Facebook started the decline into madness by giving the world a platform from which the world could exchange pictures and opinions. Twitter took that concept and injected it with character limits that encouraged short, sarcastic remarks and made expansive thought and meaningful discourse passé. Instagram sprinkled in a generous helping of shallow egomania and, most recently, TikTok has given us an endless supply of video commentary on every conceivable topic, no matter how ridiculously obscure or banal.
The latter platform, at least initially, encouraged silliness, an element of experimentation and, perhaps above all else, careful attention to brevity, careful editing and attention to timing. This combination, while not unique in the annals of internet history (Vine more or less pioneered the ultra-short form video skit), found new life among the societal traumas of the Trump presidency and the COVID-19 pandemic. Feeling threatened by a resurgent and politically empowered alt-right, TikTok soon became a favored medium for LGBTQ+ content creators, cottagecore bakers, bougie communists, rope bunnies and members of other various subculture communities, many of whom found a friendly and appreciative audience among the app’s decidedly left-leaning users.
Still, brevity was paramount and cleverness was prized. Originally, TikToks were limited to a mere 15 seconds, more than long enough for an amusing joke or well-executed skit. Eventually, the videos became longer: 60 seconds, 3 minutes and, currently, a mind-numbing 10 minutes. As the available recording time increased, so did the number of users employing the platform for lectures on equitation, extended polemics on the virtues of socialism and protracted re-enactments of workplace dramas and interpersonal spats. Some of these are more like amateur documentaries than anything else while others take on the characteristics of a sophomoric attempt at psychoanalysis, film studies, literary criticism or political science. The platform has, in many ways, come to resemble YouTube, less obnoxious only by virtue of its relative lack of advertising. The interminable procession of “creators” reciting monologues into the camera has drained most of the fun from the app and has turned at least some “For You Pages” into a joyless wasteland of incessant prattle. Some might call it too “woke”, but I will refrain from using the phrase myself.
My deep loathing of the app became clear recently as my wife, at 12:30AM, inexplicably became invested in a post focusing on infanticide and cannibalism in famine-stricken 1920s Russia. This video, complete with photos (albeit censored to skirt the app’s content policing) was being presented by an individual who almost certainly had studied the subject — yet the timing of the video’s appearance (as we were getting ready for sleep) as well as the content (our 3 and 11 year-olds were asleep across the hallway) triggered an explosive outburst in me: “Can we not!”
She countered by pointing out its historic value and made me out to be stupidly naive, as if I didn’t know that children have been and are currently victimized and subjected to all manner of atrocities in the name of economics, culture or simply wanton depravity. I work in a hospital and I don’t believe I need a TikTok video reminding me of humankind’s barbarism, certainly not after midnight when trying to sleep. I do not dispute the topic’s historical value and would likely be far less sensitive at some other time of day, but I question the value of such a video as a kind of random lesson; it’s unexpected appearance, completely out of any meaningful context and plucked from among millions of terabytes of data by the enigmatic Algorithm, struck more like a kind of trauma pornography than a learning opportunity.
Additionally, like so much of social media, TikTok elevates anecdotes to the level of fact and makes “trends” out to be momentous shifts in human behavior (something too-often amplified by desperate local news outlets and cited by partisan trolls as evidence that Western society is fast devolving into chaos). It also, whether intentionally or not, reinforces the sad knowledge that nothing you have ever said, thought or done is unique and that the value of one’s experiences is only as high as one’s view count. These are symptoms of a much more serious condition, one that began with the introduction (and subsequent monetization) of Facebook. All these social media platforms are designed to cater to individual users’ tastes and the only way to ensure sufficient supply of material is to encourage provocation and disagreement, sow discord and controversy. They have all promised to open up new channels of communication, give voice to the downtrodden and free the oppressed around the world by offering space to present and celebrate each other. In the end they have eschewed virtually all their high-minded ambitions to become just another source of data collection and ad revenue.
In many ways, the internet has either numbed us to global and social suffering or has worked to ensure we avoid it. Knowledge is critical in the struggle against misinformation and lazy thinking, but knowledge divorced from context and thrown about like handfuls of confetti becomes more noise in the polluted public forum. Also, if we’re ever going to escape falling into the void social media has opened before us, we need to take responsibility for our own learning and not rely on accidental lectures or hot-take diatribes from people offering limited insight and guidance to an unprepared audience.