You probably haven’t heard of TikTok if you’re under twenty-five, but this sharp essay by Jia Tolentino is a compelling read for non-users and users alike.
It starts with an explanation of TikTok’s popularity. Older folks open TikTok and see a nonstop stream of “chaotic and sincere and nihilistic and very short” videos. It feels exhausting, but apps like TikTok are “the natural expressions of kids who’d had smartphones since they were in middle school, or elementary school,” Tolentino writes. What feels overwhelming to an older set actually comes us a relief to them. She quotes one middle schooler who describes TikTok an escape from “the mass amounts of media we are exposed to every living day.”
As with all tech these days, there’s more than entertainment going on. TikTok was developed and refined in China. Behind the screen is “a machine-learning system that analyzes each video and tracks user behavior so that it can serve up a continually refined, never-ending stream of TikToks optimized to hold your attention.” The app is “an enormous meme factory, compressing the world into pellets of virality and dispensing those pellets until you get full or fall asleep.”
It’s “freewheeling fun” on the outside and a China-based data collection app designed to addict, numb, and persuade on the inside. Welcome to 2020.
Read or listen to "How TikTok Holds Our Attention" at The New Yorker – and stay for the haunting final paragraph.