Category Archives: Social Media

Ban TikTok?

Should employers be concerned about data security?

Is TikTok an amazingly popular (especially with teens) video-sharing app? Or is TikTok a serious threat to personal, corporate and national security? The answer appears to be “Yes!” 

TikTok Boom

TikTok’s growth has been explosive. It’s been the most downloaded app in Apple’s App Store since 2018. TikTok is reported to have been downloaded over two billion times (175 million in the U.S.), and to have 800 million monthly active users, from over 150 countries. Users are young, with more than 65% being 34 or younger. And they spend a lot of time on the app, averaging 52 minutes a day on TikTok, with teens spending 80 minutes. This activity has reportedly produced $3 billion in profits last year. This app is no slouch. It’s fun. It’s growing. And its user demographics are a marketer’s nirvana.

TikTok Bust

Despite profound success, TikTok’s future is in serious question. TikTok’s growth story is being overshadowed by controversy. Concerns over user data security and international espionage are at the heart of a snowballing crisis for the Chinese-owned app. Unlike with other outcries over social media/technology privacy issues, these controversies aren’t merely rumors. They’re very serious allegations with matching consequences.

The types of actions governments and corporations have taken against TikTok are really unprecedented. Here’s a sample:

  • 2019: Federal Trade Commission fines ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company) for violating online child protection laws.
  • 2019: United Kingdom opens an investigation into TikTok data protection for children.
  • 2019: India places provisional ban on TikTok for issues around pornography and child protections.
  • 2019: A large class-action law suit was filed in California, claiming TikTok illegally transferred personal data of U.S. citizens to China.
  • 2020: India permanently bans TikTok, citing security concerns around Chinese government spying. 
  • 2020: The United States Military bans TikTok from all government-issued phones.
  • 2020: Amazon accidentally releases an internal employee memo asking all employees to delete TikTok from company phones.
  • 2020: Wells Fargo directs employees to remove TikTok from company phones.

So, what is the problem with TikTok? Why are these, and other organizations, so concerned about the app’s access to data. There seem to be two primary areas of concern. The first is personal privacy and illegal consumer data collection. The second is corporate and national espionage—spying done through TikTok on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Data Syphoning

It’s widely understood that mobile devices collect immense amounts of data from user actions. They track your web browsing, app usage, driving, spending, steps, sleeping, etc.  That TikTok tracks user data isn’t controversial. The problem is what data the app tracks, how it tracks it, and what it does with the data.

Not everything is publicly known about TikTok and what it’s doing. However, it is important to recognize that TikTok is a rebranded version of the Chinese app Douyin. Because it operates behind the Chinese Firewall, Douyin was developed using a very different set of priorities, ethics and protections than apps developed in the U.S. and other liberal democracies. The Chinese people are restricted and censored in ways that are illegal here. Supposedly, TikTok runs on a separate set of servers than Douyin to enable these differences. Yet, many believe the app retains most of Douyin’s “China-market” capabilities.

There are many ways a downloaded app, like TikTok, could surreptitiously collect sensitive data from a phone without users being aware. For example, Apple flagged TikTok for copying data from user’s clipboards. Also, an app developer recently reversed engineered TikTok and found that the app has the ability to intercept and open zip files and perform other functions that should not be part of a mobile app. TikTok might also be able to collect very sensitive data, like fingerprint markers. TikTok just raises a lot of red flags for consumers.

“There’s a reason governments are banning it. Don’t use the app. Don’t let your children use it. Tell your friends to stop using it. It offers you nothing but a quick source of entertainment that you can get elsewhere without handing your data over to the Chinese government. You are directly putting yourself and those on your network (work and home) at risk.” 


A Trojan Horse

It’s not only user data that’s at risk. Large corporations and governments are concerned with CCP corporate and military espionage. TikTok is only one example of a concerted international curtailment of Chinese technology companies. Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the U.S. is considering a ban on TikTok. Australia, Japan and other nations have suggested that they also might join India in banning TikTok.

This is part of a greater effort against Chinese technology. Companies like Huawei are already excluded from the U.S., United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Taiwan. The core issue is that many, if not all, Chinese tech companies are controlled to some degree by the Chinese military.  

