TikTok and the ticking clock

How Internet culture has a new happy place.

Vivek Menon
Jul 18, 2020 · 16 min read

Back in January 2020, one of my friends, who is not considerably younger than me, introduced me to TikTok. We only have about four years between us, and that is enough to pedantically position me as a millennial and him as Gen Z. I’m not usually one to place people into vague categories, but I increasingly sense a clear distinction between the two generations. As the next successive generation comes into its own, for the first time I am made aware of my place in the older, more irrelevant crop of millennials who are gradually struggling to keep up. I only realised it when I had to ask someone what the meaning of the word “Periodtt” was.

Each passing generation seems to be smarter, more aware and acutely successful in cultivating a unique individuality. While my generation only had the internet in their late teens, this generation has never known a world without it. And if the internet has triumphantly placed agency back in the hands of users, these kids know how to take advantage of it. This seems to be the most striking difference. While my generation struggles to hop from one trend or app to another, for them it’s the norm.

Not only is it harder to keep up, but it is especially cringe-worthy to even try to do so. Millennials are at an age when we’re expected to be full fledged working professionals, not speaking in Internet slang and dancing to TikTok trends. After all, the internet is not real life. For preceding generations there is a dwindling difference between the real and the virtual. For Gen Z there isn’t. TikTok dances ARE how they dance at a club. Internet friends ARE real friends.

Gen Z is stylish, they know how to work out, dress themselves, and put on make up as soon as they are teenagers. Diversity of sexualities and gender expressions and ethnicities have been drastically normalised in popular culture. They consume music and TV series personalised to them, through Spotify and Netflix algorithms. When I was a teenager, I had to listen to popular music through Billboard charts and the radio, and I have officially lost track of how to keep up with trending music today. I didn’t really know how to dress well until my twenties. While my generation still navigates between traditional corporate jobs and social media, so many teenagers already have thriving online businesses buying and selling sneakers, or merchandise or slime. 👁👄👁

It’s a whole new world and I feel old. So when my friend recommended TikTok, of course, my first thought was, I have no space on my phone for yet another app. With each passing year, I find myself desperately wanting to detach from all apps. On the other hand, I also wanted to feel as carefree and cool as young Londoners bopping to Doja Cat. So I tried it out.

Firstly, let’s clear some misconceptions. TikTok is not all dancing teenagers as everyone thinks. It is full of absolutely endless content made by diverse people of varied age groups. My late night scrolls have led me to a chemist who does cool science experiments, a mechanic who takes apart old phones, Harry Potter fans who discusses fan theories, a hair stylist who reacts to other people cutting their own hair, a real estate agent who shows you the insides of million dollar homes, a blind girl who teaches you Braille, lessons on investing in Stocks, cooking videos, gardening videos, interior design, and just hilarious skits. Besides, no video is longer than 60 seconds… Another misconception is that anyone who has the app makes videos on it. Personally, I only use the app to watch videos, and have never posted anything myself.

1. It takes one thing and does it really well.

I find Internet culture fascinating, I always have. It has truly been amazing to watch the Internet grow and evolve like humanity’s collective baby.

There is no doubt that the onset of social media platforms revolutionised the Internet. The early days of Facebook, allowed the Internet to become synonymous with connectivity. We were curious enough to adopt our childish roles as users, and connect with a few friends. Back in 2006, one had less than 100 friends and spewed every passing thought onto one’s wall, like maintaining a personal diary. If one scrolls back far enough on any seasoned Facebook users profile, one could find a status update like “__ is bored”. We would write on each other’s walls for the whole world to see and for our friends to react to. When Instagram came along, I used it for the same purpose, to painstakingly maintain a curated photo documentation of my life.

We have since, spent the next decade learning the dangers of data breaches, cyberbullying and cybersecurity. Today, as a user, I no longer want to share my life with all my 1500 Facebook acquaintances, or some hundred Instagram followers because at some point along the way, we started to accept follow requests from just about anyone, and we know it. Having recognised this fact, it was no surprise when Instagram introduced the highly awkward ‘Close friends’ feature in 2018. With the feature, only select friends can view one’s content, as opposed to all of one’s followers — forcing us to make tough decisions, such as who qualifies as a close friend and would it be weird when they saw that we thought of them as a close friend. Others create a ‘Finsta’ or a fake Instagram account, only for one’s exclusive inner circle.

It has become clear that Facebook has no idea what it’s doing anymore, and every subsequent update turns its apps more and more into dystopian marketplaces. Both Facebook and Instagram have forgotten their original purposes. In trying to be too many things, they have lost all credibility.

These days, if I want to talk to a friend, I just text them individually. Most individuals I know communicate and share memes on personal groups, of selected few friends, sometimes on WhatsApp, sometimes on Instagram, and often simultaneous conversations happening with the same friends on all platforms.

