TikTok, it has become almost hard to remember, began a few short years ago (2016) as an app for sharing videos of yourself lip-syncing music and dancing. The extremity of its success (it reached one billion users in September and has been the world’s most downloaded mobile app since early 2020, with nearly half of its American users occupying the coveted under-twenty-five demographic) owes something to the universal seduction of music, and quite a bit to a concert of small technical features that make it very easy and effective to use, but most of all to its famously irresistible recommendation algorithm, which measures minutely what you respond to and trawls through its vast bank of freely surrendered videos to serve up for you what you may not even be aware you like. Digital advertising has long sought you out for characteristics you inadvertently disclosed in your online life; TikTok does the work ahead of time by hiving you into ever-more-specific niches. In contrast to previous social media platforms, which were, by definition, social, encircling you with the decisions of people you had chosen to surround yourself with, TikTok opens the tiny window in your hand to the entire inexhaustible world.
TikTok bills itself as an entertainment platform, setting out to “make your day,” and when we start to fault it for not doing other things I am reminded of how, for instance, the novel was for centuries disparaged as a low (women’s) form. All the ways we communicate operate on a continuum between pleasing and substantive, and sometimes real culture comes to us in the form of fun. Currently many artistic forms previously considered pop or commercial—comic books, genres like science fiction and romance, gaming—are getting their day in the sun as ways of communicating their own unique truths, often truths of people left out of the more prestigious mediums. TikTok’s accessible reward of virality does make it a very democratic form, unlike other platforms that multiply the benefits of already being famous: Tech writer Nathan Baschez memorably called it “by and for randos.” It invites people to craft a publicly irresistible face with the promise of a waiting public, and people rocket to visibility out of nowhere.
That TikTok is addictive and fun and confined to what it is doesn’t necessarily make it “bad,” but its ubiquity demands attention, and because tech always chases the next new thing, its signature characteristics are spreading beyond its little frame. Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta, which has achieved dominance in part by copying and coopting rivals, has characteristically in the last few weeks modified its main two platforms, Facebook and Instagram, to mimic TikTok’s strengths. In Facebook’s case, there will now be internal competition for the posts of your “friends and family” (which within memory Meta devalued news in order to prioritize—in a different kind of bid to keep your attention) via posts from strangers that promise virality. Instagram is now nudging you in the direction of seeing and lingering on more viral content from strangers, a measure it cycled back somewhat this week after complaints from Instagram tycoon Kylie Jenner (who makes a lot of money from her Instagram “friends”) and others. Cal Newport in The New Yorker interestingly pointed out what the social media giants have to lose if they surrender their carefully assembled social connections assets for these agglomerations of strangers.
Link to the rest at Observer