Considering prior action and the strained relationship between the U.S and the CCP, it should not come as a surprise if the U.S. bans TikTok in the coming weeks and months. 

Protect Your Data

In my opinion, when there’s this much smoke, there’s fire. My response to what’s happening with TikTok is to err on the side of caution. I recommend removing TikTok from your personal phone, or any connected device that also has access to any important data. I recommend parents make this decision for their children. I also recommend any employer whose employees access any company data have employees remove TikTok from that device. 

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Signal and Noise

Blackout Tuesday taught us something about Instagram.

During the BlackLivesMatter “Blackout Tuesday” protests last week, many of us saw the following admonition in our various social feeds and in the comment section of Instagram posts:

Unintended Consequences

Why did these most earnest of social justice warriors want us to stop using #blacklivesmatter in our posts? Wasn’t solidarity and the spread of a movement the whole idea? 

The Signal

When these concerned organizers saw their own feeds become clogged with one blacked-out image after another, they realized that their messaging was lost in a sea of black. Organizers, who ironically tried to police Blackout Tuesday, were being frustrated by both the nature of social participation and how Instagram works. 

Instead of letting the protest form organically, these organizers wanted to disseminate specific messages and information using Instagram. To them, the critical thing was the signal. By focusing on their messaging, they missed the beauty of the noise. They began tamping down the participation they had encouraged. The “don’t use #blacklivesmatter” scolds started trending and became one of the predominate messages of the day. I think the simple blacked-out screen shot was more artful and positively impactful.

Blackout Tuesday

The Noise 

What the organizers perceived as noise was, in fact, the most important thing—participation. Blackout Tuesday was a success because it got millions of people to express themselves on behalf of an issue when they  might otherwise have stayed silent.  

When we participle in any social media campaign, we incrementally move from being spectators to stakeholders. This shift is gold to companies who spend millions on influencer marketing, interactive media and direct response advertising. Converting a passive consumer to a co-creator for any brand is a major step in creating lasting brand loyalty. 

No individual post listing real injustices, “important” Netflix docs, or local meet-up times is as important to the success of the movement as having millions of people do something, even something as seemingly insignificant as posting a black screenshot. Each of those little blacked-out posts represents buy in from a fellow citizen and voter. Marketing gold.   

The Platform 

Why wasn’t Instagram effective for disseminating information in the way conceived by Blackout Tuesday organizers? The easy answer is always the algorithm; that mysterious artificial intelligence that determines who, what, when and where a post is displayed on Instagram or any social media platform.

The algorithm is easy to blame, but hard to understand. Actually, it’s impossible to understand because it’s always changing. First, the algorithm’s output is always changing due to exigent conditions on the platform—like millions of black screen shots using #blacklivesmatter. And secondly, social media platforms are constantly tweaking their algorithms to make the user experience better and to increase ad revenue.

Probably the easiest way to understand why the algorithm is a necessary evil is to consider your own social media feed. First, look at the size of the feed space. Depending on your device (Instagram is a mobile phone app), you’ll see one or two posts at once. Interaction is limited to that space and by how much time you spend scrolling and interacting with each post. 

Let’s say you follow 500 people, brands and hashtags. If half of those post every day, it will take some time to get through all of those posts and stories, especially when you factor in the fact that the rate of ads in your feed might be 1:3 in prime viewing times. So, how many of those 250 posts do you actually interact with every day? 

You may think your posts reach all of your followers. They don’t. If you don’t interact much with your followers, the algorithm pushes your post down the queue, behind that follower’s more relevant interactions and behind paid content. And as time goes by, your post becomes less relevant. Even when you make it into your follower’s feed, if they don’t look at your post in a timely manner, it slips further and further down their feed. 

Consider the millions of users and companies vying for space in your feed and you’ll get a picture of how ineffective Instagram is at timely messaging. Instagram is better for branding and low-touch interaction with user-generated content. Other platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, can be more effective dissemination tools due to certain affordances like groups, direct messaging and content structure. But they also are limited by algorithmic control over the vast torrent of content generated each second. 

Complementary Media

Many try to use social media as a broadcast medium without recognizing how the media shapes the message. Consider the following simple diagram explaining user relationships to the messages via different media. For the user, social media is not like watching a single television channel, or connecting to a website. It’s like having 500 channels streaming in all at once. 

