The security and social consequences of TikTok
Last fall, out of curiosity, I created a TikTok account. Many of my other social media platforms were getting old and boring. I grew tired of reading the diatribes on Facebook. Twitter doesn’t have enough characters for me to fully express my opinions, and I wasn’t a fan of the image link. And while Instagram had the text in line with the images, it became so commercialized. Plus, it was owned by Facebook and I was trying to diversify my social media presence. I had been on Snapchat but their videos were too short and not enough people I knew used it — network effects. Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit I craved creative outlets that didn’t spew incendiary politics, and TikTok seemed to be the best option. I saw videos depicting everything from cats to parents trying to bond with their children. I also saw first responders reminding me to wear a mask and explaining how they got into medical school while still being devastatingly handsome. Admittedly, I enjoyed many of the videos, the lyrics to Interior Crocodile Alligator by Chip Tha Ripper being one of my favorites.
In 2017, TikTok emerged from the merger of ByteDance’s acquisition of a wonderful app named Musical.ly. ByteDance is a China-based company that originally had a platform called Douyin for short-form videos, which later was renamed to TikTok. Around the same time, an app called Musical.ly became popular in the United States, which ByteDance then purchased and merged with TikTok. The combined platform retained the name TikTok, and it is now the world’s most downloaded app, outside of games such as Candy Crush or Fortnite. However, TikTok should be called Not Another Teen Video Streaming App. How many apps do we need that allow us to become multimedia specialists with fun fonts and a large following to appear on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon?
At first, I was in a strange new world of hashtags unique to TikTok. I didn’t know what #FYP (for you page) meant. Eventually, I caught on, and the algorithms got to know me too well. It knew that I was a student in Massachusetts, who also happened to be from California. I’m guessing this was from a combination of my phone number, area code and GPS location of my device. Suddenly, I was sucked into a TikTok vortex of my own algorithmic making. It was like I couldn’t get away from myself. TikTok knows a lot about me through my friends, followers, likes, locations, speech, writing and language patterns — all of which create my unique social media signature.
The great thing was that I didn’t need to reorient my phone. I was able to remain in portrait, and it charmingly showed me life in the Bay State, life in quarantine and life as a remote learner. Nothing was pulled from other apps (like the intertwined relationships between Facebook and Instagram) and this wasn't just a messaging app like WhatsApp or GroupMe. It “intuitively” learned on the fly that my eyes were resting on cat videos longer than some of the others. And that I was interested in student life. And it gave me glimpses into the very vulnerable real stories of other students around the globe, dealing with the real challenges of Zoom classes, deciding what to wear to Target and if that was a reasonable crossover with CVS, or the earnest pleas of “please don’t let this fail” shorts made by young cohorts worldwide.
Some riffed on fashion and clothing dreams. The same video looped endlessly, and I learned some new songs. I could watch passively or do a side by side song and dance duet. The text bubbles allowed the creator to show real vulnerability by stating things that would otherwise be uncomfortable to share. And then there were the challenges, from #wipeitdown to #wap (not going to explain the latter). Some challenges can be downright dangerous, like the latest “Benadryl challenge.”
Given the viral nature of these challenges and TikTok’s extreme popularity among GenZ — in part due to its servings of random posts through their AI — the addiction possibilities are real. They’re constantly fed non-celebrity content that is just so cute and so endearing that they can’t stop watching. These users are posting about life in other countries like India, although now banned there, and watching them grow in a few months into confident, amazing people, turning minutes into hours. It’s turned into a way to share confirmed life and political thoughts and connection. Earlier this year, it was said that TikTok teens registered for the Trump rally in Oklahoma, which is what accounted for the large number of empty seats. Using the language of their generation, young people are able to quietly and quickly gather forces and organize protests as well as compare diversity of thought, all packaged in a too-cute easily digested video snack.
And that’s the heart of the problem. Any platform, and a largely mobile one at that, is no place for real connections. It’s true that viewers are constantly learning about new content creators, but realistically I doubt that they will be traveling to Vanuatu any time soon. However, they will be seeing their classmates, eventually, in real life. On top of that, there is a very real possibility that TikTok will be banned, or severely limited, in the United States, as it already has in India. Like with Vine, the GenZ viewer might feel that the rug has been pulled out from under them, and their support community and cheerleaders will have vaporized. All the self-care and affirmations they were receiving will vanish. Some videos contain lewd scenes and harsh language. With TikTok users so young and their brains so impressionable, the constant video feeds are just the dopamine hit craved by the not-fully-developed brain.
Without an app, GenZ might actually have time to think more and work within the world which immediately surrounds them.
Still want to upload that video?