a few scattered thoughts on tiktok

a few scattered thoughts on tiktok
Armchair, Ernest Busenbark (1935/1942)

I published a video this week, which you can watch here if you feel like it:

I wanted to write a little about how it all came together. The story is both more and less interesting than you'd think: it was, in fact, commissioned by an organization. (Yes, you can pay me to make content. Get in touch.) They canceled the commission — in fact, all of the commissions — for reasons unknown to me, but whatever, they're still paying me. I'm not mad about it!

In any case, I appreciated the opportunity to spend some time thinking about stuff I cared about: namely, how the internet works now. I find TikTok fascinating. It's a network that's totally opaque, other than its various niches and follower counts, because it's fundamentally insular. By which I mean it's really, really hard to get an overall picture of what's actually happening on the network, by design. TikTok also happens to be the main driver of American internet culture, as evidenced by its IRL impacts: the way people dress, the way people understand themselves, and the way people buy things, the way songs make their way to the radio — all of that is driven by trends on the app. Once you start to see the world in terms of various kinds of girlies, so to speak, its influence becomes a lot more obvious.

The argument that I make in the video (you know, tl;dw) is that TikTok began its ascent to the cultural summit by taking over music. That has kind of fractured, recently — Universal Music Group has removed its music from the app over a contract dispute. But I think the damage is done, in that society has already adapted to the reality that TikTok is where you find musicians and break hits. That's not to say the system won't change in the future, of course. But it isn't going away anytime soon.

One thing I didn't really talk about in the video is TikTok's effect on how we perceive algorithms. There's a pervasive belief on the app that using banned words — words that advertisers deem unsavory — means that the algorithm that powers its For You Page will downrank your video. It's led to people coming up with terms to bypass that perceived censorship, which you've probably seen: "seggs," "unalive," and "corn" are three that spring to mind immediately. What's interesting is seeing people use those words elsewhere on the internet, outside of the context they were originally conceived in. More than anything else, I think TikTok has imparted a new awareness that you are, in fact, being surveilled when you use products on the internet.

In TikTok's case, your browsing data is used to make its FYP recommender more accurate to increase your engagement time, which makes their ad network more profitable. With other websites and apps — well, who knows? AI seems like the obvious thing, though. (The fact that companies as different as Docusign and Tumblr are beginning to use user data to train large language models seems... ominous, at best.) It feels like we're caught in another one of those cycles that possesses Silicon Valley every few years: our unaccountable tech overlords — who cannot be sued or embarrassed or otherwise punished by the government for the harm their companies inflict — have decided that the future is vaguely racist autocomplete. I don't like it, but what can you do in the face of that implacable force: increasing shareholder value?


things i'm consuming this week

Blue Period, Tsubasa Yamaguchi

Cunk on Earth, Netflix

The Honjin Murders, Seishi Yokomizo