Social Media overloads the user.

Social media is a complementary media. The most effective strategy for social media–based information dissemination is to use social media to draw users to an information rich website. There, users can engage with your messages and information and action strategies. They can also up their commitment by signing up for future email, texts and other vital updates from your organization. 

As in all communication, the media matters. Understanding the limits of social media will help you determine how it fits into your quiver of options. While I can help with ways to think about and use social media, I can’t help turn it into something it’s not. For that, you’ll need to sign up for my $5,000 a month newsletter. LOL

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Everybody ❤️ Emoji


We know emoji. They’re the little digital stickers we add to a text to add emphasis, emotion and even confusion. They’re useful for quick responses. Little, pre-packaged, digital stickers are perfect for our byte-sized communications.

But do we know about emoji? They have a rich and rather long history and are maintained within an international system. Emoji help us communicate, but not in the same way as words. Emoji are becoming preferred over text on many platforms and are constantly evolving. There is a lot more than meets the 👀 with these little symbols.

Did you know?

These are just a few tidbits about emoji. Want more? There’s no way for me to tell the story of emoticons and emoji as well as this wonderful Illustrated History of Emoji.

Words not needed

Scholars from many fields study emoji; the way we use them, how we respond to them and the ways emoji are transforming communication. Because there isn’t anything approaching a theory of emoji, let’s skim over some interesting nuggets.

An emoji isn’t exactly a word. It’s what internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch calls a “gesture.”

“Looking for a grand unified theory of emoji had been dooming me to failure because emoji don’t have one function, they have a range of them. But crucially, it’s the same range that gestures have, and that’s why emoji caught on so quickly and so completely: because they gave us an easy way to representing the functions behind the gestures that are so important for our informal communication.”

Because Internet p. 161

This seems right. Emoji illicit quick emotional responses that don’t need to be explicitly tied to text or images. Yet emoji can easily magnify a point or a express a reaction. Consider the common uses below.

👍Gesture of affirmation; I agree, Well done, Message received
🤷🏼‍♀️Shoulder shrug; I can’t decide, I don’t know, I don’t care
🙄Rolling eyes; Whatever, mom
👌Ok sign; (a little ambiguity here) maybe “ok,” maybe sarcastic “ok”
🖐🎤Drop the mic; Can’t be topped, last word, excellent sentiment

McCulloch’s gestures help explain emoji use, but not the whole story. People also use them as sentences: 👁❤️🍕. And as stand-ins for common phrases, like 🙈🙉🙊 or 🎁,🎂 and🎈for Happy Birthday. Some folk just like to use emoji for weird, obscure and sophomoric references: 🐙😼🗜💾🍆. (I like to bust out 🐊 during football season “Go Gators!”)

This handy lexicon of emoji usage will help you find the right emoji and help you figure out what your kids are up to.

I’m dating myself and my grown kids with this reference.
It looks like dad was schooling you.

Don’t worry, word nerd

Emoji are sometimes overhyped as a possible replacement for text. This is not going to happen. There are just too many different emoji, with the number constantly increasing. Researchers studying human-computer interactions looked at the rapidly increasing number of emoji, their relationship to one another and the workability of an emoji keyboard. They concluded that emoji do not easily combine into complete thoughts like letters and words. (See the relational hierarchical tree below.) Also, the growing number and relative cognitive distance between meanings, makes them unwieldy for optimized interfaces like keyboards (Pohl, et al).

Relationships between common emoji.

Phoning it in

Emoji are especially good for quick responses within relationships. When I post a 🐊 after a Gator touchdown, my friends know I’m cheering for my team and that something good has happened. Emoji leverage shared knowledge between us, allowing us to use emoji as shorthand.

Kelly and Watts researched how people use emoji to communicate in ways beyond adding emotion. Within close relationships we share more freely; we use emoji to add humor, create shared-meaning around certain emoji and stay connected with minimal effort.

Interestingly, using emoji to communicate with limited effort can backfire. This especially happens in romantic relationships. Researchers studied text messaging between romantic partners and found diminishing returns on the use of emoji in positive messages (Rodriquez, et al).