It has become increasingly clear that a social media platform cannot survive on the stiff user dynamics that once dominated its founding principles. The time has long gone when we need another app to stay connected. I don’t want to know what my friends are upto all the time. I don’t want to spy on them using Snap Maps. We are already hyperconnected. We check our phones as soon as we wake up and before we go to bed. We all want to escape the shackles of a hundred WhatsApp groups. JOMO has replaced FOMO. The post-digital age is one of digital detoxes and digital wellbeing.

TikTok is for a new generation and does not rely on this tired old formula of connectivity, paving the way for the next edition of Internet culture. It’s not a perfect platform, but it does a lot of things right. It does not rely on friending, or matching or following others, although following someone is an available option. I don’t need a notification reminder to engage with it. Its rules, like Twitter and Vine, are simple and provide constraints in the form of video length and scrolling format. Creative conditions such as these, allow users to be more innovative and generate more content. Unlike other apps, I only have about 5 friends from real life who use TikTok, and while I have tried to get more of my friends on it, I am equally happy not knowing anybody on the app. Most people cringe at my recommendation, but go ahead and enjoy TikTok videos when they are shared on Instagram and Youtube anyway. Reddit and Tumblr users too, understand how the Internet can allow you to very easily make friends without actually making friends…

It’s only a matter of time before Facebook is taken off the ventilator and we celebrate its death. Snapchat perished the minute Instagram stole its novel concept of stories (photos and videos that only last for 24 hours). Instagram was pleasant until it became colonised by social justice warriors. Twitter is alright and has adapted with the times. Nonetheless every social media platform so far is guilty of maintaining the infamous filter bubble.

2. TikTok (successfully?) pops the filter bubble.

The filter bubble as we know, is the echo chamber we fail to take into account, every time we open an app. Algorithms hiding behind clean user interfaces personalise the content we consume to such an extent, that our beliefs and biases are reinforced and fortified. In following only people of a certain worldview, social media platforms are guilty of forcing us to conform to what it thinks we like. If one were to look at a picture of cats, the next day they would find their social feed full of images of cats — A situation we are all too familiar with. Under the guise of a ‘discover page’, we are allowed to only discover what we already knew we liked, and this has drastic implications. It is the reason liberals throughout the world, find themselves losing elections in recent years, because they assume the opinions of their Instagram and Twitter followers, reflect public opinions of majorities.

Netflix and Spotify too, employ algorithms that attempt to improve discoverability, and they are worthy mentions. But the TikTok model, probably because its content is much faster to create than TV shows or music, is unique in how it grows. This article here may disagree, but personally I believe it’s far better than any other social platform so far. The app branches out in all directions, like an endless web — not in terms of its user experience, which is predominantly a linear scroll, but in terms of its content creation and consumption. One trend leads to another, bouncing off each other, inside joke after inside joke and before you know it, viral videos are generated exponentially. Content on TikTok is hardly created randomly either, but a majority of it is based on reusing audio content— recycling the inspiration behind its predecessor app, Musical.ly.

In exploring the world of the app, you spontaneously happen to end up in new parts of the web. I am reminded of the days of StumbleUpon, which was once a popular website that took you to a new part of the internet, each time the page was refreshed. But TikTok is not random, it knows exactly where to take you. In jumping from video to video, you also jump from community to community. The algorithm is the magic carpet ride that shows you the whole new world, and the comments endearingly reveal that you have reached ‘Organisational TikTok’ or ‘Workout TikTok’ or ‘Japanese TikTok’ or ‘aquatic TikTok’ or ‘mocking 5 minute-crafts TikTok’.

There is no pressure to conform to a dominant Western persona. It is one of the most visibly diverse platforms, with people of literally all colours and accents. I have happened upon Samoan tribals sharing indigenous practices; Arab families pranking each other; Asian and African Grandmas bonding with teenagers. Before the app got banned in India, it empowered a large rural population too. All of this content isn’t hidden away in darker parts of the cyberspace, but gets recommended to users right on their homepage. The app is, therefore, less about the content and more importantly about the algorithm.

3. TikTok has mastered the algorithm and infinite scroll.

Every app has its own predictive algorithm, which improves a users discoverability of the world. Youtube and Instagram, for instance, have to monitor ones activity before knowing what to recommend. TikTok, on the other hand, directly predicts what you want to watch as soon as you start browsing the app, like quickly user-testing videos. The app does not recommend videos secondary to people you already follow. Recommendations are right there, as soon as you open the app, on the #foryou page. TikTok is the algorithm and doesn’t just rely on it. And the more time you spend on the app, the better the content and experience gets. People can only speculate how the mysterious machine learns.

