Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
TikTok; the video-sharing app that no one can stop talking about and the app that will be responsible for making me fail university. It is addictive, and either adored or hated. No matter which camp you fall into, it is almost impossible to get away from – it has burst into our culture like a bright beam of Gen Z energy that takes no prisoners. It leads dance trends and fashion styles, propels unknown songs into the charts, and hosts viral trends that leave even middle-aged mums or Bob from next door shouting ‘did someone say beveragino?’. Cringe. With one video and a whole amount of luck, people can go viral overnight. A reality that makes it all the more seductive.
TikTok’s teenage stars are now multi-millionaires, living in mansions and signing contracts with every big multinational cooperation out there. Charli D’Amelio, is a 16-year-old with 88.8 million followers (and counting) and she holds more power over the internet than Donald Trump (in terms of her following). It’s an app originally run by teens, for teens – but now it’s so much more. As lockdown was enforced, UK users soared by 34% in one week. We turned away from the world onto the app for some solace, some humour and some absurdity – a coping mechanism of sorts. A need to feel connected to one another in such an isolating time. TikTok’s advanced algorithm constantly charting what we like and what we don’t, to create an endless feed of videos just ‘for you’.
The birthchild of Chinese entrepreneur, Zhang Yiming, TikTok has 2 billion downloads and for better or worse, has changed the game entirely. As the first Chinese-run firm to truly break America’s monopoly over the internet, there’s every reason for Silicon Valley to be scared. It poses a real threat against America’s dominance over the technology sector, and, more drastically, a potential threat to national security. This is the theme of Trump’s recent rants – that the data collected on TikTok could be handed over to the Chinese government, and be used against the American population. It’s not completely unreasonable to fear this, the Chinese government has showed its ugly pursuit of collecting data and its surveillance state lurks everywhere. What’s more, Chinese law dictates that if asked, companies must hand over data – which places TikTok in a compromised position.
A “trojan horse”, according to certain Republican senators, hidden under the guise of teens in their bedrooms dancing and Draco Malfoy appreciation videos. The true irony is that this app, full of so much silliness, is standing at the frontlines of a Washington-Beijing technological feud. Is this the world we now live in? It’s frightening and exciting. That an app can hold so much power that world leaders fight over ownership of it.
In an interview recently, Yiming said ‘We want the platform to become a window into a bigger and bigger world.’ But what world is that? A world filled with only beautiful people? Leaked documents have revealed the app’s algorithm favours those it deems “good-looking”, whilst shockingly its moderators are pressured to filter out those it deems ‘ugly, poor or disabled’ to attract new users. Questions of racial biases have surfaced and the severe inconsistencies in what ‘violates community guidelines’ has led non-white creators to claim that their content is unfairly attacked.
I certainly don’t think that Tiktok’s time is up, regardless of the way in which Trump navigates the high-profile deal over TikTok’s US operations. It’s complicated and messy and the concrete details over Walmart and Oracle’s take over, are yet to be made public.
In the meantime, here’s to celebrating creativity in all its absurdist form. Let’s hope the app doesn’t steal our data and the algorithm starts to favour diversity. I, for one, will continue to waste my time on the app until Boris says no.