In Shalini Kantayya’s previous documentary, Coded Bias, she warned of the dangers of the racial and gender biases embedded in A.I. technology. Once again exploring how tech is reshaping society in problematic ways, her new work TikTok, Boom. takes aim at the world’s most downloaded app.
Originally launching as Douyin in China in 2016, the international version of the platform, TikTok, has been an unstoppable juggernaut since hitting app stores in 2017. It immediately struck a chord with the Gen-Z crowd as it not only fostered a sense of community, but creativity as well. A simple sixty second clip of someone beatboxing, doing a coordinated dance routine, or giving a life-hack could go viral in the blink of an eye.
Thanks to TikTok’s algorithm system, which starts collecting data on a user from the minute they sign in, the app’s “For You” section provides a curated list of videos that meet each person’s taste, even if it’s a dish they never knew they wanted in the first place. The global reach offers a path for like minded individuals to connect, and also presents a profitable revenue stream for many content creators. Considering that Gen-Z is the most sought-after group by marketers, corporations are investing up to 15 million dollars to ensure that their products are in the hands of influencers on the platform.
As Kantayya’s film notes, even celebrities in the film and music world have hopped aboard the lucrative TikTok train. Savvy musicians, take Lil Nas X for example, can see their careers catapulted into stardom by simply having a song go viral in a TikTok dance or challenge.
The sheer power that TikTok has to elevate individuals, educate, or simply provide mindless entertainment, makes it easy to understand why the app has surpassed giants like Facebook in downloads. However, being the belle of the ball also means that more eyes will be scrutinizing one’s dress. As TikTok has grown, questions have surfaced about its handling of users’ data. Exactly where does all the information that it gathers go? While there have been rumblings and rumours about the data possibly being sent to China, TikTok’s parent company ByteDance has been rather tight-lipped about many of its practices.
The veil of secrecy that shrouds the app is something that many of its users of colour have discovered the hard way. Several of the individuals that Kantayya interviews express concerns over the way the app systematically ensures that videos created by people of colour, those with disabilities, or those deemed overweight get zero views. While TikTok denies this “shadow banning” tactic, blaming such cases as technical glitches, internal documents highlighted in the film point to something more orchestrated. The app may claim it is for everyone, but its practices point to a narrow view of who is deemed truly worthy of being represented on the social media tool.
This also raises another problem with TikTok, due to some content being moderated more than others, it creates silos in thought and views. As one academic points out in the film, if we are only being fed like-minded individuals, then our ability to empathize with those outside of our bubble decreases. A fact that many of the influencers on the platform are struggling with, as they discover climbing up the mountain of TikTok fame means constantly encountering falling boulders of hate.
As TikTok content creator and activist Deja Foxx notes in the film, this puts the content creators in a bind. On one hand there is the need to constantly create to ensure one gets more views, and in some cases revenue, but that also leads to more offensive comments with each new post.
The fact that individuals like Foxx are reluctant to break-free of the app, despite the impacts that negative comments have on one’s mental health, speaks volumes about the suffocating vice grip it has on users. Although Kantayya’s film repeatedly pulls the fire alarm to warn us about TikTok, no seems willing to leave the burning building. Even one lawyer she speaks to, who represents companies that are suing the app, seems perplexed that his own son refuses to stop using TikTok. In fact, his son seems resigned to the fact that companies stealing your information is now just a part of life.
In some ways, this douses the flames of urgency in Kantayya’s film. Unlike Coded Bias, the demand to change the system is not coming from those within. Sure, the app has become a point of political discourse, with even Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg chiming in on its evils, conveniently only after his bid to buy the company failed, but the voices of dissent have not come from the public at large.
Although not quite as powerful as its predecessor, TikTok, Boom. raises many pressing concerns about the power of TikTok and its lack of accountability. However, unless the film goes viral, will users even take notice?
TikTok, Boom. is currently playing Sundance. Head here for more from this year’s festival.