Essay: How do you describe TikTok?
The automatic culture of the world's favorite new social network.
Hi! This is a 3,400-word essay about a technology that was totally new to me as of a few weeks ago. You can click the headline to read it in your browser. It’s a total experiment, so please let me know what you think.
For someone who writes about technology, I’m not really an early adopter. I don’t use virtual-reality goggles or participate in Twitch streams. Like everyone on the internet, I heard a lot about TikTok — teens! short videos! “hype houses”! — but for a long time I didn’t think I needed to try it out. How would another social network fit into my life? Don’t Twitter and Instagram cover my professional and personal needs at this point? (Snapchat I skipped over entirely.) What could TikTok, which serves an infinite stream of sub-60-second video clips, add, especially if I don’t care about meme-dances, which seemed to be its main purpose?
Then, out of some combination of boredom and curiosity, like everything else these days, I downloaded the app. What I found is that you don’t just try TikTok; you immerse yourself in it. You sink into its depths like a 19th-century diver in a diving bell. More than any other social network since MySpace it feels like a new experience, the emergence of a different kind of technology and a different mode of consuming media. In this essay I want to try to describe that experience, without any news hooks, experts, theory, or data — just a personal encounter.
The literary term “ekphrasis” usually refers to a detailed description of a piece of visual art in a text, translating it (in a sense) into words. Lately I’ve been thinking about ekphrasis of technology and media: How do you communicate what using or viewing something is like? Some of my favorite writing might fall into this vein. Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1933 essay “In Praise of Shadows” narrates the Japanese encounter with Western technology like electric lights and porcelain toilets. Walter Benjamin’s 1936 “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” shows how the rise of photography changed how people looked at visual art. By describing such experiences as exactly as possible, these essays become valuable artifacts in their own right, documenting historic shifts in human perception that happened as a result of tools we invented.
We can’t return to the headspace of buildings without electric lights or a time when photography was scarce instead of omnipresent, but the texts allow us a glimpse. So this is my experiment: an ekphrasis of TikTok, while it’s still fresh.
When you begin your TikTok journey, you are not faced with a choice of accounts to follow. Where Twitter and Instagram ask you to build your list yourself (the former more than the latter) TikTok simply launches you into the waterfall of content. You can check a few boxes as to which subjects you’re interested in — food, crafts, video games, travel — or not. Then there is the main feed, labeled “For You,” an evocation of customization and personal intimacy. Videos start playing, each clip looping until you make it stop. You might start seeing, as I did, minute-long clips of:
— Gravestones being scraped down
— Wax being melted to seal letters
— An animated role-playing game
— Firefighters making shepherds pie
— Tours of luxury apartments
— Students playing pranks on their teachers
— Dogs and cats doing funny things
The videos are flashes of narrative, many arduously constructed and edited, each self-contained but linked to the next by the shape of the container, the iPhone screen and the app feed. It’s like watching a montage of movie trailers, each crafted to addict your eye and ear, but with each new clip you have to begin constructing the story over again. Will the cat do something funny? Will the couple break up? Will this guy chug five beers? Or it’s like the flickering nonsense of images and text as a film spool runs out.
The mechanism to navigate the TikTok feed is your thumb swiping, like a gondolier’s paddle, up to move forward to new content, down to go back to what you’ve already seen. This one interaction is enough to allow For You to get to know your content preferences. You either watch a video to completion and then maybe like or share it, or you skip it and move on to the next.
The true pilot of the feed, however, is not the user but the recommendation algorithm, the equation that decides which video gets served to you next. More than any other social network, TikTok’s core product is its algorithm. We complain about being served bad Twitter ads or Instagram not showing us friends’ accounts, as if they’ve suddenly stopped existing, but it’s harder to fault the TikTok algorithm if only because it’s so much better at delivering a varied stream of content than its predecessors.
A Spotify autoplay station, for example, most often follows the line of an artist or genre, serving relatively similar content over and over again. But TikTok recognizes that contrast is just as important as similarity to maintain our interest. It creates a shifting feed of topics and formats that actually feels personal, the way my Twitter feed, built up over more than a decade, feels like a reflection of my self.
