Life without TikTok? Cincinnati influencers reflect on potential ban: 'I'm worried'

TikTok's economic and cultural grip on American society is undeniable.

One of the largest social media apps in the world, it's being used by a third of U.S. adults, according to Pew Research Center. The platform also claims it contributed over $24 billion to U.S. gross domestic product in 2023.

But the clock may be ticking for TikTok's fate in the U.S.

The app filed a lawsuit earlier this month, aiming to block the law that would force ByteDance, its parent company based in China, to sell the app or see a ban in the U.S. President Joe Biden signed the bill into law in April.

The concern is whether the Chinese government can collect American user data from the app. TikTok says China hasn't requested it, and the platform wouldn't hand the data over anyway, USA TODAY reported.

However, a ban could be detrimental to many Americans. From influencers who have redefined the marketing landscape through brand deals to musicians who have cultivated entire fanbases on the platform, a lot could soon vanish for those whose livelihood rely on the app.

Here is what Cincinnati's TikTokers are saying.

4 Cincinnati TikTokers reflect on potential US ban

Alison Epp

Alison Epp, an Ohio native, moved from New York City to Cincinnati in 2023.
Alison Epp, an Ohio native, moved from New York City to Cincinnati in 2023.
  • TikTok followers: approximately 20,500.

  • Instagram followers: approximately 6,100.

  • Genre of content: Lifestyle, beauty and fashion.

  • Years working as an influencer: 1.

Alison Epp moved from Ohio to New York City seven years ago to pursue career opportunities in fashion design. The Kent State University alum landed a job as an assistant designer, but was laid off in 2021.

"I could either settle and take another design role and be miserable or use this time to pivot my career," Epp, a native of Carlisle, said.

She returned to Ohio, moving to Cincinnati in June 2023, and has found greater opportunity – all thanks to TikTok.

Epp pursued social media content creation for a while and never saw much growth, having created her TikTok profile in 2020. Once she moved to Cincinnati, though, she watched her TikTok following grow, reaching 10,000 followers in August. Her audience has since doubled.

What sparked her growth? A video she filmed walking through downtown's Kroger On the Rhine, grooving to the store's music of choice: Boosie Badazz's "Wipe Me Down." In the video – which now has over 1 million views – she's sporting a pair of big pink headphones.

"I'm now known as the 'pink-headphone-Kroger girl,'" she laughed, adding she has even been approached by people saying they recognize her from TikTok.

Alison Epp went viral for a video she filmed in Kroger On the Rhine.
Alison Epp went viral for a video she filmed in Kroger On the Rhine.

Epp accepted her first brand deal last summer and has continuously posted brand-sponsored content since. Brands will pay her, on average, around $700 and sometimes up to $1,000 for one sponsored post, she said.

She still works a traditional job as a social media manager for Goorin Bros. Hat Shop, but the 29-year-old says her goal is to be a TikTok influencer full time.

"It's so crazy because, being transparent, brands will pay me for one video and it's almost my entire paycheck for two weeks at my job."

So what are her thoughts on the ban? Epp has adopted a "keep calm and carry on" mentality.

"I don't worry about these kinds of things because something new always comes out anyway," she said. "If TikTok does go away, they're just going to come out with something else."

If anything does happen with TikTok, Epp says she'll continue building up her social media on other platforms.

"The feeling I get when I'm creating, filming, when I edit and ... when you post it's like a release of endorphins, like a dopamine rush and obviously when you have that you keep going."

Ashley Nkadi

TikTok star Ashley Nkadi is a University of Cincinnati College of Law alum.
TikTok star Ashley Nkadi is a University of Cincinnati College of Law alum.
  • TikTok followers: approximately 72,000.

  • Instagram followers: approximately 1,900.

  • Genre of content: Lifestyle, fashion and day-in-the-life.

  • Years working as an influencer: 3.

University of Cincinnati College of Law alum Ashley Nkadi joined TikTok amid the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 to follow other law school students during a time when she couldn't meet her peers in-person.

"It almost felt like I was peers with those people in a weird way," she said about the law students she kept up with on the app.

Since then, Nkadi has carved out a niche for herself in a genre of content known as "LawTok." The self-proclaimed "relaxed law student" posted videos showing how she made time for fun and relaxation despite the demands of law school.

"The way law school is designed is like a pressure-cooker. You're ranked, you're graded on a curve," she said, saying she wants her videos to show "kids interested in law school that you can be level-headed."

After a video she made about cats went "accidentally viral" in 2021, Nkadi happened upon 40,000 followers overnight. Soon, she was being approached by brands, such as IHOP and M&M's, offering her promotional deals, but she remained focused on her classes and exams.

Having graduated from law school in May 2023, Nkadi now works as an associate in intellectual property law, meaning she's immersed in the backend of TikTok's advertising market every day.

As a law associate, she views the debate around TikTok as a reflection of a "lack of transparency and a lack of understanding among Americans." The app might not pose any more of a national security risk than other platforms, such as Facebook, that have been under fire for similar concerns, she says.

The 29-year-old also anticipates a TikTok ban could majorly impact her legal career, as her long-time goal is to establish a sports entertainment influencer legal practice. A hit to TikTok influencers would mean a hit to her prospective clientele.

