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Oct 26, 2021
When I think of TikTok, the scream factory in Monsters, Inc. comes to mind. The app is a conveyor belt of doors opening and closing on some strange reality, where you can quickly find yourself reeling from information overload as you gorge on everything from real estate gurus and religious evangelists, to kink lovers and fashion trendsetters. That is, dear friend, until the algorithm jumps in, submerging you in the subcultures you’ve “liked” the most — a process that can feel as exhilarating as acceptance into a clique, or as claustrophobic as spelunking between giant rocks. With the Biden administration’s loosening of a Trump-era ban on the popular app earlier this year, we look at TikTok’s emerging subcultures and how the online world we perceive is increasingly being rewritten by the app’s algorithm.
The Allure of the Algorithm
1 - A Powerful Algorithm for Joy
I often tell people TikTok is the only social media site that consistently makes me more happy than stressed. The company swapped slogans from “Make Every Second Count” — a nod to its short-duration videos — to “Make Your Day,” a tacit acknowledgment of TikTok’s true appeal. It’s no accident, either. While some algorithms favor users who boast the largest audiences, TikTok puts ordinary creators on a more even playing field by first testing all videos with a small group. As the video’s engagement grows, it gets pushed to larger and larger audiences. With younger users craving authenticity and stress relief, “happy” content naturally floats to the top of the For You feed — although serious topics can rise too.
2 - Strange Subcultures
That algorithm also feeds the formation of subcultures. A new video on, say, hiking may be pushed to a larger audience of outdoor enthusiasts if it does well with its first test group. Hashtags contribute to the algorithm’s sorting choices, and its relatively democratic process leads to some surprising communities. That dynamic was satirized in a recent TikTok, where creator Thaddeus Shafer goes through a video “journey” depicting “Canyons of Affirmation” TikTok and “Progressive Redneck” TikTok . . . before finding himself in the woods and tripping out in “Hallucinogenic” TikTok.
3 - Organic Micro Demographics
Marketers have long targeted “demos” with their content, silos centered around race, age and gender. But the real holy grail for brands is targeting users who have a direct interest in their products, which can transcend demographic boundaries. Facebook tried to target users by encouraging them to include their interests on their profiles, but the feature is relatively unused. Instagram achieves this, to a degree, with hashtags, but still falls short. TikTok’s algorithm, however, creates an organic form of community building that can then be easily targeted.
4 - Social Media Meets Social Good
Attuned to the public relations failures of apps that have come before it, TikTok has tried to advertise itself as a more conscientious curator of content. To do this it enlisted influencers to create videos encouraging people to turn off the app if they’ve been watching for consecutive hours or late into the night — in sharp contrast with sites like YouTube, which has been accused of egging kids on to endlessly consume its content. In April, TikTok added auto-captions to make videos more accessible to users who are deaf or have partial hearing loss. Still, it’s not all positive. About a third of TikTok users are 14 or younger, yet TikTok has been struggling to keep pornographic and violent content off the platform, with mixed success.
Learning the Landscape
1 - Straight Tok: For "Normies"
Check out the tame yet viral dances, cringe-worthy acting, lip syncs and couples pulling eye-rolling pranks on each other, mostly performed by attractive white, heteronormative Gen Zers. First-time TikTokkers will likely find themselves browsing Straight TikTok (Charli D’Amelio, with more than 100 million followers, embodies the genre). But a number of users — particularly those from minority and queer backgrounds — have carved out spaces of their own, referred to as “Alt” or “Elite” TikTok, in which they reject mainstream humor in favor of edgier content.
2 - Thirst Tok: For Flirters
Even with nudity bans in place, TikTok users can get pretty suggestive — and there is no denying the popularity of thirst-trap videos on the app. Particularly suggestive viral dances, such as the “Silhouette Challenge” or the “Buss It Challenge,” have been praised for being sex-positive and, as one outlet put it, for “[sexualizing] Black women on their terms.” But others worry about the app’s potentially NSFW content reaching younger users. TikTok has created parental controls that can limit screen time and restrict some content, and some creators place 18+ disclaimers on their videos. But policing seems like a Sisyphean task given the overwhelming amount of content on the platform. With 689 million people using TikTok every month, and an average of 55% of them posting a video in that time frame, more than 12 million videos would need to be screened daily.
3 - Deep Tok: For Eccentrics
Similar to Alt TikTok, “DeepTok” undermines the mainstream, albeit in more bizarre ways. So-called distorted basement videos feature songs and videos that are altered and blurred in uncomfortable ways. Strange obsessions emerge, such as videos of beans or an image of a speckled fruit repeating again and again. Others mock department stores or brands in surrealist ways — like a video form of “deep-fried memes.”
4 - Christian Tok: For Saints
Liana Gordan, a 17-year-old Canadian, didn’t grow up especially religious, despite her parents identifying as Orthodox Christians. But after watching TikTok videos from evangelical creators on her For You page during the pandemic, Gordon opened up the Bible. She then began publishing her own videos, where she breaks down complicated religious concepts, as the website Bustle recounted in May, attracting tens of thousands of followers along the way. From youth pastors finding a new conduit for conversion to believers taking sexualized trends and turning them wholesome, TikTok has a proselytizing subsect — albeit one that is pretty easily ignored if you just keep on swiping.
5 - Kink Tok: For Sinners
On the flip side, evangelists for normalizing sexual expression and accepting a wide variety of “kinks” are also emerging on TikTok (usually with age-appropriate disclaimers). Their takes aren’t purely sexual: Kinksters often discuss healthy communication while exploring sexuality with partners. Some find themselves quickly in strange territory, as user @mackickinback did when her kink education videos were soon overshadowed by videos in which she wished her followers “good night” in creative and comforting ways, which quickly grew her following to over a million (literally) overnight.
TikTok's Uncertain Future
1 - China's Challenge
Although Biden has revoked the Trump administration’s anti-TikTok policies, the president has invoked an executive order calling for Cabinet members to conduct a review and recommend ways to protect the U.S. from sending data to competitors such as China. In the meantime, WeChat and a host of other apps backed by the Chinese tech giant ByteDance, will continue sending data from the U.S. overseas regardless of what happens to TikTok, as Protocol reporter Issie Lapowsky writes.
2 - EU Seeks to Police Data
America isn’t the only one with trust issues. The European Union, which has instituted strong data regulations, is debating what to do about the way its data is handled in the U.S.’s less-restrictive privacy law landscape. The EU’s fears about how that data may be used aren’t unfounded. “It wasn’t long ago that the NSA was caught doing some pretty aggressive snooping of its own,” Lapowsky wrote in a June 10 newsletter.
3 - Advertising for a New World
Advertisers especially like TikTok because, unlike with platforms such as Twitter, the ads are less obtrusive — with users often not even noticing they are watching ad content. As consumers complain of ad fatigue across a host of platforms, the seamlessness of TikTok could be a key advantage for brands also benefiting from a self-service sales model.
4 - TikTok as Community Organizer
Given TikTok’s ability to build communities, it’s possible that it could become a powerful platform for organizing efforts. This potential could have ramifications for political protest . . . or it could create an economic herding effect similar to the way the WallStreetBets subreddit has used its sheer strength in numbers to reshape the stock market. During the pandemic, a number of “zillennial” investors emerged on the platform, with a keen interest in finances and day trading.
1 - Quote of the Day
"The public has an appetite for anything about imagination - anything that is as far away from reality as is creatively possible." - Steven Spielberg
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