Want to Buy TikTok? Beware of Used Goods

ByteDance Ltd.’s Hail Mary legal effort to avoid selling or shutting down TikTok relies on convincing a judge the social network will disappear entirely, squashing the free speech rights of millions of Americans.

The drawback to that argument is that the merest whiff of a deal to offload the app to new owners would fatally undermine the case. No free speech is lost if TikTok merely changes hands, a judge might say.

But credible reporting has shown that ByteDance has considered a sale in some form — because of course it has. It would be insanity not to consider what value can be salvaged from the “end” of TikTok.

Potential suitors might want to think long and hard about what they’re getting into, though. The short history of the internet has demonstrated that picking up a secondhand social network rarely works out well for new owners.

The most famous — and, let’s face it, funniest — example is News Corp.’s acquisition of MySpace, announced in 2005, for $580 million in cash. The site had 16 million daily active users, which, before Facebook, was a huge deal. MySpace was seen as an epicenter of culture, particularly music. Rupert Murdoch was buying a product that one Morgan Stanley analyst predicted could be as important to News Corp.’s digital ambitions as The Simpsons was to building the Fox TV network.

However, the late media columnist David Carr cut through the hype, as he always did. “Mr. Murdoch has become the dad at the teenagers’ party,” he wrote, “working hard to fit in.” By 2008, Facebook had overtaken MySpace globally. Attempts to modernize its messy design backfired, and spam spread like weeds. The site was on a steady downturn and was eventually sold in June 2011 for $35 million — a $545 million loss. A “huge mistake,” Murdoch would say later. D’oh!