But I know who I follow on Twitter; they are voices I’ve chosen to incorporate into my feed. On TikTok, I never know where something’s coming from or why, only if I like it. There is no context. If Twitter is all about provenance — trusted people signing off on each other’s content, retweeting endorsements — TikTok is simply about the end result. Each video is evaluated on its own merits, one at a time.
You can feel the For You feed trying subjects out on you. Dogs? Yes. Cats? Not so much. Rural Chinese fishing? Sure. Scooter tricks? No. Skateboarding? Yes. Fingerpicked guitar outside a cabin? Duh. And through the process of trial and error you get an assortment of videos that are on their own niche but put together resemble something like individual taste. It’s a mix as quirky as your own personal interests usually feel to you, though the fact that all of this content already exists on the platform gradually undercuts the sense of uniqueness: If many other people besides you didn’t also like it, it wouldn’t be there.
A like count appears on the right side of each video, reassuring you that 6,000 other people have also enjoyed this clip enough to hit the button. Usually, the higher number does signify a better video, unlike tweets, for which the opposite is usually true. You can click into a comment section on each TikTok, too, which feel like YouTube comment sections: people jockeying to write the best riff or joke, bonus content after you watch the clip. There are no time stamps on the main feed. Unlike other social networks, it’s intentionally difficult to figure out when a TikTok video was originally posted, and many accounts repost popular videos anyway. This lends the feed an atmosphere of eternal present: It’s easy to imagine that everything you’re watching is happening right now, a gripping quality that makes it even harder to stop watching.
Over the time I’ve been on TikTok the content of my feed has moved through phases. I can’t be sure how much the shifts are baked in to the system and how much they are a result of me engaging with different content (I’m not reporting on the structure of the algorithm here, just spelunking). There was a heavy skateboarding phase at first, but the mix has evolved into cooking lessons, clips of learning Chinese, home construction tips from This Old House, art-making close-ups, and early 2000s video games. If you search for a particular hashtag, hit like on a few videos, or follow an account, the For You algorithm tweaks your feed, adding in a bit more of that type of content.
(A note on content mixture: “The mix” is famously how Tina Brown described the combination of different kinds of stories in Vanity Fair when she was the magazine’s very successful editor-in-chief in the ‘80s. Brown’s mix was hard-hitting news, fluffy celebrity profiles, glamorous fashion shoots, and smart critical commentary, all combined into one magazine. TikTok automates the mix of all these topics, going farther than any other platform to mimic the human editor.)
A sense emerges of teaching the algorithm what you like, bearing with it through periods of irrelevance and engaging in a way that shapes your feed. I barely look at the tab that shows me videos from people I actually follow, but I still follow them to make them show up more often in my For You feed. The process inspires patience and empathy, the way building a piece of IKEA furniture makes you like it more. It’s easy to get mad at Twitter because its algorithmic intrusions are so obvious; it’s harder with TikTok when the algorithm is all there is. The feed is a seamless environment that the user is meant to stay within.
I didn’t tell TikTok I was interested in sensory deprivation tanks, but through some combination of randomness, metrics, and triangulation of my interests based on what else I engaged with, the app delivered a single video from a float spa and I immediately followed the account. Such specific genres of content are available elsewhere on the internet — I could follow a sensory deprivation YouTube channel or Instagram account — but the TikTok feed centralizes them and titrates the niche topic into my feed as often as I might want to see it, maybe one out of a hundred videos. After all, one video doesn’t mean I want dozens more of the same kind, as the YouTube algorithm seems to think.
Before the 2010s we used to watch cable television, sitting on the couch with the remote pointed actively at the screen. If the show on one channel was boring, we changed it. If everything was boring, we engaged in an activity called channel flipping, switching continuously one to the next until something caught our eye. (On-demand streaming means we now flip through thumbnails more than channels; platform-flipping is the new channel-flipping.) TikTok is an eternal channel flip, and the flip is the point: there is no settled point of interest to land on. Nothing is meant to sustain your attention, even for cable TV’s traditional 10 minutes between commercial breaks.