As a TikTok consumer, Nkadi says a ban on the app would be a blow to a platform she considers unprecedentedly inclusive in how it spotlights content.

"(TikTok is) the first video-first platform that isn't really based around your followers and people you're already connected to," she said. "It's cool to see videos come across (the app) that you had no idea that this place or these type of people or this type of culture existed."

"Twitter is a place you get popular because you're funny. Instagram is a place you get popular because you're pretty. TikTok is a place where it's like you can be popular for any reason – your interests, your intelligence, your looks, you don't have to be one thing," Nkadi said.

Michael Williams

Mason native Michael Williams appeared on "The Voice" in 2020 and "American Idol" in 2023.
Mason native Michael Williams appeared on "The Voice" in 2020 and "American Idol" in 2023.
  • TikTok followers: approximately 159,000.

  • Instagram followers: approximately 60,100.

  • Genre of content: Music.

  • Years working as an influencer: 3.

Mason-born-and-raised performer Michael Williams knows a thing or two about exposure: He has made local headlines after stints on both "The Voice" in 2020 and "American Idol" in 2023.

But it is because of TikTok he has been able to reach and connect with a global fan base.

The 22-year-old artist stumbled upon the app around spring 2020, when the world and, seemingly his career, was shutting down. Amid filming "The Voice" in Burbank, California, at the start of the year, Williams was sent home and had to film the rest of the show virtually from Ohio.

Once he ended his run on "The Voice" that April, the then-18-year-old figured TikTok was the perfect vehicle from which to perform despite the global pandemic.

Michael Williams, a former contestant on "The Voice" and "American Idol," turned to TikTok during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Michael Williams, a former contestant on "The Voice" and "American Idol," turned to TikTok during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After a few months posting on the app, Williams struck viral moments through his duet singing videos, in which he'd sing a cover of a popular song and add lyrics to the screen for viewers to duet him. Soon, his followers grew by the thousands, and TikTok users from as far as the Philippines were sharing videos singing along to Williams.

These virtual collaborations meant a lot to him, Williams said.

"If I could have played a hand in ... people finding their voice during the pandemic, that'd be super cool," he said.

By the next year, in July 2021, Williams was accepting major job offers from creatives who discovered him on TikTok. For example, he took part in early performances of "Wild: A Musical Becoming" – a project by songwriter Justin Tranter, who has worked with Britney Spears and Justin Bieber.

Tranter was supposedly scrolling through TikTok when he discovered Williams. He then offered him an audition for "Wild," Williams said.

Beyond the professional exposure, TikTok has ushered in a special connection between Williams and his fan base. He has stayed in touch with one fan in particular from the Philippines, who says his music has helped her through family illness.

"The fact that TikTok can connect me, a kid from Ohio, with someone from the Philippines and offer encouragement is really cool," he said.

A prospective TikTok ban is, in Williams' words, "definitely not something fun to think about."

"A big part of my platform, part of my business will be gone," he said. "But one thing about the music industry (is) you have to be able to change. And in this industry, because it's tough, you have to be able to mold to whatever is going on."

"I love all my TikTok fans and all the people I get to interact with as well. I don't take losing that connection lightly," he added.

Heather Savage

Local TikToker Heather Savage started gaining popularity on the app in 2021.
Local TikToker Heather Savage started gaining popularity on the app in 2021.
  • TikTok followers: approximately 5.8 million.

  • Instagram followers: approximately 686,000.

  • Genre of content: Comedy and lifestyle.

  • Years working as an influencer: 4.

Four years ago, before she knew what TikTok was, Heather Savage was a single mom who made her living coaching soccer and flipping houses.

Now, Savage is a full-time TikTok creator negotiating six-figure contracts with major brands, such as Gatorade and Rocket Money. She creates videos for her millions of followers while planning a wedding with her fiancé, Josh Griffith, whom she met on TikTok's live feed.

At first, TikTok was nothing more than a fun hobby that kept Savage, 49, entertained during the pandemic. Then, in 2021, she carved out a niche on the app with her "to the comments" videos, in which she films herself reading through comments on comedic posts. After her first comments video, she started gaining around 100,000 followers per week, she says.

Her first brand deal rang in at around $150,000, and business has been growing ever since. She has even hired an assistant and an agent to help her keep up with the influx of brand inquires pouring in on a daily basis.

The secret to her success? She's completely authentic online, and people are drawn to that, she said.

"I'm just a mom from Cincinnati who's trying to do her best to have a good outlook on life and raise her kid," she said.

Thanks to her TikTok success, Savage has been able to give back to the Cincinnati communities that raised her. In December 2022, she donated $10,500 in gifts to Mount Healthy City School District, her alma mater. And this past holiday season, she personally handed out over 500 gifts at Moerlein Lager House to parents who weren't able to buy their kids presents.

All of that good is going to go away if TikTok is banned, she says.

"I'm afraid. I'm afraid for our freedom of speech, I'm afraid for what these kids are going to do, I'm afraid for what the adults are going to do," she said about the ban.

She regularly gets direct messages from followers who tell her, "You saved my life."

"It's very heavy but (TikTok) does give people an outlet," Savage said. "I'm worried for people's mental health, for people who go on (TikTok) and have no one else."

"If (TikTok) weren't needed so many people wouldn't be on it."

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: What popular TikTokers are saying about a potential ban