Marcella is eighteen and lives in a Texas suburb so quiet that it sometimes seems like a ghost town. She downloaded TikTok last fall, after seeing TikTok videos that had been posted on YouTube and Instagram. They were strange and hilarious and reminded her of Vine, the discontinued platform that teen-agers once used for uploading anarchic six-second videos that played on a loop. She opened TikTok, and it began showing her an endless scroll of videos, most of them fifteen seconds or less. She watched the ones she liked a few times before moving on, and double-tapped her favorites, to “like” them. TikTok was learning what she wanted. It showed her more absurd comic sketches and supercuts of people painting murals, and fewer videos in which girls made fun of other girls for their looks.
When you watch a video on TikTok, you can tap a button on the screen to respond with your own video, scored to the same soundtrack. Another tap calls up a suite of editing tools, including a timer that makes it easy to film yourself. Videos become memes that you can imitate, or riff on, rapidly multiplying much the way the Ice Bucket Challenge proliferated on Facebook five years ago.
I had stopped impulsively checking TikTok after a month—I already have enough digital tools to insure that I never need to sit alone with the simple fact of being alive. But I could understand being thirteen and feeling like the world would be better if as many people as possible could be seen by as many people as possible all the time. I could imagine experiencing a social platform as a vast, warm ocean of affection and excitement, even if that ocean needed money that it could generate only by persuading you not to leave. I wondered how many baby siblings of these TikTok fanatics were at home, sitting in front of iPads, adrift in an endless stream of YouTube videos. Perhaps the time had come to let the algorithm treat the rest of us like babies, too. Maybe it knows more about what we like than we do. Maybe it knows that if it can capture our attention for long enough it won’t have to ask us what we like anymore. It will have already decided. – Jia Tolentino
[Een student ‘wil viral gaan op TikTok’. Ik download de app. Iemand poseert als Anne Frank, kijkt in de camera, doet haar en jasje goed, bevriest haar blik. Stijlvolle foto zwartwit. Het duurt een paar seconden. Dan vind ik haar. Internet is aan het loopen. Ik heb dit eerder gevoeld, eerder bezocht, eerder beleefd, eerder gemaakt. Internet is een eeuwig beginnen, er is geen tijd, maar er zijn seizoenen, en ik kijk naar een hand die scheerschuim in een croc spuit, en dan naar een voet die zichzelf in de croc steekt. De verwachting is verslavender dan de inlossing, zegt de neuropsycholoog. Dit had ik niet verwacht. Buiten gebeurt dit nooit: hé, alweer een tulp die bloeit, een kikker kwaakt; of binnen, het keukenkastje staat open. Ik ga nu de keuken checken.]