#121: TikTok and the elusive promise of reality
An unpublished essay
In late spring, I was commissioned by a publication to write a piece about TikTok. When the assigning editor and I first discussed it, I was excited, but by the time I finished it six weeks later, it was high summer, my editor had left the publication, and I wasn’t sure of its fate. Months passed and the piece floundered. A couple times I thought it might run, but eventually I decided to pull it and run it here instead—if not to soothe the month-long headache I had while writing it, then at least to share the thoughts of the brilliant people who gave me interviews for it.
The source of the headache was my choice of topic. Tiktok provides a completely different experience to every user, and is famously difficult to pin down as a result. Yet I found myself drawn over and over to the idea that I might be able to universalize the feeling of being on it, to unpack why it’s so addicting. Whether I succeeded or not, I still think it’s a worthy endeavor. In September, the Times reported that TikTok was becoming a veritable competitor to Google, with a baffling percent of young people suspected to be using it for cursory information searches. Last week, a Pew study confirmed that a quarter of Americans under 30 regularly get their news from TikTok. Clearly it’s become more than just a social platform.
As you may know from reading Maybe Baby, I’m a TikTok fan. A couple weeks ago, when I deleted the app off my phone in a desperate attempt to reclaim my attention, it felt like taking a toy away from a child. What’s telling is, despite how much the app was ostensibly showing and teaching me about the world, all I truly feel now that it’s gone is less entertained. The below essay expands on that perception lapse, and asks if it matters. Notably missing from the piece, by the way, is any mention of BeReal, which wasn’t trending when I wrote it, but has already both taken over and dropped back out of the zeitgeist in the time since. As far as commodifying the “real” goes, it’s going to be hard to compete with TikTok.
TikTok and the Elusive Promise of Reality
Drawn in by the allure of authenticity, once again hitting a wall.
I was weathering the side effects of the first Covid vaccine when I first learned TikTok worked better than Advil. Feverish and aching, I lay in bed scrolling for as long as my dopamine receptors could take it: crumbling magnetic sand, a girl shaving her head on a whim, a cockatoo dancing to “Sandstorm,” a linguist on how Americans say the letter “L,” the removal of an ingrown toenail. The non-stop short-form content had a numbing effect. More than Twitter, which made me angry, or Instagram, which made me lonely, TikTok had a way of delivering me from embodiment entirely. It was musical and informative and funny; distracting to the nth degree. I ceased to perceive myself. Time skipped forward.
It’s hard to imagine an app better suited to the pandemic, with its bottomless auto-curation and maximalist charm. As normal life receded, then returned, then receded again, the TikToks kept coming, like a sizzle reel for a better, less broken world. Even the darker content (addiction stories, Covid diatribes) had a way of rounding out the overall effect: quick hits of reality, freed from the burden of follow-through. A perfect corrective to isolation, loneliness, longing, pain. During the first two years of the pandemic, active usership doubled to over a billion.
TikTok gets a lot of credit for being more “real” than its competitors. “The magic of TikTok is authenticity,” read a CNET headline on the app’s meteoric rise in 2020. “TikTok is for the common folk,” joked beloved TikToker Brittany Broski in a viral video that year. Even TikTok corporate has leaned in: “Being real is the new cultural currency,” explained the app’s U.S. head of business marketing in a newsletter about the value of authenticity in advertising. Reality as currency. It’s a familiar proposition, harkening back to the early promise of the internet, then reality TV, then social networks in their infancy. We’ve heard this sales pitch before.
In terms of Web2.0, TikTok may well be social media’s final form. By synthesizing the winning features of its predecessors—the visual appeal of Instagram, the headiness of Twitter, the world-building of Youtube, the snappiness of Snapchat, and the scoring of film and TV—the app manages to capture our imaginations in a way no other platform has before. There’s almost no type of digital content that couldn’t be shoehorned into the format to viral effect. I’ll admit this lends the app a worldly quality, as if by expanding its domain to anything and everything, TikTok could come to stand in for reality itself. And yet, reality feels nothing like TikTok. After all, if it did, we wouldn’t log on to escape it.
