Of the terror of TikTok

Ibuki Dōji, the Boy from Mount Ibuki. https://www.loc.gov/item/2021667436/.

I have tried TikTok a number of times. Each time I try it I have largely a similar experience: it feels dangerous both at a personal level and a societal level. And so I usually quickly uninstall it and move on with my day. And then someone shares a funny video with me and then I begin to get curious all over again. 

I am writing this essay to remind myself of my thoughts next time I feel those initial stirrings of curiosity. While of course my feelings might change in the future, it would be unsensible to ignore the consistency of my experience so far. There is an oft-quoted definition of madness as being the state of doing the same thing and expecting a different result. 

To me TikTok embodies some of the worst parts of modern life. It focuses on form over substance, where one falsehood follows the next misleading claim. It is the inevitable conclusion to the neoliberal concept of the marketplace of ideas. The app traffics in substance-light moments of gratification delivered at a pace and volume designed to forestall any sort of reflection or introspection. Why stop and think on something, the app suggests to you in the age-old manner of the devil perched on one’s shoulder, when you can just immediately go on to the next micro-video and the next and the next and the next until you start awake in a moment of panic, the passage of time missing from your recollection. 

The app, and its algorithm, is designed to give one a never-ending string of small hits of dopamine. The clear parallel between people using the app—engage and get a reward—and rats in a Skinner box—engage and get a reward—has often struck me and given me real periods of uncomfortable thought. The app is so clearly designed to be addictive and to (ab)use, in a way that strikes me as both cynical and sinister, everything we know about behavioural psychology. The app is less your friend and more the digital equivalent of a shady guy trying to sell you hard drugs in a dark alley.

At the risk of belabouring the point, it is worth emphasising: every single element of the app and its experience is designed with a singular focus to maintain and increase engagement. The data collected from over one billion users is constantly being analysed all with the underlying motive of getting people to stay on the app and stay on the app longer and longer. The goal is to reach a state of being maximally addictive.    

The special sauce of TikTok is its algorithm, often described as being able to know people before they know themselves. The efficiency of the algorithm in zeroing in on people’s tastes is impressive, perhaps, but is also frightening: it quickly creates echo chambers where views, and especially fringe or incorrect views, are magnified and delivered to a receptive audience. 

In the world of the app there is no room for contrasting or dissenting voices and often no room for the truth. A small, telling example: a fantastic science-based Australian skincare blogger frequently takes grossly incorrect videos from the app to task. The truth is often messy and more complex than the structural format of the app permits; and so the sensational and the outrageous become the de facto (if not de jure) currency of Tiktok. Being drowned in a sea of opinions that largely mimic our own is dangerous anaesthetising. 

The spread of misinformation is not just harmless in an academic way: people have died and will likely continue to die as a direct result of what the app tells them. That many of these people dying are children is, quite frankly, grounds for urgent regulatory responses if not outright banning of the app. This is further proof that we simply cannot trust the tech industry to self-regulate, any more than we can trust any sector to self-regulate. 

The pace of the app is worrisome by itself, but becomes especially concerning when read in conjunction with the average time spent on the app per day (90 minutes according to one estimate). Having just finished Laziness Does Not Exist, this is a topic that has been on my mind: the deluge of information we consume on a daily basis is already problematic and that is before we consider the shotgunning of content straight into the lobes of one’s brain that is the TikTok experience. If the average video on the platform is 10 or so seconds in length, one is potentially consuming in excess of 540 videos a day. The comparison that comes to me is the iconic scene from A Clockwork Orange where the protagonist is strapped to a chair with his eyes forcibly prised open so as to better consume a torrent of dreadful images. Except in the case of the app, we are doing this to ourselves.  

I read in Laziness Does Not Exist a telling statistic: we are exposed to roughly five times the amount of unique pieces of information then we were in 1986 (and this comparison was created before the present day popularity of tiktok and other social media). It is obvious to me that our brains are not somehow five times better at processing information than they were back in the 1980s. It seems impossible that this increased exposure to information has no risks to our health and happiness. This level of over-exposure is especially concerning to young people, whose brains are characterised by their plasticity and ongoing development.   

This is personal, but I don’t like how TikTok makes me feel. It makes me feel exhausted and overstimulated, like drinking too much bad coffee and then running around for a day. The conventions of the genre—the dancing, the weird robot voices, the group think and insularity—just do not sit well with me as someone who values mindful individuality over conformity.  It is unwise to ignore the signals our bodies send us. 

The question of mental health and TikTok is a complex one, and one in which a thorough unpacking is beyond the scope of this essay at least. I can, nonetheless, point to my personal anxieties and broader concerns around the potential impacts of the app. In some respects, the most concerning thing is that we simply do not know its impact on our health, owing to the inevitable lag between something new and thorough, reliable peer-reviewed research on that new thing. We can observe increasing levels of self-diagnosis which can be seen as either democratising and liberating our bodies from the control of the medical class or, more likely, a dangerous trend with self-diagnoses having lasting and significant consequences on how an individual relates to themselves and the world. 

On issues that impact one’s health and safety there should absolutely be significantly more safeguards and standards in place to protect users. But there is a critical, existential problem with this, at least from the perspective of the app’s makers: the app’s success depends, in large part, on behaviours that are inherently harmful. We have created the equivalent of digital cigarettes. There are no safe levels of exposure to cigarettes or second-hand smoke. Is there any degree of safe levels of exposure to TikTok? I am unsure. 

The app is terrifying for further reasons—it is an incredible data vacuum, consuming everything it can about you and the bits of the world you inhabit. Again, this is not a problem unique to the app, but is made a pressing issue when the unique reach of TikTok is considered. The app has been caught stealing data it shouldn’t be accessing so often that it is a question of when, not if, the next big scandal will be. 

It is hard to separate the legitimate concerns from the political grandstanding that occurs in relation to TikTok being created by a Chinese company, and hence data being stored, or at least accessible, in servers under the presumptive control of the Chinese government. For much of the world, we are used to having our data stored away in servers under US-jurisdiction, far from whatever data protection rights that might exist on a local level. I think we can take it as read that the US intelligence agencies use and access social media data, both at the public and convert levels. So on some level we must be wary of the insinuations that the app is Bad and Scary just because of its Chinese ownership. It is nonetheless worth noting the inherent differences (both in attitudes, laws, practices, and checks and balances) between surveillance  regimes in the West and in China. 

The real concern here is, I think, that we have been trapped in a world of surveillance capitalism, where we—often unwittingly—give away our data (and therefore our identity) just for access to something as trivial as TikTok. We don’t value our data, but we do value the immediate access to a funny video of someone dancing while they point at superimposed text. 

It is hard not to feel like an old man shouting at clouds when writing about the dangers and negatives of something as popular as TikTok. All I hope is that by stating my fears and concerns I may encourage others to pause and reflect on how they feel about their engagement with it. Even if you love the app, it is hard to completely dismiss the micro- and macro-level concerns that plague the app. Some of these concerns may be reflections of broader societal issues; nonetheless some of those are unique and specific to the experience of TikTok itself and that gives me pause.

The clarity of the deathbed assessment is a useful thought experiment: do you think that you, having lived a rich and wonderful life, will say to your assembled loved-ones “gosh, if only I had spent more time on TikTok”? And if the answer is no, how might that inform your engagement with the app today and tomorrow. 

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.