In Montana, Creators Await — and Dread — a TikTok Ban

Kylie Nelson wasn’t worried about a potential ban on TikTok when she first heard about it in the press several weeks ago. “I didn’t think it was going to be a thing,” said Ms. Nelson, a 30-year-old lifestyle creator in Billings, Mont., who specializes in midsize fashion content.

That all changed this week when Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a bill to ban TikTok from operating inside Montana. The bill represents the most significant step toward restricting TikTok in the United States, amid growing concerns among federal lawmakers that the Chinese-owned app poses risks to national security. The Montana ban is scheduled to take effect in January 2024.

“Today, Montana takes the most decisive action of any state to protect Montanans’ private data and sensitive personal information from being harvested by the Chinese Communist Party,” Mr. Gianforte said in a news release.

TikTok has been Ms. Nelson’s full-time job for about a year, since she left her career as a fitness trainer to go all in on influencing. Now she has just over 200,000 followers on the app, where she regularly posts shopping haul videos and GRWM — TikTok shorthand for “get ready with me” — videos in which she gets dressed and made up for the day.

Losing the app would be a significant financial hit for her. “Probably 70 percent of my income, of my brand deals, come from TikTok,” Ms. Nelson said. She estimated that she made between $30,000 and $40,000 on TikTok in a year. She has also spent tens of thousands of dollars on courses and coaching to help her grow her business on the app. Those investments could be for nothing if the ban comes to fruition.

Ms. Nelson is also on Instagram, but, like many creators, she experienced significantly more growth in a much shorter time on TikTok. “It’s a discovery platform,” she said, referring to TikTok’s powerful algorithm.

Ashley and Brittany Luly expressed similar sentiments about the platform’s reach. The twin sisters, known as @those_drywall_chicks, have more than half a million followers on TikTok, compared with 183,000 followers on Instagram. “We basically told our Instagram followers, you know, ‘We’re on TikTok now,’” Ashley said. “Our TikTok just blew up, like, almost overnight.”

While TikTok isn’t a full-time job for them — the Lulys, as their account name suggests, work in construction, specifically drywall — the sisters have occasionally posted an ad, they said, charging as much as $6,000 for a single TikTok video. And they get construction jobs from the exposure the account gives them, they said.

The Lulys said they supported the ban in the interest of protecting users’ personal information, but believed it would be difficult to enforce.

For Nicole O’Shea, losing TikTok would almost certainly mean losing work. Ms. O’Shea, 41, specializes in user-generated content, or UGC, which means she is paid by brands to make product promotion videos that the brands then run on their own social media accounts. (Ms. O’Shea does not post these videos on her own feeds.) She started making these videos after losing her home and car to the floods that decimated parts of the state in 2022, she said.

“I had to rebuild everything from scratch,” said Ms. O’Shea, who lives in Red Lodge, Mont. “UGC was a really easy way for me to make money from home. I would not have been able to do that without TikTok.” She’s made videos for Sonesta hotels and the soda brand Olipop. On average, she said, she earns about $3,500 a month making content for TikTok.

Ms. O’Shea said she believed the ban would ultimately fail, citing potential legal challenges. “But if, hypothetically, it does stand up and this is real, if I am a law-abiding Montanan who has to walk away from TikTok, then that takes away a very big chunk of my income,” she said. “It takes away my ability to provide for my kids.”

For other Montana creators, losing TikTok is about more than just profits.

Crissy Thomas, 38, initially thought TikTok was just an app for funny videos, but she quickly saw its educational value in her work as a farmer and rancher raising beef cattle in Bozeman. Ms. Thomas has a small audience, just under 5,000 followers, and does not use the platform for business. But, as she explained in a recent TikTok video, she believes the ban will still be a major loss for her and other farmers.

“We’re pretty isolated from the rest of the world,” Ms. Thomas said. “You know, we have grizzly bears in our backyard. Cutting off that communication to us is going to kind of be a little limiting to us being able to progress our businesses and progress our practices.”

The ban, which is still months from taking effect, is likely to face legal challenges. Still, some creators are cautiously preparing for the worst.

Ms. Nelson recently signed with a talent agency and has begun to rethink her strategy on brand deals. Maybe it’s time to focus on other platforms, she said.

“There’s a little part of me that doesn’t want to give as much love to it now,” she said.

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