My friend Catherine Cohen, a comedian and TikToker dabbler, loves the app because it celebrates the banal. “Tiktok is inspiring because it makes me think that doing something as mundane as cleaning a rug or chopping an onion is an exciting part of life,” she told me recently. “If Instagram glorifies the highlights, TikTok glorifies the in-between.” Did that appreciation for the mundane translate to her real life? Had she, for instance, been inspired to clean her rug after seeing someone else do it? She thought for a moment, and then, with some disappointment, replied: “No, not at all.”
Presumably, the best part of watching someone clean their rug on TikTok, or run a marathon, or make a cake that looks like an armchair, is that you’re not the one doing it, and that it’s an hours-long process edited into 15 seconds. It’s satisfying like a romcom montage, wherein falling in love is as simple as dropping an ice cream cone and giving someone a piggy-back ride through Central Park. It’s sweet, even occasionally necessary, to imagine life could be so uncomplicated. We look forward to upcoming trips or new jobs or lifestyle changes with similar naïveté—the complex, the boring, and the unexpected scrubbed out. We look back on our lives that way, too, as if things were ever as simple as we remember them.
The charm of TikTok, then, isn’t that it makes us appreciate the mundane, like some kind of digital meditation, but that it subverts the very definition. Once the banal becomes entertaining, it ceases to be banal. As viewers we are aware of this deception on some level, but the chopped-and-screwed style of storytelling is as intoxicating as our very own daydreams. It suggests that maybe cooking (or running, or cleaning, or knitting) really is that easy. This is the trickiness of documentation. Whenever we attempt to capture and package reality, we inadvertently change it.
On the first day of summer, TikTok user @kelly.fiance posted a video of herself pouring milk over a glass of iced coffee. The slice-of-life shot is framed from her perspective: frosty glass on bare concrete countertop, bottle of milk poised, seemingly, above it. But then she pours, and instead of streaming into the coffee in satisfying swirls, the milk, in a trick of perspective, cascades past the glass, missing it by inches and pooling on the counter. The camera whips away in surprise, someone laughs, and the TikTok ends. The clip is a clean five seconds. The overlaid text reads: “i tried to take an aesthetic video of my coffee lol.”
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Evidently, documenting yourself pouring milk into your coffee complicates the otherwise simple act. In physics, this might be referred to as the observer effect, whereby “observing a situation or phenomenon necessarily changes it.” This problem was more literal for @kelly.fiance, but it persists across almost all content posted to social media, excepting, perhaps, security camera footage (consequently a popular vertical on TikTok). This begs the question: If it’s not actually possible to document how we live, because the documentation implicitly changes how we are living, what are we actually capturing? And as consumers of said documentation, what are we actually witnessing?
Shortly before his death in 1980, French theorist Roland Barthes wrote a short book on photography published posthumously as Camera Lucida. Reflecting on his own experience being photographed, he wrote that in front of the lens he became not just who he was, but who he was pretending to be, and who the photographer thought him to be. “In other words,” he wrote, “a strange action: I do not stop imitating myself.” This objectification was, in his view, a “micro-version of death.”
In a video call, sociologist Alison Hearn told me she thinks of Barthes’s words often in the context of TikTok. “There’s this sense that you’re not really who you are when you’re in front of the camera,” she said. “You’re performing—and not just for a perceived audience, but for yourself, too.” Hearn is the author of “Meat, Mask, Burden: Probing the Contours of the Branded ‘Self’,” a seminal paper on self-branding published in The Journal of Consumer Culture following the rise of the reality TV star. “Ultimately your personal brand is not only a pretty veneer,” she wrote in 2008, “it is intended to be a rhetorically persuasive version of yourself.” Her work has only grown more relevant since. “The commodification of yourself in the interest of creating some kind of security for yourself? That's just now a general thing,” she said over Zoom.
