In Defense of TikTok
I'm here to apologize for throwing you under the bus so many times in the past
Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. It’s been 24 years since my last confession, considering I’m Jewish, but today I’d like to confess. I relentlessly talk shit about TikTok and complain about all of the ways TikTok ruins things. I’m here to apologize. I’m here to defend TikTok, or at least highlight some of the revelations I’ve had regarding the app. I’ve allowed TikTok to be the scapegoat for too long.
There are a lot of legitimate complaints I have about the app. It’s incredibly addicting. Its privacy policies are suspect. It fuels my need to buy things. There is harmful content that is incredibly easy to access on the app. Some of the content is cringy. I’ve complained about all of these things, but these are the same issues that have been named against every social media platform that has ever existed. The app is changing the social landscape and many industries that rely heavily on social media, just as Instagram and Facebook and Myspace once took turns doing. It was only a matter of time before a new platform took over and shook things up.
This is what is hard for me to admit, despite its truth: I believe the way TikTok is changing the social media space may actually be positive— at least compared to the cultural phenomena that has come from Meta.
As a kid, I was obsessed with the internet. I was a kid when social media consumption took place on computers, back when we all had Razrs and Nokias, before smartphones were prevalent. Much of my internet usage took place on forums, blogs, youtube, and Tumblr. To me, the internet was a way to communicate with strangers who shared similar interests. The internet, therefore, cultivated some sort of community based on the interest at hand. Even in my earliest years online, internet games like Webkinz, Club Penguin, and Neopets taught me that talking to strangers was cool. There were no “influencers” to follow from one platform to the next, just members of a community.
Sure, AOL messenger, Myspace, and (later) Facebook existed, but they felt like they served a different service. Those sites were used to talk to my IRL friends and classmates that were also online. They didn’t intertwine with the Tumblr users I followed, the members of chatrooms I spoke to, or the Youtubers I watched. I spent my time endlessly scrolling places like Tumblr or forums, where I was able to remain largely anonymous while still interacting with “mutuals''. I had internet friends who existed only as stock avatars and text boxes, whom I never imagined I would meet and rarely knew what they looked like.
There was a separation between real life and virtual life. When I logged onto my computer, the world wide web was large and expansive and interesting. It was its own world that acted as an escape from the real world that I often felt I didn’t fit into.
Today, the internet is very different. The people we know IRL are on the same plane as the influencers we follow. Everyone is incredibly online, and we don’t log off when we go outside. Surfing the web isn’t a private activity where I only exist as an avatar. Our faces are plastered all over social media and compared to the news articles and influencers that appear next to us in our feeds. The internet feels small. It’s a part of our real lives, rather than an escape from them. TikTok reminds me of the old internet. A little bit.
Like Tumblr and the forums I used to use, the app connects you with strangers who share similar interests. There’s endless communities on TikTok. Fashiontok, fitnesstok, cookingtok, planttok, schizophreniatok, gangstalktok, booktok. The list goes on. Nowadays my FYP tends to be fashion and design videos and a few niche skits, because that’s what I’m into and the algorithm knows that. There is a seemingly endless stream of people talking about archival fashion and cool midcentury modern chairs and cats doing weird things, and I leave the app feeling good. When I scroll twitter, I close the app feeling brain rot and hopeless for the future, but with TikTok, I feel like I learned something— or at least saw something interesting. This wasn’t always the case, but as popularity in the app grew (meaning an influx of people my age who weren’t just influencers already), I found TikTok to be an increasingly positive place to scroll. My feed looks completely different from my coworkers feed or my boyfriend's feed. The app is actually catered to my interests, unlike Twitter and Instagram which are their own cesspools of ways to make you feel bad about yourself. If I am interested in ballet, my timeline will fill up with videos about ballet. If I’m interested in books, my timeline will fill up with book recommendations. Each post can convey significantly more information than a still photo or a 240 character tweet can, making for a better platform to explore or learn than other popular social media platforms. TikTok comments sections are a different animal, as explained by Embedded this week.