Now, Wikipedia and Pinterest are beloved examples of the hyper-textual infinite scroll, where one link leads to another plethora of links and so on. This works in a specific context, and serves a specific purpose. Facebook and Instagram on the other hand famously use the linear infinite scroll. Netflix is a fairly similar user experience, with one episode automatically playing after the next, in an endless sequential manner. It has become the established recipe for driving up engagement. TikTok also employs the linear infinite scroll, but one could argue that it is a more hybrid version of it. From one video, a user can browse more videos with the same audio or hashtags as well. This is one of the most important features, for having a compiled list of ongoing trends, encourages everyone to participate.

4. TikTok is about democratic participation.

Some people may disagree, considering the app comes from a non-democratic place. But the truth is, the way content is generated denies any single person the ability to monopolise content creation, while simultaneously allowing popular creators to become successful on the app.

What the algorithm allows, is the ability to create a viral video, even in spite of not having a strong pre-existing viewership. Unlike Instagram or Youtube, where you need to already have hundreds of followers to even be considered by the algorithm, on TikTok anyone from anywhere can end up on the homepage. Influencers on other apps devote way too much energy to metrics and number games. Being an influencer on any other platform, takes real hard work, relying on the commitment of creators to churn out content as often as possible in order to stay relevant. To become successful and famous on Youtube, is a one in a million chance. Youtubers have often dropped out of school to pursue it as a full time career, only to have their audiences loyalty diminish over time. After filming, editing and posting a video, they have to make sure they use other apps to get people to watch their videos, and pester audiences to like their videos and subscribe to their channels.

We’ve come a long way since the good old days of Youtube (circa 2011–2016), which was once a happy close-knit community of “relatable” creators. Innocent challenge videos and collaborations between Youtubers made viewers feel like they were peering into the lives of people who engaged with them like they were old friends. However over the years, Youtubers would often run out of ideas, or fail to keep up with the pressures of what life as a ‘daily-vlogger’ entails, often having to resort to alternate streams of income such as book deals and web-series. Quantity presided over quality… It was a closed system of new-age celebrity, to be invited to conventions such as Vidcon and Playlist Live and gradually gain stardom. Youtubers felt the pressure to move to bigger cities such as LA or London to succeed. Influencers largely ascribe to the Kardashian model of success, banking on the ‘relatability’ factor, that reigned the entire decade — ‘Influencers were just like us’… until they no longer were. Even after earning tremendous wealth, they had to pretend to remain ‘just like us’. Youtubers who once stood out for their unique styles of editing and storytelling were now rich enough to hire other people to edit their videos for them. We eventually saw a generation of old-time Youtubers experience depression, couples navigating public break ups, celebrities getting cancelled, friendships ending and some of them just growing up and moving on with their lives.

Youtube and Instagram continue to promote a content model that banks on branding oneself as celebrity.

You have to somehow teach yourself how to market your personality as a star, in order to stand out. You are the brand, not your content or your talent. In ‘following’ my friends, I am really following their brand image, forcing us all to photograph our food, our outfits and our holidays. After all, if you didn’t post your travels, did they even happen? Social Media collectively reduces us all to data points, and when the Youtube algorithm started to favour longer videos in roughly 2017, youtubers started making videos that were the length of whole feature films! They wanted us to stay on the website for as long as possible, and nobody had the time to watch 2 hour long videos, from all of the 100+ channels they were subscribed to. Novices of Internet culture would rather watch Mukbangs on other streaming platforms. Simultaneously this favoured the rise of certain individuals who were able to maintain high levels of childish energy for large amounts of time, ushering in the infamous Paul brothers and a new generation of Trash culture.

The other avenue that Youtube struggled at, was in the public representation of its diversity. The annual ‘Youtube Rewind’ is the perfect case study in showcasing this fact. Since 2010, Youtube annually began releasing a fun video, full of inside jokes and cameos from everyones favourite Youtubers. By 2014–2016, these videos were at their peak, and produced with ever-increasing budgets. Until then, the community was small, and yet, audiences regularly complained that their favourite niche Youtubers were missing, and the Gaming community or the International community was misrepresented. And eventually, as Youtube tried to recover from this fact, and the platform grew exponentially, it became an impossible task to include everyone in Rewind Videos. The 2018 Rewind is famously the most disliked video on Youtube, with viewers no longer being able to recognise anyone in the video, from a community too large and discordant. Youtube is no longer the small, happy, collaborative place it once was.