Hearn is currently a media studies professor at the University of Western Ontario and first downloaded TikTok during the early pandemic out of curiosity. “I can swipe through Instagram or Twitter, but after about 10 minutes, I'm bored,” she said. TikTok, meanwhile, is “a total rabbit hole.” Once she watched for so long that a video came up suggesting she put her phone down and go outside. “There’s nothing more pathetic,” she laughed. (I can personally attest to this humiliation.)
That TikTok is beloved for being “authentic” makes sense to Ms. Hearn. “It’s a human drive to want our representations to break through and become real,” she said, referring back to the Greeks, who lauded artists for painting grapes so realistic the birds would fly out of the trees to try to eat them. “Today there’s so much advertising, the constant demand for the authentic is a cri de coeur.” People just want something to believe in, and TikTok feels just dynamic and democratic enough to fit the bill. “Of course, none of it is authentic in the traditional sense,” she says. “How could it possibly be?”
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The design of TikTok—its speed, its temporality, the fact that you never have to see the same person twice—helps uphold its reputation for authenticity. “You don't stay with anything long enough to have it account for itself,” Ms. Hearn said. She likens the videos to ads: Something is being sold, but not necessarily what you think, and not for long enough that we can actually ask the tough questions, like say, Okay, how real are you? TikTok satisfies our desire to experience the world in its full spectrum, but only superficially. “It's not going to stay with you,” she said. “It's not a real solution to the problem of social connection.”
“Perhaps no social media embodies our daydreams more fully than TikTok,” wrote Leslie Jamison in her recent opus on daydreams for Astro Magazine. On a recent call, Jamison told me that although Instagram is the more obvious choice for this task, TikTok taps the full breadth of our imaginations, rather than the more facile desire to be liked for obvious reasons. “There’s something about the perfection of a certain Instagram aesthetic that can’t penetrate or manifest or enact our fantasy lives as full as these TikToks that hold texture and particularity.”
If Instagram presents the conundrum of the highlight reel, TikTok exposes the conundrum of the reel as a form itself. However aware we may be that a taste of something true is different from the full truth, enough little tastes and we’ll feel full. This slipperiness is what’s magical, and also menacing, about Tiktok. Like reality TV and all the “realistic” social networks that followed, it sells us a world far more digestible than our own, and is bound to meet the same manufactured fate. Enough time on the app and you may feel a little off, overstimulated, or displaced, somehow, from the world you’ve come to recognize outside your phone.
Sometimes, the proximity of something false to something real can highlight the distinction between the two, like faux-cracks painted on the walls of the Cheesecake Factory. In this way, TikTok may be social media’s answer to the uncanny valley: close, yet still so far. As Web3 sets its sights on disappearing the distinction between the physical and the digital—human connection repackaged and sold in even higher fidelity—it’s worth considering what’s lost in our exhausting attempts to commodify our existence. And who gets to claim the gains.
On May 9, in the midst of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, TikTok user @peoplesfeelingss posted a 14-second video featuring clips from an idyllic existence: a serene woman on a lakeshore smiling, a ladybug crawling across a hand, a horse grazing in a field under a rainbow. “My Life Before The War,” the words appear one at a time in white serif, set to a glistening harp glissando. That her life before the war surely involved less aesthetic pursuits—like working, taking out the trash, and paying her taxes—is beside the point. “This feels like history, but it‘s now,” reads one of the top comments. Thousands of people liked it, then swiped away.
My favorite article I read last week was Dayna Tortorici’s “Your Body, My Choice,” for N+1, which reframes the abortion conversation around criminalization. Decent motivation to vote on Tuesday. Last week’s 15 things also included my new favorite beanie, a hypnotizing music video, an actually good scary movie, and more. The rec of the week was actually a poll: morning showering vs night showering. Hot topic of debate.
Hope you have a nice Sunday, and good luck to anyone running the NYC marathon today, I’ll be out there cheering you on!