For the longest time, I refused to get a TikTok. I regarded it as a less funny Vine, aimed at people at least five years younger than me. Before TikTok, I spent all my time on Instagram, and before that I spent it on Tumblr. Tumblr was a barrage of bad news and misguided “internet activism” with the occasional funny text post, while Instagram was a safe haven of almost exclusively women showing me how to do my make-up and hair. Although, for someone so proud of not falling for the TikTok craze, my absolute favorite thing to do on Instagram was watch re-uploaded TikTok reels. When Instagram randomly shut down my account, and made it impossible to watch endless reels on my new one, I finally caved.
I spent the next three days doing nothing but watching TikToks. I watched them for hours — while I was supposed to be studying, while I ate, while people tried to have a conversation with me. Life mostly returned to normal after a little while, but I can say with certainty this is probably the only social media platform I actively look forward to opening. I think one of the most alluring things about TikTok is the algorithm. Tumblr had the worst algorithm of any social media site I’ve ever used, and Instagram’s algorithm rarely showed me something new after it figured out what I liked. On the other hand, TikTok may as well be reading my mind. It only took the app two days to figure out what kind of “weird” I am, show me videos made exclusively by my fellow weirdos and then another two days to figure out I was sick of my fellow weirdos, and I never wanted to see another one of their videos again. Furthermore, like Vine the videos are tailored towards my short attention span. If I’m bored by what I’m seeing, I will get to see something different in about five seconds.
My absolute favorite thing about TikTok is how connected to the human species the app makes me feel. So much of TikTok is people just making videos about funny, bizarre, or traumatic things that have happened to them. After hours of scrolling, it feels like you’ve gotten to know so many people intimately, but of course you haven’t. TikTok seems to be filled with people excited to share things with people they think would improve their lives. My “For You Page” (FYP) is filled with people sharing jokes, money making side hustles, drawing tips, books they enjoyed, websites that make life easier, and delicious (?) vegan recipes.
Despite my love for the app, however, it’s hard to ignore the many draw-backs. Like Instagram’s algorithm, TikTok’s algorithm can be intense. Once it figured out I was crazy about Encanto, every other video was about Encanto and now I Don’t Want To Talk About Encanto Anymore. The videos tailored to my short attention span are a double edged sword; it’s too easy to spend half a day scrolling because watching “just a few TikToks” doesn’t feel like you’re spending any time at all. Because certain songs/audios get popular and it becomes a trend to talk or joke about a certain thing using a certain audio, jokes become really predictable. Furthermore, the app was designed for younger users (+13), but has become a platform that is populated by older teens and young adults. The younger users are not protected from explicit content (the only protection for young teens 13-15 is that their accounts are private by default) but the older teens are creating mature content that is censored in bizarre ways. While the content creator might be openly talking about an unsolved murder in their video, for the actual text in the video they will have to use the term ‘un-alived’ instead of ‘killed’. There’s about a dozen other words that have to be censored in such a silly manner, despite the content being obviously mature.
For me, one of TikTok’s worse sins is that according to the Intercept, TikTok told it’s moderators to suppress videos from creators that weren’t conventionally attractive or were visibly poor. Spokesperson Josh Gartner says that these rules were an attempt “at preventing bullying” and that these things are no longer enforced anyways. Obviously the first justification is nonsense and as for the second, I’m not confident anything has actually changed. Popular social media sites all have a bad reputation when it comes to glamourising and promoting their most attractive and wealthy users, therefore normalizing an unrealistic standard to compare your life to, but seeing it printed on paper makes it even harder to pretend everything is okay with the way we consume social media.
In conclusion, do I think TikTok is an intensely enjoyable, yet easily hateable and manipulative timesuck? Yes. Do I also see myself wasting at least four hours of my life on it sometime this week? Unfortunately, also yes.