If there is one thing that has been building more suspense and drama than our politicians this election season, it is the microblogging site TikTok. From complete ignominy to viral popularity, and then the dramatic ban by a high court to its resurgence offering Rs 1,00,000 daily reward prizes, #ReturnofTikTok has been trending with great enthusiasm and being embraced by the populace, who obviously think that 15-second videos are the pinnacle of human cultural production and expression. But, my friends, followers, TikTokers, I come here not to bury TikTok, but to praise it.
At first glance, TikTok appears to be just a miniaturised version of the popular social media platforms we know — YouTube, Vine, Snapchat — and merely one more step in figuring out how granular we can make our appified attention. With each video post that can only last 15 seconds, TikTok is often heralded as naturalising the new unit of attention in an informationally saturated environment. Many have looked at it as competition to the grandfathers of social media apps, like Facebook and Instagram, and there is much speculation about how it will take these giants down.
However, the radical departure of TikTok is not in the smallness of its engagement — and thus the extremely low threshold for participation — or in the hashtag organisation of its social media, and the subsequent viral potentiality. What makes TikTok tick (and then, of course, tock), is its embrace of artificial intelligence and big data analytics to power the platform.
China-based ByteDance that owns TikTok, unlike any of its Big Tech competitors, is not a content production or curation company. It is invested in machine learning, and at its backend are extremely sophisticated algorithms that are using facial recognition, data correlation, and targeted customisation technologies to create the world of TikTok. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, the two templates of “user-generated-content” platforms, where what we see, what we do, and what we say require us to define our social circles and connections, TikTok’s algorithms do not need us to do any social definition.
From the minute you sign up for it, giving up your personal information and data to extreme mining which bears the same pitfalls of privacy and surveillance that all other big data apps do, TikTok starts presenting content to you. This is not content created by friends, or colleagues, or randos you connect with because you couldn’t be bothered to decline their invites. Instead, this is content created by people you don’t know at all, and brought to you by algorithms that know, even without you telling them what you might like. The more time you spend tapping across the vides, searching hashtags, and going through complex tutorials to make your own 15-second fun video, the more the machine learning algorithms learn you.
TikTok is such a threat to existing social media companies because they make no apologies of the fact that their human users are not influencers, friends, followers, or connections. They are merely users, who produce content and then their algorithms go around the world, connecting us through reasons and logic that are completely opaque. With TikTok, we see the future of automated technologies, where both the content and the logic of connectivity are no longer dependent on human action or desire, but on algorithmic curation and presentation. Geared towards maximum engagement, TikTok’s algorithms have one task — to completely make us lose all sense of time as we cycle through an almost endless stream of videos that have neither content nor style, but seduce us in their short-lived flash.
TikTok as a platform might turn out to be another fad. It is already being copied and mimicked by others. It might run out of its global steam. However, what it has opened up for us are three critical things that need more attention in our digital action. First, on TikTok, you don’t have friends because your friend is TikTok, and it tells you, in an easy, gossipy way, all the things that everybody else is doing. Second, TikTok does not pretend to respect individual choice and agency, instead it trains us to accept what is presented as content. In many ways, it is the reverse Spotify — your playlist does not represent your taste in music, but the music shapes you to become the kind of person who likes that music. And, lastly, TikTok infantilises its users, embedding them in a juvenilia, which has no meaning other than the moving images that keep us engaged but distant, responsive but irresponsible, as children of all ages, ready to escape from a world that increasingly seems too complex to live in.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bengaluru. This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Digital Native: Time’s Up’