Like cable television, the viewer does not select the content on TikTok, only whether they want to watch it at that moment or not. It’s a marked contrast to how, in the past decade, social media platforms marketed themselves as offering user agency: you could follow anything or anyone you want, breaking traditional media’s hold on audiences. Instead, TikTok’s For You offers the passivity of linear cable TV with the addition of automated, customized variety and without the need for human editors to curate content or much action from the user to choose it. (Passivity is a feature; Netflix just announced that it’s exploring a version of linear TV.) Like Facebook, and unlike streaming, TikTok also claims to offload the risk of being an actual publisher: the content is all user-generated. Thus it’s both cheap and infinite.
The passivity induces a hypnotized flow state in the user. You don’t have to think, only react. The content often reinforces this thoughtlessness. It’s ephemera, fragments of the human mundane; Rube Goldberg machines are very popular. Sure, you can learn about food or news, but the most essentially TikTok thing I’ve seen in the past few days is a video of a young man who took a giant ball he made of beige rubber bands to an abandoned industrial site and bounced it around, off ledges and down cement steps, in the violet haze of early dusk. The clip is calm and quiet but also surreal, like a piece of video art you might watch for 15 minutes in a gallery. It has no symbolism, no story arc, only a pleasant absence of meaning and the brain-tickling pleasure of the ball gently squishing when it hits a surface, like an alien exploring the earth, unaccustomed to gravity.
I’m biased in favor of such ambient content, which is probably why I get so much of it. But numb immersion — like a sensory deprivation tank — seems to be the point of the platform. On Twitter we get breaking news; on Instagram we see our friends and go shopping; on Facebook we (not me personally) join groups and share memes. On TikTok we are simply entertained. This is not to discount it as a very real force for politics, activism, and the business of culture, or a vehicle to create content and join in conversations. But for users, pure consumption is encouraged. The best bodily position in which to watch TikTok is supine, muscles slack, phone above your face like it’s an endless tunnel into the air.
Sometimes a TikTok binge — short and intense until you get sick of it, like a salvia trip — has the feeling of a game. You keep flipping to the next video as if in search of some goal, though there are only ever more videos. You want to come to an end, though there is no such thing. This stumbling process is why users describe encountering a new subject matter as “finding [topic] TikTok,” like Cooking TikTok or Tiny House TikTok or Carpentry TikTok. There’s a sense of discovery because you wouldn’t necessarily know how to get there otherwise, only through the munificence of the algorithm. A limiting of possibilities is recast as a kind of magic.
What is the theory of media that TikTok injects into the world? What are the new aesthetic standards that it will set as it becomes even more popular, beyond its current 850 million active users? It seems to combine Tumblr-style tribal niches with the brevity and intimacy of Instagram stories and the scalability of YouTube, where mainstream fame is most possible. The startup Quibi received billions of dollars of investment to bet on short-form video watched on phones. The company shut down within eight months of launch, but it wasn’t wrong about the format; it just produced terrible content (see my review of the service for Frieze). TikTok is compelling because it’s so wide, a social network with the userbase of Facebook but fully multimedia, with the kinds of expensive-looking video editing and effects we’re used to on television. The platform presents media (or life itself?) as a permanent reality TV show, and you can tune in to any corner of it at any time.
TikTok isn’t limited to power users or a particular demographic (as in the case of the mutual addiction of Twitter and journalists), and that’s largely because of the adeptness of its algorithmic feed. There is no effort required to fine tune it, only time and swiping. Though the interface looks a little messy, it’s actually relatively simple, a quality that Instagram has abandoned under Facebook’s ownership in favor of cramming in every feature and format possible. (Where do we post what on there now — what’s a grid post, a story, or a reel, which are just Instagram’s shitty TikTok clone?) In fact, just surfing TikTok feels vaguely creative, as if you move through the field of content with your mind alone.
Even if you are only watching, you are a part of TikTok. Internet culture has always been interactive; part of the joy of Lolcats was that you could make your own, using the template as a tool for self-expression and inside jokes. In recent years that kind of creative self-expression via social media has fallen by the wayside in favor of retweets, shares, and likes, centralizing authority around a few influential accounts and pushing the emphasis toward brands (which buy ads and drive revenue) and consumerism. TikTok returns triumphantly to the lowbrow, the absurd, the unimportant.
