas to create."
That's why, according to Spehar, creators are gathering to protest. “I don’t think Congress expected people would fight this hard for this platform,” Spehar says.
So, what happens next? It's the question on creators' minds, too
With updates unfolding in real time, some creators are sharing their thoughts on the ban with their followers.
Ophelia Nichols, who goes by the nickname Mama Tot on TikTok and posts motivational and funny videos under the username @shoelover99, took to her account after the hearing on March 26 to share her concerns.
"You might think it’s a dumb social media app but it’s powerful in a good way," she says in the video. “There’s a little piece of their inner child getting healed because they finally knows what it feels like to have a mother that actually cares about that, that checks on them, that looks them in their face and says ‘I’m proud of you.’ They’re healing themselves."
She tells TODAY.com that when she went to film, she set her phone out and the words just started to flow.
Nicholas currently has over 11 million followers on TikTok. She originally created her account to watch videos. But after making a viral video that resonated, she began posting regularly and has since taken on a mother figure role for her followers.
"As a creator, I make videos that I know people come to my page to look for. That means 11.5 million people have gotten something that they needed from a complete stranger," she adds.
Aside from potentially losing her community, Nichols says news about the ban takes away from issues she considers more important, like gun violence, which took her son's life.
On June 24, 2022, Nichols' son Randon Lee was shot and killed at a gas station in Prichard, Alabama.
"They're worried about the wrong things in this country," Nichols says. "We're losing more lives every day. I've lost a child to gun violence, let's not forget that. But they are worried about an app."
Nichols, like other creators including Alexandra Doten, who uses TikTok to create educational videos about space and science under @astroalexandra, aren't sure what will happen next with the ban.
While both creators encourage people to follow them on other social media platforms including Facebook and Instagram, they agree that those other apps don't allow for the same connectivity and reach.
"I've tried in the past getting people to follow me on other apps and it's never really worked," Doten, 23, who has 2 million followers, says.
"But if we get to that last minute situation, I certainly will make a video pleading to my followers to transfer over to other apps. Although I know a lot of my followers and a lot of the people who are commenting on my videos do say they are planning on completely deleting their social media apps if TikTok is banned," she adds.
But creators like Nichols aren't planning on giving up the fight anytime soon.
"We need to speak up," she says. "We need to let our elected officials know, 'Hey, this is what you're doing, and this is what the outcome is going to be and not going to be good.'"
“I would be someone that used to be on TikTok and that’s weird.”
Tefi Pessoa on life after tiktok
"It's not even going to be beneficial for people's mental health. People have really found family and their community and they're going to wake up one morning and not know where these people that they talk to every day that they call their TikTok family went," she adds.
At the very least, a TikTok ban would inspire a kind of identity shift for these creators, or an internet existential crisis.
TikTok creator Estefanía "Tefi" Pessoa, who posts funny and relatable videos under @hellotefi to 1.6 million followers, tells TODAY.com that she might return to YouTube — where she started her career — but it wouldn't be the same.
"It would be very odd," she says. "All my interviews and podcasts and all that stuff would be about how people feel now that it's over."
"I would be someone that used to be on TikTok and that's weird."