Silicon Valley is losing its grip on the US social media market

Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram apps are seen on a smartphone.
Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram apps are seen on a smartphone.
Image: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic
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TikTok is growing faster than US social media giants on their own turf, underscoring just how quickly Silicon Valley is losing its status as the undisputed epicenter of the social media world. While Silicon Valley incumbents like Facebook and Google-owned YouTube can still claim more American users, TikTok has taken the lead on a couple of key measures of growth and engagement over the past year.

In 2020, TikTok surpassed Facebook Messenger to become the most downloaded social media app in the US, according to data from the app analytics company App Annie. TikTok also overtook Facebook as the most downloaded social app worldwide.

And in August of 2020, TikTok surpassed YouTube as the video app with the highest average watch time in the US. That month, App Annie data show that users watched an average of 24 hours of TikTok content, compared to 23 hours of videos on YouTube. TikTok’s lead has held steady ever since, with just one blip in March when YouTube briefly reclaimed the top spot.

Facebook and YouTube still lead TikTok in total US users

Keep these results in perspective: YouTube and Facebook are still the two most used social media apps in the US. When Pew Research polled US adults (ages 18+) in February, 81% reported using YouTube and 69% reported using Facebook. Just 21% of respondents said they used TikTok, though Pew may be overstating YouTube and Facebook’s lead. After all, teens under 18—TikTok’s most dedicated cohort of users—were excluded from the poll. Still, it’s clear TikTok has some ground to cover before it becomes the preeminent form of US social media.

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Silicon Valley is no longer the nexus of the social media universe

Americans now find themselves in the unfamiliar position of using a global social media app that isn’t headquartered in their own country. For all the angst they have felt in recent years about social media companies wielding broad power over the algorithms and moderation policies that shape public discourse online, they could at least take solace in the regular tradition of Silicon Valley tech barons being hauled before Congress to answer questions and receive a public drubbing from lawmakers. Plus, the ultimate fate of Facebook, Google, and their ilk lies in the hands of US judges, who have the power to order changes to their business models or even break them up.

TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, however, has shown that it mainly answers to Chinese authorities. A bumbling attempt to use the threat of a US TikTok ban to extract concessions from ByteDance in 2020 ultimately fizzled without achieving any actual results.

When it comes to regulating TikTok, the US may find itself relegated to a position familiar to tech investigators all around the world who have had to deal with Silicon Valley social media giants over the past decade. EU regulators, for instance, can launch investigations into Facebook and Google, levy fines, and even nudge the companies to change their behavior a bit—but ultimately, Europeans have to rely on regulators in the US to keep the Silicon Valley giants in check. Now, Americans will have the same uneasy relationship with regulators in Beijing.