Yes, annoying rich kids continue to use NYC as their personal playground and post videos as though their lifestyles are relatable, but I remember when influencers flocked to LA and did the same thing, it’s not a TikTok specific phenomena— plus I hardly see that content on my FYP because I’m frankly just not interested in that side of the platform and the algorithm seems to know that and I believe most other Gen Zers are also becoming less and less interested in these types of people. The idea of the influencer as it existed during Instagram and Youtube’s peak seems to be dying. As the algorithm gets more specific for individual users, the existence of huge followings of the magnitude of the initial wave of TikTok influencers, like Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae seems to be less and less likely. Videos can still quickly reach large audiences, but the appetite for more influencers of this genre is depleting. This isn’t surprising, people have been predicting the end of the influencer for a few years now and with the recent criticism of Instagram with people begging the app to show more of their friends the end feels like a reality.
On TikTok, you’re invested not just in what someone wears or how they look, but their personality and the genre of content they create. You feel some sort of parasocial friendship with the creators you enjoy, and in turn are invested in them in a way that aligns more closely to your friends than it does with your investment in Kylie Jenner’s IG page.
There is also something a bit more candid about TikTok than Instagram. With the app, there seems to be less pressure to be perfect, users are more likely to post in their pajamas or in sweats, without makeup. People are less apt to photoshop their bodies and the majority of people at least attempt to convey some sort of point to their videos— whether that point is to inform, get laughs, or show off a dance is irrelevant. Users have the ability to showcase their personality and interests in a way that isn’t able to be conveyed in the highly edited, stylized, selfie that is so quintessential to instagram and it’s influencers. I’m not seeing my college roommate post perfectly composed and perfectly lit photos of her aesthetically pleasing trip to Bali with her fiance, I’m seeing strangers. Not only is there a general push away from ultra-curated aspirational flexing online, but there’s a clear separation between what I’m seeing in a video on an app that strangers post and my real life. Editing, curating, and acting are much more clear cut and easy to spot as we can physically see the editing or filters or music used, which for me at least is incredibly beneficial in creating a space that doesn’t inherently fuck with my self-esteem and force me to compare myself to the people around me.
Users on TikTok have to put effort into their videos. I’ve tried to make TikToks in the past, and they are time consuming and awkward if you aren’t used to speaking to a camera. The in-app editing features aren’t all that user-friendly, and all those fancy transitions are extremely complicated. Even if the content isn’t my cup of tea, I appreciate that there’s a level of effort that goes into making a video. I feel like users are earning their following in a way I don’t feel on image based platforms. There’s room for creativity (and thirst traps if that’s what you’re into, I won’t knock it). Because the effort required to create content is higher, there isn’t as much pressure to be a content creator. Everyone takes photos and selfies, it’s easy, and so on social media, regular folks like you and me are pressured to contentify their lives and present a perfect, well composed and well lit version of our lives. On TikTok, it’s okay to be a lurker, not a creator. I’m not tempted to spend hours making TikToks just because everyone else is, because not everyone else is— at least yet.
If you read my previous newsletter you know how much I value sincerity and just unabashedly enjoying things. TikTok can be a really sincere space. Because of the effort it takes to film a video, users inherently have to care about what they are posting. That enthusiasm comes across well in-video. It’s hard to act like you don’t care about anything or hide behind some “effortless”, “too cool” attitude when you’re putting the effort into setting up the phone, filming multiple clips, and editing it to music. If I’m watching a fashion girly on TikTok try on a bunch of outfits or talk about a runway show they enjoy, I know they care about styling the clothes or dissecting the collection enough to make a video about it. TikTok is creating a world where young people are earnest in their interests. That is extremely important to me.
Maybe, just maybe, some of the cultural trends I’ve been blaming on TikTok and complaining about are not actually TikTok’s fault. I’m just discovering how young people behave while scrolling the app.
Despite some glaring issues with the app and the people running the app, I think the overall TikTok method is largely moving us in the right direction. It’s making the internet a fun place to be, and bringing back some of the lost elements that made the world wide web so vast and wonderful in the first place.
I have more thoughts about social media, but I’ll save them for another newsletter. Until next time, bye guys.
*I gave up proofreading half way through writing this article, so any typos or nonsense sentences are a stylistic choice. Don’t come for me.*