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Has TikTok made us better? Or much, much worse?

The case for and against TikTok as a cultural force.

A person’s hands hold a smartphone with the TikTok app open on it. In the background, two other people are looking at their phones. AFP via Getty Images
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

You’ve likely heard that the US government is trying to ban TikTok. Lawmakers want to force TikTok to divest from its China-based parent company, ByteDance, and become a fully US-based company; if that doesn’t work (the Chinese government has said it would oppose this), a ban could come in the form of an executive order forbidding business transactions with TikTok, i.e., prohibiting it from the Apple and Android app stores.

The government’s ostensible reasoning for all of this complicated, confusing, and extremely showboat-y hubbub, which included last week’s hearing with TikTok CEO Shou Chew, is national security. A large and bipartisan swath of Congress is concerned that because ByteDance is based in China, the Chinese government could access American users’ data and push or suppress certain kinds of content to Americans. Judging by many of the questions asked by congresspeople (one wondered if TikTok had access to his “home WiFi network”), officials barely seem to grasp what TikTok is, framing it as either single-handedly responsible for all the mischief kids get up to online or as a Chinese psy-op.

While these concerns are not exactly throwaways, they don’t address the more existential question of TikTok’s five-year presence on Americans’ phones (more than 150 million of them!): Is TikTok a force for good? What even is “good” on the internet? Can a social platform ever aspire to be it, much less embody it?

TikTok is inherently different from Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, BeReal (at least the people still using it), or any of the other social apps begging for our attention. What do we lose if we lose TikTok? I’m not talking so much about the people whose livelihoods are tied up in it — those people will surely lose business and clout, but many of them will or already have pivoted to other platforms. I’m talking more about the things you can’t quantify: the explosion of creativity you’ll see in just a few scrolls spent on TikTok, the bringing together of hundreds of cultures, the ways in which TikTok does and doesn’t act as a democratizing force. Have we been asking the wrong questions about TikTok the whole time? Whether or not you’re being spied on, is it an app even worth using at all? Here, the cases for and against TikTok.

TikTok is good, actually

When TikTok came on the scene in 2018, the only thing most people knew about it was that it was embarrassing. Having evolved from the platform, which was populated largely by children and young teenagers lip-syncing to sped-up versions of pop hits, TikTok took a few months to shed the stench of cringe content. Slowly, however (and then much more quickly at the onset of the pandemic), more people were charmed by its unique video editing tools, the easy-to-replicate meme formats, and a new, burgeoning form of extremely silly comedy. In the depths of quarantine, TikTok offered an escape, whether it was in the form of scrolling through cutesy cottagecore content or families learning dance moves while stuck at home together.

The experience of using TikTok sets it apart from its competitors. As addicting as TikTok is, it does not beckon you with constant notifications the way Facebook and Instagram seem to constantly demand your attention, and when you spend more than an hour scrolling, TikTok will encourage you to take a break.

Even pre-pandemic, it was clear that TikTok was an extraordinarily powerful communication tool. First, it’s succinct: Until recently, all TikTok videos were capped at three minutes (the limit was originally 60 seconds). Second, you can go viral even if you don’t have any followers: Videos are served algorithmically to each user based on what they’ve engaged with in the past, and even videos from small accounts can pick up steam on people’s For You pages via a snowball effect. Third: Most of the time, you see the person’s face as they’re talking, creating a stronger, more familiar bond than if you’d simply read a tweet or listened to a podcast. Instead of feeling like you’re watching a stranger, when you see a person talking to you for long enough, they start to feel like someone you can trust.

While much of the attention on TikTok’s ability to make strangers feel like friends has focused on how it has hastened the spread of harmful misinformation, it has also encouraged young people to vote, to engage in local politics, and to organize — sometimes against TikTok itself. It has helped some teens embrace their own mediocrity on an internet that nearly always serves them people who are prettier, richer, and more talented than they are. It has inspired people to make fun iced coffee drinks, to pursue careers in arts and entertainment, to romanticize their lives, to feel more positively about their own bodies. It’s been a source of joy for people dying of terminal disease, an outlet for the grieving, a haven for queer and questioning kids, a diary for newly out trans people.

In a 2019 op-ed defending Twitter’s effect on culture, Sarah J. Jackson argues that despite its reputation of being a cesspit, the social app actually made us better people. The same argument can be made for TikTok. “Like all technological tools, Twitter can be exploited for evil and harnessed for good,” she writes. “Just as the printing press was used to publish content that argued fervently for slavery, it was also used by abolitionists to make the case for manumission. Just as radio and television were used to stir up the fervor of McCarthyism, they were also used to undermine it. Twitter has fallen short in many ways. But this decade, it helped ordinary people change our world.” TikTok is, at its best, a champion for ordinary people, for democracy, for debate, for discourse. That doesn’t mean it’s always nice, but it can be.

TikTok is bad, actually

Or maybe it’s all shitty, and we’re simply too addicted to scrolling through TikTok to notice or care how much it’s harming us. At least 15 children under 13 who tried to participate in its viral “blackout challenge” have died. While pursuing the dream that TikTok dangled in front of them — becoming an overnight superstar — many more have become burnt out, disillusioned, or otherwise hurt. “Dance used to be the most fun thing in my life and now I don’t like it. Social media has robbed me of that,” says TikTok’s biggest breakout star, Charli D’Amelio, in the first season of her reality show. “I don’t know how long anyone expects me to keep going as if nothing is wrong.”