The culture that it perpetuates are memes and patterns, like the dance moves that users assign to specific clips of songs. Audio is a way to navigate the platform: You can browse all the videos made to a particular soundtrack, making it very potent for spreading music. Users also create reaction videos to other videos, showing a selfie shot next to the original clip. Everything is participatory, and the nature of the algorithm makes it so that a video from an unknown account can go as viral as easily as one from a famous account. (This is true of all social networks but particularly extreme on TikTok.) The singular TikTok is less important than the continued flow of the feed and the emergence of recognizable tropes of TikTok culture that get traded back and forth, like the “I Ain’t Seen Two Pretty Best Friends” meme. The game is to interpolate that phrase into a video, sometimes into an otherwise straight-faced script: the surprise of the meme line, which is more absurdist symbol than meaningful language, tips you to the fact that it’s a joke.
In his aforementioned essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Walter Benjamin wrote that “aura” was contained in the physical presence of a unique work of art; it induced a special feeling that wasn’t captured by the reproducible photograph. By now we’ve long accepted that photographs can be art, too; even if they’re reproductions, they still maintain an aura. The evolution that I’m grasping for here — having started this paragraph over many times — is that now, in our age of the reproducibility of anything, the meaning of the discrete work of art itself has weakened. The aura is not contained within a single specific image, video, or physical object but a pattern that can be repeated by anyone without cheapening its power — in fact, the more it’s repeated, the more its impact increases. The unit of culture is the meme, its original author or artist less important than its primary specimens, which circulate endlessly, inspiring new riffs and offshoots. TikTok operates on and embraces this principle.
Could it be that we’re encouraged to assign some authorship to the algorithm itself, as the prime actor of the platform? After all it’s the equation that’s bringing us this smooth, entrancing feed, that’s encouraging creators to create and consumers to consume. I don’t think that’s true, though, or at least not yet. We have to remember that the algorithm is also the work of its human creators at Bytedance in China, who have in the past been directed to “suppress posts created by users deemed too ugly, poor, or disabled for the platform” as well as censor political speech, according to The Intercept. Recommendation algorithms can be tools of soft censorship, subtly shaping a feed to be as glossy, appealing, and homogenous as possible rather than the truest reflection of either reality or a user’s desires. In Hollywood, a producer tells you if you’re not hot enough to be an actor; on TikTok, the algorithm lets you know if you don’t fit the mold.
As it is, TikTok molds what and how I consume more than what I want to create. I feel no drive to make a TikTok video, maybe because the platform’s demographic is younger than I am and it still requires more video editing than I can handle, though it can also algorithmically crop video clips to moments of action. But when I switch over to Instagram and watch the automatic flip of stories from my friends and various brands, it suddenly feels boring and dead, like going from color TV back to black and white. I don’t want to only get content from people I follow; I want the full breadth of the platform, perfectly filtered. The grid of miscellany of Instagram’s discover tab doesn’t stand up to TikTok’s total immersion.
TikTok’s feed is finely tuned and personalized, but I think what’s more important is how it automates the entire experience of online consumption. You don’t have to decide what you’re interested in; you just surrender to the platform. Automation gets disguised as customization. That makes the structure and priorities of the algorithm even more important as it increasingly determines what we watch, read, and hear, and what people are incentivized to create in digital spaces to get attention. And TikTok absolutely wants all of your attention. It’s not about casual browsing, not glancing at Twitter to see the latest news or checking your friend’s Instagram profile for updates. It’s a move directly toward an addiction that will be incredibly profitable for the company. And the more we trust that algorithmic feed, the easier it will be for the app to exploit its audiences.
This was an interesting experiment to write because I had no formal constraints from an external publication and of course no editing or feedback before publishing it. I wrote it just to document an obsession, and as with many obsessions, it’s fading a bit as I write it all out. At this point I’ve documented all the thoughts I have currently, in a fairly loose way.
I would really like messages about this piece! Did it work, did it not work? Is this productive or not? There are more essays I’d like to write like this, without the pressure to fully compel public readers. But its main utility is to share ideas and start conversations, so it needs to accomplish at least that.
Please comment, email me by replying, tweet about this, post it on your LinkedIn, or whatever platform you choose. Make a TikTok reaction video.
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