While other platforms have gradually been reduced to swamps of news articles and ads, TikTok is a breath of fresh air, that reminds us of early Youtube days. It neither follows the pattern of projecting oneself as a highly edited brand, nor does it lack diversity or representation. Surely aided by the fact that everyone is stuck at home during the pandemic, the platform is centred around participation. On the other hand, the average user has less Instagram-worthy content considering they’re not travelling or eating out while quarantining. It feels much easier to put yourself out there on TikTok without all the spotlight. Content is a lot more real and unedited, and there are no third parties deciding who becomes successful. While so many talented musicians we know today were discovered off of Youtube, they still had to be screened by the gatekeepers of the entertainment industry, in order to become household names. On TikTok however, we are currently witnessing a trend of artists and musicians resisting the micromanagement of major record companies. For example, Nepali artist Curtis Waters, who is probably the perfect visual archetype of the new generation, is happily independent, as his song ‘Stunnin’ is replayed by millions on the app.

TikTok is also governed by trends. Users are quick to duet or remake another video, in a similar yet different manner, improvising on what is already trending. The more time you spend on the app, the more of an insider you become. Questions arise, such as why is everybody’s display picture suddenly a blue Asian woman? In banking on communities and trends, the app defies a one-way, author-audience model of content creation and sets the stage for everyone to participate.

5. TikTok is a happy place

Lastly, what many fail to understand, is that people just want to be happy. Everyone is tired of hearing that the world is burning. We have other reliable news apps notifying us every morning of whats happening in the world, and yet Instagram and Twitter have basically become everyones favoured newsrooms — a consequence of how newer, politically-aware users want to use the apps, and not intentions of the actual platforms themselves… Since Instagram doesn’t actually allow people to share links easily, users instead resort to requoting or reporting news themselves, obviously tailoring articles to their own biases. Tweets and blogs are not just opinions or reactions anymore, they have become the news.

While most of social media has become a disgusting cesspool of fake news and reiterations of a burning world, TikTok stands out as a really happy place to be. On one hand, some may argue that it is an artificial construct, like Disneyland, that hides the ‘real world’ which can never be anything but apocalyptic. Others may argue that small moments of laughter and happiness are the only thing that can get us through a truly disastrous year — the collective 2020 experiment we all needed. Personally I believe we need a diversity of skills and interests to create a wholesome world, and TikTok encourages that. People actually want to make and share content. Friends want to hop in on popular trends, not out of a guilt or fear of missing out, but out of a joy of joining in (JOJI, yup that’s a real thing too!) — As any good platform should be about. Its happy atmosphere certainly owes itself to the lack of a dislike button, but is more substantially, due to its severe moderators who heavily censor a ton of content. Videos are taken down at the company’s discretion, and users remain oblivious about how the platform regulates content.

Yet, it raises questions such as — Is this what the world needs today? Let us remind ourselves of what happens on other platforms where freedom of expression reigns supreme. The most famous case study of a bot going berserk is Microsoft’s ‘Tay’, which was unveiled on Twitter in 2016. In less than 24 hours, the data it collected and the tweets it began tweeting, reflected the average conversations that span the Twitter-verse. The content it produced was radically mysogynistic, racist and totalitarianist, and it had to be taken down immediately. The experiment is an especially important mirror of ourselves on the Internet, rather than any real forecast of the future of AI. While sex-positive communities fight to free the nipple on Instagram, platforms such as Twitter and Tumblr, have had to deal with the negative ramifications of massive amounts of pornography. Tumblr, which was a thriving hub of Internet culture, lost almost 30% of its user base after it decided to ban NSFW content.

The harsh reality is that if people aren’t going to change their Internet behaviour intrinsically, it leaves platforms with a top-down censorship approach as the only option. The Internet may produce beautiful things every now and again, but it also churns out the worst sides of humanity. Personally, I think what is deemed unhappy or insensitive is always going to be subjective, nonetheless, I do think promoting positive content manifests a positive world.

Social media platforms will come and go. Some will bring out the best in us, and some, the worst. If TikTok is to resort to the same miserable fate that has come to define almost every prevailing social media app of Web 2.0, it will surely be missed by a whole generation.

After a decade of introducing ourselves to performative viral challenges each year, and the nuances of meme-making, we now have an app flooded with performative viral memes. TikTok represents a culmination of Big Data and algorithms, of transcending hyper-connectivity and filter bubbles, and the collective aspirations of the Generation Z, who were born out of Internet culture and a highly Globalised world. And in many ways, it is rewriting how we use the Internet.

Digital Diplomacy

Tech, digital, and innovation, at the intersection with policy, government, and social good.

Vivek Menon

Written by

Casually deliberate. Digital literary ecologies, Convergence Culture, Narratives. Designer @Microsoft

Digital Diplomacy

Tech, digital, and innovation, at the intersection with policy, government, and social good.

Vivek Menon

Written by

Casually deliberate. Digital literary ecologies, Convergence Culture, Narratives. Designer @Microsoft

Digital Diplomacy

Tech, digital, and innovation, at the intersection with policy, government, and social good.

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