You might as well have been living under a rock if you haven’t heard of TikTok yet. The video-sharing platform has surged to global popularity over recent years and, as of October 2021, has more than 1 billion active users. Naturally, it has become something of a cultural phenomenon in itself. But everything has a dark side, right?
Creativity and Community
Some are calling TikTok a new generation social media app; few can as accurately tailor content to our specific interests. Anyone familiar with TikTok can probably attest that it is incredibly addictive and far too easy to lose hours scrolling the ‘For You’ page (better known as the FYP). Many people have likened it to the now-defunct Vine, which even in its heyday didn’t compare to TikTok’s popularity. The selection of surreal and nuanced comedy is certainly reminiscent of the well-loved predecessor.
One of the standout features of TikTok is the ability to share interests, skills or hobbies with like-minded people. During the height of the pandemic, for example, most people seemed to be sharing or interacting with wholesome bread-baking videos or viral dancing challenges. There are corners of TikTok that discuss coping with mental health or educational cleaning videos for those never taught how. It is a place to build community, to network or feel validated.
The Creator Fund is another particularly attractive feature offered by TikTok. The basis of earning a wage from your content means having over a certain amount of followers and posting on a semi-regular basis. This is incredible for artists, for example, who can make money from sharing their processes, where they otherwise might find making a living hard just by selling their art. It allows creative individuals to earn money from their imaginations and talent.
The keyboard warriors
Just as the community within TikTok can be an uplifting, positive thing; so can it have some less desirable consequences.
Some might remember the “couch guy” scandal. From one girl’s video of her visiting her long distance boyfriend, millions of TikTok users rallied in the comments to let her know they didn’t think he was trustworthy. While this part of it may seem well-intentioned, other girls that appeared in the video were then subject to bullying. There have been other instances of targeted harassment because of other videos’ content.
What is labelled ‘cyber bullying’ is not unique to TikTok. However, what does have many critics worried is the extent of TikTok’s data collection. And this is where it gets kind of ugly.
Oh data, wherefore art thou?
It could be quite easy to gloss over the way that TikTok can so accurately predict the content we want to see, or maybe assume that it just pays attention to what we ‘like’; that is how most other social media algorithms work. But TikTok also tracks our passive behaviour, e.g. how many times we let a video loop, how quickly we scroll past certain videos and whether we are drawn to a particular category of effects and sounds. It knows the device we are using, our location, IP address, search history, the content of our messages as well as inferring factors such as our age range and gender. Before we’ve even signed up, TikTok can gather information through cookies and other trackers to build a picture of our interests.
More alarming is the fact that TikTok allows mostly third-party trackers to collect all this data that we share with the app. It’s essentially impossible to know who is tracking your data, what information they’re collecting and what they do with it afterwards. Given that TikTok is owned by Chinese IT conglomerate ByteDance Ltd, more mystery shrouds exactly where our data goes.
As well as data collection question marks, many have raised the issue of censoring on Tiktok, something it adamantly denies. Still, the Guardian reported controversy over whether TikTok was censoring videos talking about China’s treatment of the Uighurs after a girl’s ‘makeup video’ was taken down multiple times because she talked about the alleged Muslim prison camps. Another article suggests that TikTok isn’t doing enough censoring of high-risk topics such as eating disorders, with videos containing this content still being easily found in the search feature.
The danger is that with such a sensitive algorithm, interaction with a couple of these posts could then flood your FYP with related topics. The same goes for politically charged videos, the worry being that this model could intensify political polarisation. As it often goes with online content, people rarely wonder about what information might be missing.
The modern dilemma
Any deep dive into social media will inevitably dredge up the troubled ethics behind our modern habits. It appears that TikTok is no different, but is perhaps just an advanced example. Most people are even willing to ignore the fact that their data is being collected, and can we blame them? In a world where everything is claimed to be a threat, the invisible data collection danger seems quite unimportant. And when the app in question knows exactly how to keep us scrolling, how then to give it up? Sounds little bit too Black Mirror-esque, don’t you think?