Going Viral

By Sam Klein Stearns

School is demanding. Whether you go to elementary or college, public or private, there are always due dates looming over you, test results threatening your grades, and endless piles of papers that teachers expect you to do on the daily. As a freshman at Beacon High School, located in the heart of Manhattan adjacent  to the infamously busy Time Square, I can more than vouch for this. It should not be forgotten that all of this work affects student’s mental health, as well.

 With all of this, it can be nice to have an escape – something to look forward to as you slowly churn through your day. For some people, it’s video games; for others, sports. A common one is social media. I know people that will spend the better part of their free time on Instagram or Snapchat alone. I am certainly not excused from this either – a lot of my afternoon is spent texting my friends or scrolling through my Instagram feed. Still, students especially often spend an obscene amount of time hooked to their phones.  In particular, students spend a lot of their time on TikTok, a widely known social media app where people of any age post short video clips scored with popular music. Seems harmless enough, right? Well, here’s why it isn’t, and why kids shouldn’t trust it nearly as much as they do.

First off, let’s examine the basic facts. TikTok is a free app, created by the developer TikTok Inc. and ranked number one in entertainment sites on the App Store. It is rated an almost-perfect 4.7/5 and has 2.2 million reviews. The app’s “about” section contains phrases like, “find an endless stream of short videos that feel personalized,” “the more you watch the better it gets,” and “Instantly Entertaining.” An almost picture-perfect beginning; a casual consumer would drift onto the app, baited by the bright colors and catchy slogans of its intro. But there is some subliminal messaging that’s going on here, especially in the word choice. Terms like “endless stream,” “more…better,” and “instant” try to sway viewers into thinking if you’re on it for longer, you’ll like it more and that its pleasing almost immediately. The words also convey the powerlessness of the app-user : when you’re in a stream, you simply get carried along, never stopping but never having to stop either. The stream controls you, it decides where you go.  There is something both calming and yet unnerving about that. Calming in the sense that TikTok is easy to navigate and you don’t have to do much; unnerving in the sense that the app implies it has full command over you.

But, of course, an app is not just its ads. There is much more to it than creepy subliminal messaging. So, let’s head to another important way to look at TikTok: its background. And that’s where ByteDance comes in. ByteDance is one of the most successful Chinese tech companies; as of November 2018, their apps had over 800 million users. At first glance, it appears that they have created a wide range of apps, with products like “Toutiao,” “TopBuzz,” and “Flipagram” – names that are reminiscent of other platforms such as BuzzFeed and Instagram. But they all seem to focus on a singular idea. Toutiao is a news platform turned media website that now resembles FaceBook. TopBuzz is a content-promoting site focusing on new creators that want to spread their work. Lastly, Flipagram is a photo-editing app that, in specific, allows users to score their videos. Those all sound strangely similar. Media website? Content spreading? Video scoring? That’s right – they are the key ideas of TikTok. It isn’t odd for a company to focus on a specific genre of content, but the almost self-plagiarism that is occurring here is certainly telling about the company. ByteDance eventually bought the popular app “Musical.ly” for roughly a billion US dollars and combined it with their app “Douyin” to create TikTok, which boosted both apps’ popularity greatly. But it gets more interesting. China, as is commonly known, is a strict authoritarian country, that some would call Orwellian in callbacks to the popular book 1984 where the government censors language and tracks citizens via cameras. Controversy in China has bloomed recently due to protests in Hong Kong in opposition of a strict bill China is imposing. The fact that TikTok is based in China (by extension) is similarly unnerving.  Now, there is no direct correlation between China’s Orwellian aspects and this tech company and its video-editing app, as ByteDance released several statements confirming there was neither collusion nor censoring. And, to be fair, videos have been released on the site that are directly offensive to China’s government – and they weren’t taken down. So I’m not going to go full-conspiracy mode and say that ByteDance is run by the Chinese government,  but imagine if you were a parent, and learned that your kid was spending three or four hours a day on an addicting site created and based in a country known for its intrusive policies and lack of humanitarianism. Even if you were positive that there is no correlation between company and government, wouldn’t you still be a little worried? 