😠 still gets the job done when someone is in trouble. But ❤️ loses its mojo the deeper the relationship gets. Maybe she swooned when you sent her a ❤️ or a 🌹 when you first started dating. However, it’s been almost two years now so you might want to pick up some real flowers, or at very least take the time to write out a considerate note.

Our digital conversations are ongoing and insistent. They don’t wait for us to be ready to give our undivided attention. Emoji are excellent at keeping us connected to ongoing meaningful conversations. They can’t stand alone for long, but they let people know that we hear them and know them and care. What they lack in clarity, they more than make up for in immediacy. For that, 👍 emoji.

Closing the series

This article is the fifth in a series on the ways we use our digital devices to communicate. I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed taking a deeper look at digital spaces that have become commonplace.

The rest of the series:

Puppies pics, pound signs and Sad Keanu

What does this mean?


Choose GIF


Kelly, R & Watts, L. 2015. “Characterizing the inventive appropriation of emoji as relationally meaningful in mediated close personal relationships.” Paper presented at Experiences of Technology Appropriation: Unanticipated Users, Usage, Circumstances, and Design, Oslo, Norway, 20/09/15 – 20/09/15, .

McCulloch, G. (2019). Because Internet; Understanding the New Rules of Language. New York: Riverhead Books

Pohl, H., et al. “Beyond just text: Semantic emoji similarity modeling to support expressive communication👫📱😁.” ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 24, 1, Article 6 (March 2017), 41 pages.

Rodrigues, D., Lopes, D., Prada, M., Thompson, D. & Garrido, M. V. (2017). “A frown emoji can be worth a thousand words: perceptions of emoji use in text messages exchanged between romantic partners.” Telematics and Informatics. 34 (8), p. 1532-1543.

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R.I.P Instagram Likes

It's a good thing.

Beginning last April, Instagram began hiding “likes” in Canada, Japan and Brazil. In 2020, Instagram will begin hiding likes for some users in the U.S., their biggest single market with over a 100M users. 

Exact details of the change are not public, but like counts will be hidden on posts showing up in your feed, while the person/company posting will be still be able to see how many people are liking their content.  

Why do this?

Instagram says it wants to “depressurize” the platform because it has become too much of a competition for likes. Echoing this, Instagram’s CEO Adam Moseri stated that he wanted to  “reduce anxiety and social comparisons” for young people. Responding to public criticism to make Instagram a mentally and socially healthier platform is important, but business concerns are also driving the change. 

Likes on Instagram have devolved into an increasingly meaningless vanity metric. Common practices, like speed scrolling while double tapping and “like for like” tags have gamified the user experience. Bots and click farms have commoditized likes and interactions—think, “fake social media.” These activities dilute a like’s meaning and discourage users from meaningfully interacting with content. 

Instagram’s actual customers are not users, but marketers and advertisers. Vanity metrics may impress some users, but empty likes bring individual ad and post performance metrics into doubt, and make brand managers question the entire influencer ecosystem.  

Influencers are a mainstay of marketing on Instagram. Today, many are seeing the inflated numbers of followers and calling foul. Instagram’s changes to its algorithm in 2019 and hiding likes are all part of keeping the platform a strong and attractive platform for marketing activities. 

Return to quality.

Empty likes has reduced message salience and creativity on Instagram. Hiding likes will likely have a positive effect on both user experience and content. Brand managers will now need to step up their content and engagement game to reach Instagram audiences.

Innovative and creative content isn’t worth the effort when it’s ignored because it doesn’t have enough likes. In a world where likes are hidden, content connects when it creatively engages with users, not because it’s popular. Look for better, sharper and more targeted content and ads.

Connection and relationship will also become more important when likes are hidden. In reality, popularity has never been as important as community connections for social media. It’s just been easier for social media managers and marketers to value large numbers than has been to actually connect with customers. Look for a return to more active engagement with followers, especially in content showing up in the stories feed, which connects directly to a brand’s followers.

Influencers currently operate in a very opaque market with severe distortions. They will face increasing pressure to prove their ROI to marketers. They won’t go away. However, the days of equating audience size to influence are over. Influencers will have to prove audience engagement and link it to value.  

Healthier interactions, better content and less market distortion, are all great things for Instagram, its users and customers. Hiding likes is the right move. 

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