It’s hard to deny that our social presence online has become increasingly intermingled with our offline selves. But in a period where we are stuck indoors and physically isolated from others, the online has become more than just an extension of the self; it has become our everything. Further still, with more people looking to waste time than usual, there is no better substitute than social media: the mostly free and easily accessible platforms that brought time-wasting into vogue long before Corona decided to exacerbate the trend. But towering above the general noise of Instagram throwback shots, ‘Twitticisms’ about freedom and Facebook’s inspirational sermons about how we will ‘get through this’ if we start our days with yoga and end with home-made sourdough, is the apparent oligarch of the kingdom of isolation: TikTok.
The brainchild of Chinese artificial intelligence company ByteDance, TikTok is an Instagram challenge on steroids, where good content is that which can be shared, replicated and built upon by anyone and their dog (literally). Having been downloaded over 1.5 billion times, with over 800 million active users worldwide, its three-and-a-half-year existence has seen the platform grow at an unprecedented rate, bringing with it an obscene level of publicity. Although the majority of users hail from Generation Z, people of all ages, from newborn to nonagenarians, have embraced the app in the lonely hour of social distancing. But what is it about this short-form video platform that has us all hitting the woah in isolation?
If YouTube is a main meal, then TikTok is a canape; masterfully crafted to just catch your attention, and make you hover behind the waiter of the rest of the event in search of more. A direct response to the dwindling human attention span, the one-minute limit and fifteen second average length of the videos on the platform has become one of its primary appeals, making it easier for the audience to consume large amounts of radically varied content in a short space of time. For instance, from a one minute scroll through TikTok’s discovery page, I came across a man in an animal print shirt claiming that Carol Baskin killed her husband, a girl doing the ‘Savage’ dance to Mariah Carey’s ‘Obsessed’, a man painting a gap between his teeth with eyeliner to give himself ‘the London look’, and a woman pretending to be various shop assistants in popular Australian retail stores.
As a platform that is largely centred around music, dance and other forms of non-linguistic expression, TikTok is one of the only truly universal social media platforms, as it doesn’t require proficiency in any single language to engage with much of the content. Furthermore, with little focus on the news, much of what is popular on the platform evades becoming dated, and trends continue for months at a time; with some even being regentrified and added to as they start to tire. Even the few that are related to the news have managed to take on a sort of timeless zing; with excerpts from Julia Gillard’s 2012 misogyny speech being superimposed over house music to become a new feminist banger for the isolation age. And our Prime Minister’s friendly reminder that Andrew Probyn in fact, does not run the press conference, sure to become a staple in the Australian clubs following the crisis.
But good content is only the duck above the water, as beneath the surface lives one of the most powerful algorithms in the world, manically paddling away as it serves you your favourite food from simply watching you read the menu. This unparalleled software, in partnership with hundreds of millions of willing volunteers providing their faces and patterns of interests to ByteDance for an average of 58 minutes a day, has led to significant questions concerning data security. American soldiers have even been banned from using the platform by the US Government out of fear of a counter-intelligence threat. But with the platform’s popularity so heavily engrained in the otherworldly receptivity of its artificial intelligence to the specific wants of the viewer, has entertainment and temporary satisfaction become more valuable to us than privacy? Or will we wake up from this period of isolation with the stark realisation that TikTok has come to know us better than we know ourselves?
I do not, and probably never will understand why the world is obsessed with what is essentially the estranged, younger cousin of Vine. Yet despite a TikTok scroll possessing the legibility and atmosphere of a chaotic fever dream, I too have found myself in the trance of scrolling. Overcome by the paradoxically freeing and disturbing feeling of being on the internet for absolutely no reason, I welcome the distraction from the unsettling present and rest well with the knowledge that Katherine finally got to ask her question.