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.]