Watch enough TikTok and you’ll start to see an extremely skewed version of the world, one where only the loudest, most extreme version of humanity is the kind worth noticing. On TikTok, it’s easy to get the sense that everyone is either beautiful or hideous, talented or cringe, billionaires or destitute, simply because extremes are what gets the most attention. As an algorithmically driven platform, TikTok rewards its users’ basest instincts. What hits on TikTok is a legible, irresistible hook — or, in other words, the kind of content that smacks you in the face with its obviousness.

One largely inconsequential example: At several points over the past three years, we’ve been told that millennials are at war with Gen Z. Despite the fact that a handful of viral TikToks hardly count as a “war,” the way TikTok amplifies meaningless controversy through algorithmic power and negativity bias is concerning, not just because young people desperately need solidarity to create a better world for all of us, but because these sorts of mostly made-up trends offer a distorted view of what the world’s actual immediate problems are. A far more consequential example: Accounts like @LibsofTikTok, which cherry-pick content from liberal or queer TikTokers and use them as strawmen for the left for their followers to mock and attack, function as rage-bait fueling the right-wing media. In the same way that “chronically online” discourse on Twitter distracts us with culture war kindling, TikTok makes it even more personal and ad hominem.

TikTok videos’ brevity only adds to this problem; the short, headline-grabbing content that goes the most viral is largely devoid of context and nuance, seemingly designed to distract and anger us further. Even something as simple as, say, a review of a new skin care product, is often framed in hyperbole — videos don’t travel unless you make it sound like “this is the BEST thing I’ve ever tried,” or its inverse: “All the videos encouraging you to buy this product are LIES!” What’s left is a cycle of buying and selling, loving and hating, embracing wholeheartedly and then forgetting, until you’re surrounded by barely used bottles in your bathroom cabinet and never-worn clothes for a trend that came and went by the time it arrived at your door.

This is to say nothing of the uneasy sensation of actually consuming TikTok, the reason that with every hour you spend on it, the app sends you a little PSA to maybe get off your phone and do something else for a while. Scrolling TikTok is the visual equivalent of a sensory deprivation tank, the adult version of transfixed toddlers staring at an iPad. It is a machine specifically engineered to get you to dissociate. In the span of about 30 seconds, you can watch a funny video of a puppy leaping into the snow, a sexy fan edit of a popular sci-fi franchise that may or may not be AI-generated, a poem about what it means to lose one’s mother, a makeup tutorial in which all the comments are people making fun of the person’s weight, a 22-year-old articulating why he doesn’t think his girlfriend should be allowed to hang out with other men. Unless you were enrolled in some kind of therapy intended to remove you from all groundedness in reality, nobody would argue that consuming in such a fashion is “good” for you.

TikTok isn’t the problem, actually

Lest it is not clear, I don’t think TikTok should be banned. I think the problems exacerbated by TikTok are the same problems exacerbated by algorithmically powered social media as a whole. The only winners of TikTok being banned would be Meta and Alphabet (i.e., Instagram and YouTube), companies that, while not carrying the political baggage of being based in China, are far more responsible for the sorry state of humanity under attention capitalism than TikTok.

In a fascinating interview with Current Affairs, author of Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention Johann Hari explains how social media distracts us from what’s important by shoving meaningless controversy in our faces. “How can we come together and achieve anything if we can’t listen and are constantly screaming at each other and constantly interacting through mediums designed to make us angry and hateful towards each other?” he asks. It’s not only collective action that social media makes us miss out on, though; Hari argues that when our attention is constantly fractured, you miss out on the less tangible aspects of what makes a full life. “If you can’t focus, you can’t form proper deep friendships and achieve meaningful work. You can’t have a meaningful life if you don’t experience depth and attention.”

Few people, including Hari, are advocating that social media should be banned altogether. It’s simply not compatible with the idea of a free and open internet, which, unless the US decides to erect its own version of China’s Great Firewall, is the internet Americans live in. That’s not to argue that major social media companies should be allowed to exist the way they have for the past decade and a half, which is to say by doing whatever they want and enticing people to spend as much time as possible on their websites.

Hari uses the example of how mothers in the 1970s rallied together to push back against the lead industry, which for decades had knowingly caused mental and psychological problems in children. “They didn’t say, ‘let’s ban all cars and gasoline’,” he explains, “they said: let’s ban the leaded gasoline and force the companies to move to a different business model that doesn’t poison our children.”

What would a business model for social media look like that didn’t prioritize time spent on the app? Hari suggests something like a subscription model, making users of social media sites the true customers, as opposed to the advertisers shopping for users’ data. “Suddenly, they’re not asking, ‘How do we hack and invade Nathan?’ Instead, they’re asking, ‘What does Nathan want?’” The other model would be something like the BBC, an independent but partially taxpayer-funded media institution, he says: “Think about the sewers: everyone listening or reading is near a sewer. Before we had sewers, we had sewage in the streets, people got cholera, and it was terrible. We all pay to build the sewers, and own and maintain them together. We might want to own the information pipes together, because we’re getting the equivalent of cholera, but with our attention and our politics.”

Making either of these changes would require an enormous psychic leap, particularly for Americans, whose fealty to the free market runs core to our identity. But Hari urges us to imagine it anyway. “We are not medieval peasants begging at the courts of King Zuckerberg and King Musk for a few little crumbs of attention from their table,” he says. “We are the free citizens of democracies, and we own our own minds. And together, we can take them back if we’re determined to.”

I don’t think that banning TikTok is a step toward democracy. That we are even considering it does, however, reveal that companies are not kings; that they are subject to the rule of law just as we are. It’s possible that if Americans can envision a world in which an entire, hugely powerful social network is kicked out of our country, perhaps more of them can be transformed into a force that works for us rather than against us. Personally, I’d start by taking a hard look at the companies that have been here longer.

This column was first published in the Vox Culture newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one, plus get newsletter exclusives.