All that aside: we still haven’t actually examined the app itself yet. And for all its mysteries,  it could still be a really fun app that promotes being social and sharing your talents. First of all, the structure of the app itself is arranged in five sections: home, discover, create, inbox, and me. The create button is the largest and most obvious one there, it is outlined in red and blue, arranged in a way that makes it pop. The second most prominent is the home (or the explore page), as besides the create button, it is the only one outlined in white. The choice to make these pop is intentional, as it seems that TikTok makes the most profit out of these. The home button pays content producers in views and comments, while for these producers, the create button is how producers make profit. the go-to for making TikTok this money. And speaking of TikTok profit: there seems to be some kind of way to make money off of the app, and for ByteDance itself to do so as well. Enter TikTok Coins. 100 of these are worth $1, and 10,000 are $120. They can be used to purchase Emojis and Diamonds on the app, used to support your favorite creators and show your appreciation for them. In terms of content creators making money, the formula is simply get your videos out to a wide audience and hope that popular celebrities or big brand names approach you and inquire about sponsorships. This system is obviously created for the sole purpose of benefiting first, ByteDance, second, content creators, and last, definitely least, users. Users simply buy appreciation and admiration for their favorite creators; then, said creators benefit from the users not by that admiration, but if they are “in demand,” and no matter what, ByteDance profits – even if it’s at the expense of their users. 

Finally, let’s examine the content that goes into the app. The videos are under one minute, and generally fit under three major categories. The first: short skits, starring one person often dressed in a costume, acting out familiar scenes, often scored by popular “sounds” that rotate around the site for a few days and then are quickly replaced by the next trends. The next category consists of dancing videos, typically where friend groups turn on the camera and perform the most recent dances to the most popular songs. But don’t be deceived – most dances don’t actually require talent, or skill, and simply feature kids twerking or nodding their heads to a catchy beat. The final category is simply videos taken in front of unsuspecting or unknowing recipients, or videos taken from creators’ personal lives, such as in their jobs or schools. None of these seem particularly appealing at first glance – but since they are created by normal people, mostly in normal places, users can relate to them, and therefore, keep scrolling. But these funny, relatable videos aren’t the only thing that make up the app; according to a study by the New York Times of Fox Creek High School, the app is incredibly addicting, and encourages cyberbullying. Furthermore, some of the site’s more questionable videos include underage drinking, overeating, and usage of firecrackers, according to the site’s Wikipedia page. An example of a popular yet questionable trend include creators pretending to have seizures to the song “Lucid Dreams.” Obviously there are other videos that don’t fit these molds – but the fact that these videos are present certainly brings down the app’s reputation.

From it’s questionable background in an authoritative government to it’s manipulative ad campaign to its offensive videos, Tik Tok has proven time and again that it isn’t worth the hours and hours millions of users spend on  it. And yet, the kids who spend the majority of their day on the app aren’t to be blamed. In fact, ByteDance apparently has an AI lab with the sole purpose of structuring content feeds to be addicting. Now, the term ‘addiction’ isn’t something that can be used lightly. But in terms of social media, it is a real thing, and it does affect people. In Beacon, in my day-to-day-life, I often see kids taking time out of their school lives to film videos or dances: in class, kids raise their hands to ‘go to the bathroom’ when they’re actually just going to make TikToks. In the halls, in the three to five minutes we have to get to classes, kids rehearse their dances. It’s more than a cultural phenomenon – it’s taken over kids’ (and adults’) lives, and it needs to be addressed. 

Cited in this piece:

TikTok and China come under scrutiny in congressional hearing

China’s TikTok Blazes New Ground. That could doom it.

High Schools to TikTok: We’re Catching Feelings.