TikTok, the omnipresent video-based social-media app that launched five years ago, has always seemed a less serious, more frivolously youthquakey destination than a number of other online networking services — most obviously Facebook. Yet as Shalini Kantayya’s sprightly, informative documentary “TikTok, Boom.” makes clear, there are more levels to the TikTok phenomenon than there are to almost any other blockbuster app.
There are the countless people who consume it: the kids from all over the world who get addicted to watching the up-to-three-minute-long videos (dances, pranks, sexy flaunts, tutorials, monologues, protest messages) as if they were popping Sour Patch Kids. There are the people who are on it: the makers of those videos, who could be just about anyone and might be doing it just for kicks, though what a lot of them want to be, if they can go viral enough, are influencers — the elite echelon of TikTok stars who have made themselves over into brands, based on a look or a talent or a signature or some combination of the above, and who succeed in attracting the attention of companies who will pay them to be casual endorsers of some product.
The saga of TikTok doesn’t end there. The sheer hugeness of the app is its own paradigm-shifting story. It has been downloaded over two billion times, making it bigger than Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or YouTube. As a result, it has shaken up the hierarchy of the tech universe. And since TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a company based in China, the fact that much of what TikTok is actually about, once you peek beneath the candy-colored surface of its endless-shopping-mall-of-videos, how-I-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-the-dopamine-hit mystique, is data mining (the targeting of you, the user, as a consumer, who will be digitally read like a book and pitched products until your dying day), there are sizable geopolitical implications to the TikTok story. Does the fact that the data mined by TikTok is stored in a brain trust controlled by a Chinese corporation mean that the app, for America, represents a security risk? Some say yes. Beyond that, the fact that Silicon Valley, for the first time, has been beaten at its own game by China, America’s preeminent rival in the 21st-century global power structure, is its own kind of wake-up call.
Not to mention this: What does it mean that the Gen-Z multitudes now spend obsessive amounts of time immersed in a never-ending digital casserole of content that is fast turning us into America’s Funniest/Wildest/Most Narcissistic Home Videos Nation?
“TikTok, Boom.” gives all those issues a workout. For anyone who’s not up on the story, or who has followed it with half a glance, the documentary, which recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is a lively, handy TikTok primer. Yet there are ways in which it’s all too content to skitter along the surface of what TikTok is. That may sound like a paradoxical complaint — TikTok, after all, kind of is all surface — but I wish the movie had probed, a little more deeply than it does, into how an app like TikTok is changing our habits, our society, and maybe our souls.
Kantayya, whose first feature documentary this is, introduces us to a handful of TikTok influencers, like Spencer X, the ace beatboxer who actually came up on YouTube (his first deal was with Nike); or Deja Foxx, who went viral when she was 16 years old by confronting Sen. Jeff Flake at a Republican town hall about the defunding of Planned Parenthood (the next morning, the video of their confrontation had 18 million views), and now divides her TikTok presence between political statements and showing herself off in a bathing suit; or Feroza Aziz, an Afghan American activist who found herself in conflict with TikTok over videos she posted in protest of Chinese detention camps. (At one point she does an end run around their algorithm by nestling her activism in the middle of an eyelash tutorial.)
There’s a let-it-rip, if-it-feels-good-record-it aspect to the TikTok experience; the app basically turns the whole planet into your bedroom mirror. Yet as “TikTok, Boom.” reveals, that spirit is belied by how much of the content is regulated. Douyin, the original Chinese version of TikTok (it was launched in 2016), has strict provisions that don’t even allow people to appear with tattoos or dyed hair. And though TikTok itself is obviously much looser, the film explores the phenomenon of “shadowbanning,” in which certain videos, due to algorithmic judgments that happen off the radar, are basically banned by not being allowed to pile up any views or likes. At one point it was discovered that anything with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter or #GeorgeFloyd had been shadowbanned, a shocking suppression that the company tried to explain away as a “technical glitch.”
But beyond such flagrant acts of censorship, the documentary examines the larger ethics of TikTok’s control of content. The tech writer David Ryan Polgar claims that “Major tech companies, if they have the power of deciding what’s okay and what’s not okay with what I say, if they have the power to de-platform…that puts a tremendous level of power in an unelected official.” He calls this “anti-democratic.”
The movie does full justice to the insidious implications of what TikTok does and does not allow. Yet given how much “TikTok, Boom.” looks askance at aspects of TikTok, the film still betrays a certain wide-eyed eagerness to accept and (implicitly) endorse the way that TikTok operates. It was back in 2015 that Zhang Yiming, the 38-year-old Chinese founder of Douyin and TikTok, introduced the idea of “recommendation engines,” which would create an intricate profile of the user and then show that user what he or she likes. TikTok has been compared to the Sorting Hat from “Harry Potter,” splitting its audience into niches, tailoring products to a micro delineation of their tastes. We hear testimony from TikTok users who express amazement at how totally the app “knows” them.
But does the app really know you? Or are its relatively crude sorting methods creating a crude version of you? That there is now a passionate desire on the part of consumers to have computer technology tell them “who they are” may say more about those consumers than it does about the all-seeing nature of the technology.
For scores of the Gen-Z faithful, TikTok turns everyday reality into a show. On the surface there’s no harm in that, yet we should increasingly be skeptical of it, especially when we’re encouraged to think that TikTok, through the very grip of its appeal, creates a place for people to “speak truth to power.” The movie plays up the moment when a TikTok user got the idea to reserve a ticket to a Donald Trump rally in Oklahoma and then not show up for the rally. Her gambit was imitated by scores of others, and it worked. At the rally, there were large sections of empty seats; Trump was infuriated; the denizens of TikTok had pranked the president.
Yet here’s the thing. If you believe that you’re speaking truth to power, but you’re doing it on a playing field where grabbing eyeballs and going viral is the yardstick of success, then the people who are hucksters and liars and political fantasists will always have a built-in advantage. Because lies can always be made to look more entertaining than the raw political truth. Only time will tell how TikTok is changing us, but in its very success the app could be a way of getting us to fiddle while the world burns.