If you use TikTok, it’s not your fault. You have been effectively duped by the behemoth technological currents that determine our social media ecology and cultural taste buds. But is that not what the human experience has always been about? Falling victim to social relations and cultural parameters that dictate daily routine is just the way it is. Only now, however, it seems our immediate cultural regime is modeled after the vapid, Capital-driven, video-based platform, TikTok; and that sucks.
TikTok is the product of the Chinese multinational internet technology company, ByteDance, who launched the video-sharing social media outlet Douyin in 2016 from Beijing. In 2017, the company put up $1 billion to purchase the Shanghai-based app Musical.ly — initially launched in 2014 — a platform which allowed users to post videos of themselves lip-synching and dancing to music. It was not until 2018, however, that TikTok was finally branded and launched internationally. As of May 2020, TikTok’s parent company ByteDance is reportedly worth $100 billion, the app itself boasting a first place seat as the most downloaded social media app of 2020, according to Forbes.
So what? In essence, TikTok is sustaining the advent of an entirely new social media model, one that adopts the neoliberal praxis of synthesizing cultural patterns into commodities. In other words, they are an artificial trend you are told to like.
The direction of social media has not always been TikTok’s model of an aggressive, industrialized campaign of marketing and advertising. In a kind of postmodern hindsight, social media has sprouted from some relatively (digitized) grass-roots. In what was a dramatized depiction of the foundation of Facebook, The Social Network highlighted a lot of what the early social media ethic was: mainly, “The Facebook is cool,” Jesse Eisenberg’s caricatured portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg makes clear throughout the film. The logic being, of course, cool things attract people — cool people do cool things — therefore, if you want to be cool, do as the cool do. Use Facebook.
It’s not 2004 anymore. Instead of being compelled to usage via dominant social pressures, the model of TikTok is a veiled, albeit authoritarian, “you must use.” Such is the function of the pervasive, ethos-mining advertisements we see in app stores, on TV, and across all other social media platforms. This method, counter to Zuckerberg’s “we have something cool that people will want to use,” is the new direction of social media.
What Facebook, and now TikTok, have awoken has been around since the dawn of late-Capitalism, however. It is the event horizon of what the French cultural theorist Guy Debord termed the Spectacle. According to Debord, mere appearances are taking over society in late-capitalism, meaning the commodities and technologies produced by the labour force are functioning to construct a new reality via the coordinates of images and media. “The Spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual deception produced by mass-media technologies,” Debord writes. “It is a worldview that has actually been materialized.” Facebook mutated Debord’s notion, unconsciously — accidentally — creating a whole new dimension of existence that now permeates our physical spaces. TikTok does so knowingly, loveless in their exploitation.
The German cultural theorist, Byung-Chul Han, wrote that neoliberalism “has discovered the psyche as a productive force.” Essentially, the economic regime that structures our worldview looks at our psychology as an element to be incorporated and ameliorated — just think of all the saccharine corporate retreats and stress-reduction techniques preached in the professional context — rather than shunned, as was the normative economic ethic of industrial capitalism. Such an idea plays into how TikTok markets themselves and how they have become so successful. Not to mention, why you (are told to) like them. They realize our society, indeed, our psyche, is a religiously dedicated image-based matrix. They know what we like — celebrity, money, desire — and they have realized how to exploit it — an airless digital landscape, commodity trends, vapid content.
It’s not funny or (God help you if you think it’s) cool when you and your friend dance to the latest Roddy Rich joint, it’s just sad — it’s the ritualization and fetishization of celebrity as a goal that ought to be obtained. Moreover, it’s an expression of consent to the ephemeral, socially constructed trends that depend on the infection of Big Tech and Big Data into our social experiences and psyche.