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What a TikTok ban would mean for creators who rely on the platform to make a living

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

OK. Tens of thousands of people earn a living through TikTok. It's a side income to some, a full-time job to others. Now TikTok creators are on edge after President Biden signed a law that could ban the platform for good. NPR tech correspondent Bobby Allyn reports on how TikTok creators are preparing.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Lauren-Ashley Beck doesn't like identifying as an influencer, but she admits, ah, OK, fine. That's what she is.

LAUREN-ASHLEY BECK: I know people have a negative connotation to influencers, and I totally understand that. But there's some of us that kind of fell into this by mistake, and this is our job now.

ALLYN: Thirty-four-year-old Beck lives in LA. She was once a contestant on the TV show "Survivor." And besides that, she has a familiar story. She got bored during the pandemic and picked up TikTok.

BECK: Posting selfies and my food just like everybody else.

ALLYN: Then she found her sweet spot - doing reviews of TV shows. And it kind of blew up overnight. Jump ahead to now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

BECK: Is anybody else confused about what "Vanderpump Villa" is all about? I watched the first three episodes, and it is messy.

If your ex went on a reality show, would you watch it?

Season 2 of "The Traitors" U.S. is literally the Olympics of reality TV.

ALLYN: And she's inked sponsorship deals with HBO, Hulu and Amazon.

BECK: Those are the people that are coming to me like, hey, can you talk about our shows? And then I build out the community talking about those shows.

ALLYN: Talking about television to her half a million TikTok followers is now our biggest source of income.

BECK: I've dubbed myself the Queen of Stream.

ALLYN: The Queen of Stream cash has helped her get caught up with her student loans, and her TikTok earnings allowed her to buy a Barbie pink Ford Bronco, which she bought before Biden signed the TikTok ban law.

BECK: I always say, I'm TikTok's biggest cheerleader. If you're a librarian, you could be a TikToker.

ALLYN: No shade on librarians. There are plenty of those making money on TikTok, too, on what's known as BookTok. But for the Ashley Becks of the world and the BookTok creators alike, President Biden's recent action hit like a thunderclap. TikTok must sell itself in a year or be shut down in America. The U.S. says the Chinese-owned app is a national security concern. James Nord runs the New York-based company Fohr, which does marketing for creators. He says most big TikTokers don't have a huge following on other platforms, so this could force them to restart.

JAMES NORD: For many people, this will be a extinction-level event.

ALLYN: He says his company alone is on track to pay out $20 million to TikTok creators this year from brand deals he's brokered.

NORD: This will shut tens of thousands of small businesses down. They won't get unemployment.

ALLYN: So they're trying to hedge their bets. TikTokers are now working on building up their following on the many social media platforms trying to be the next TikTok - YouTube Shorts, Instagram Reels, Snapchat and Amazon's Twitch. But the big money is still made on TikTok, says Prasuna Cheruku. She runs Diversifi Talent, which helps TikTokers get big checks per video.

PRASUNA CHERUKU: You know, a thousand dollars to up to 15-, $20,000, depending on the creators.

ALLYN: Beck, for one, says she'll be acting as if a ban will happen. But it's tricky because a viral video on TikTok could be a dud someplace else.

BECK: So I have been trying to repurpose my TikToks as YouTube shorts. But, again, it's just not the same viewership. You know, I can post that, get 400 views, post the same TikTok, get 400,000 views.

ALLYN: Ashley Beck, forever the optimist, says she's confident she'll be able to make a living on social media somewhere, but she has this advice for TikTokers feeling less chipper about the future.

BECK: You are not just TikTok, and everything will be OK, truly. And lean into your other platforms just in case it does go away (laughter).

ALLYN: Beck and thousands of other TikTokers are waiting now for the company to file a lawsuit aiming to stop or overturn the ban. Until then, she says she'll keep dishing out her sassy takes on the latest TV series as if it's not all about to go away.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.