Digital Diplomacy
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Digital Diplomacy

TikTok: An Algorithmic Perpetuation of “Perfection”

Phone laying down with TikTok logo on the screen
Photo by Kon Karampelas on Unsplash

If you’re familiar with TikTok, you might be aware of the recent news that the app is currently under consideration for a national ban. Regardless of the legitimacy behind the threat to ban TikTok on American devices, if you’re one of the nearly 800 million active users of TikTok, you might have given some thought into the broader implications for the app. How has the whirlwind growth and fall of the application changed the way we function as humans, both on and offline?

If you don’t know me, I’m Rachel. I’m a Sociology undergraduate at the University of Washington. I’m also a part-time video editor, and I wouldn’t hesitate to label myself an Internet enthusiast. I’m interested in online content and the sociological interactions that are mediated by the Internet. Coincidentally, TikTok is a gold mine for the sociologically curious. Despite significant security concerns, it is one of the fastest-growing mobile applications in the world. My intention is not to rehash the impressionability of its young user base, or its marketability — Gen Z is a gold mine for advertisers. What I want to discuss instead is not necessarily just the online world, but what we may pull into the offline world and into our heads. Improbable body and appearance expectations have always been unsolicitedly pushed into the forefront of a lot of young women’s minds, but with TikTok, it’s nearly impossible to look away. The entire empire of social media is built around looks. FaceTune, one of the most popular apps in the Apple App Store worldwide, speedily developed the normalization of body distortion on social media. While ads are legally required to be disclosed on Instagram posts in order to prevent deception, the use of FaceTune and filters to remove blemishes, smooth pores, and contort bodies is nearly ubiquitous among Instagram influencers. However, TikTok plays a unique role in the development of body image because it fundamentally relies on both autonomous and active curation. TikTok’s user interface is insidiously easy to use, endlessly rolling out hundreds of 15-to-60 second videos in one sitting.

Autonomous algorithmic control

Screen recording of scrolling through TikTok’s “For You” page
Scrolling through TikTok’s “For You” page

When you first open the app, without so much as a questionnaire or “sign up” link, TikTok immediately begins showing you content. Over the following days, it learns what you’ll watch and engage with and tailor its algorithm toward you. What you watch and engage with isn’t necessarily what makes you feel good about yourself, and it might not even be the type of content that you set out to watch on TikTok. In practice, the search feature barely functions, as each video contains so little text metadata that it’s difficult for the search engine to crawl through. This differs from platforms that actively work to populate content with searchable metadata, like YouTube or Instagram. Another unique and pointed design choice made by TikTok in order to maximize the algorithm usage is to make the “For You” page the default landing page for the app. TikTok unabashedly funnels your eyes towards the algorithm, autonomously curating what you consume to keep you engaged as long as possible.

Body image

Here’s where it gets tricky. Most platforms, like YouTube and Twitter, are primarily self-moderated. There are predominantly successful efforts on the behalf of the company to remove illegal content, but legal grey areas such as hate speech are left up to the users to decide whether or not it’s harmful enough to report. The Internet recently saw one of YouTube’s biggest influencers, Jenna Marbles, cancel herself and recall manually deleting old videos of hers throughout the years in a clear display of self-preservation through self-moderation. Often, the task of moderating YouTube for unsavory content falls onto the shoulders of the creators instead of the company itself. However, TikTok operates on a much higher level of moderation, so much so that it creates a full-on censored environment. Let’s take a look at an example from one of my favorite body-positive TikTok creators, Mik Zazon.

Transcript: “I accidentally did an experiment on TikTok without knowing. TikTok is censoring people with acne. I posted a sunscreen for acne-prone and sensitive skin without the hashtag acne and with the hashtag acne, and it will not post!”

TikTok censored a post that has the hashtag “acne”, and allowed an identical one to go through that did not contain the hashtag. For an algorithmically-driven application, this speaks to the values of the platform. According to leaked Chinese documents acquired by The Intercept in March, TikTok actively promotes the posts of “beautiful” users and demotes the posts of “ugly”, “poor”, and “disabled” users. The reason, according to the documents? “The video will be much less attractive, not worthing to be recommended to new users.”

Almost half of teenage girls are unhappy with their bodies. Body dysmorphia and eating disorders in young people of all genders have been rising steadily in recent years. To think that TikTok is a standalone influence in this battle neglects to acknowledge the broader picture, so although I aim to shine the spotlight on TikTok, what is really concerning is society in general and what we are willing to trade for views, power, and money.

One small win for the TikTok community, however, is the reactionary movement of body positivity. A growing community of creators and viewers, including former D1 athlete Victoria Garrick and body positivity advocate Brittani Lancaster, directly confront TikTok’s embedded values by posting content that works against the current of the algorithm. This content ironically preaches self-acceptance and self-love in one of the most restrictive social media platforms to date, and seeks to break the social conditioning of “perfection” that TikTok cultivates.

Vote with your follow

If there’s one thing you take from this piece, I encourage this to be it: “Vote with your follow” is the “vote with your dollar” for the economically indebted, media-driven Generation Z. Follower count is a 21st-century indication of status and popularity, just like the accumulation of dollars from a consumer. Even though it costs nothing to you, your follow indicates your support. So when you choose to follow a social media account or influencer, ask yourself some questions.

  • What values do you want to vote for with your follow?
  • What type of culture do you want to be perpetuating?
  • What kind of ideas do you want to be spreading?
  • What kind of images do you want yourself to see, do you want a young person across the globe to see, or your future child to see?
  • What images do you wish you had seen 5 years ago? How might that have changed your thinking now?

This is what I mean when I say “vote with your follow.”

Call to action

Although this article is a think piece, it is also a call to action. TikTok is merely a component to a larger trend of algorithmic control. Certain aspects of autonomy are appealing to human lives, but embedded in every algorithmic decision is a set of values. When we build immersive technology before considering our own values, whether that be health, happiness, or love, those values flake away from our daily lives. “Voting with your follow” needs to be a conscious choice in the eyes of social media consumers. If we truly want to use technology to improve society, we need to do a better job of holding our social media platforms to high standards of fairness, equal representation, and transparency.

Body positive influencers

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