There’s a palpable tension between human desires to be seen and unseen. To feel like a proper, valid person, achievements must be recognized and performances must be attended. Being human means wanting to be seen as someone making a difference—distinguished mass of skin and lungs that people want to pay attention to. But there’s a point where that becomes tiresome, and there’s a nagging desire to fold into the fabric of your surroundings. Everyone deserves to make mistakes in the background and be a silent observer of others.
I constantly find myself wanting both: to be seen and unseen. For the majority of my time on social media, platforms where the whole point is being recognized, I’ve gingerly toed the line. I post once a year on Instagram as to signify to hundreds of people I don’t talk to that, yes I exist. The rest of the year, I’m happy to be a consumer and happy to acknowledge others’ existences while I remain digitally in flux.
The introduction of social media made being seen by others a larger part of human identity, and the tension remains. We both want to artificially outgrow our natural social bubble, and feel a slight unease at the thought of the wrong stranger hovering on our pixelated face, observing wordlessly. There are some who see our home interiors, our movements, and our bodies without risk of eye contact. Or perhaps our predator will be the eyes of artificial programs that harvesting sellable characteristics for money. A social media profile remains 24/7. Even as we sleep or log off, the digital and human eyes are on all of us. Once we’re on social media, we’re no longer unseen.
In 2018, Facebook’s data mishandling took center stage under the Cambridge Analytica scandal with millions of unauthorized user data collected for political advertising during the 2016 election. The company received a record-high $5 billion dollar fine from the Federal Trade Commission. As a company falls, another one rises up. August 1st of that year was the start to a new month, a new beginning, and a new app about to embark on a merger that took its reach global—enter TikTok.
Bolstered by a pandemic, TikTok quickly became the world’s cultural nexus. Tiktok became place where everything from a geriatric pug, to a man swigging cranberry juice, to blissful harmonies of Fleetwood Mac were catapulted into stardom. In a time where TikTok controls a majority of pop culture narratives and internet news cycles, being off the app means you’re officially out of the loop. Which means, I am out of the loop, clasping to small morsels of relevancy when someone begrudgingly texts me a TikTok for cultural educational purposes.
TikTok feels different than the manufactured, pristinely kept borders of Instagram posts. With Instagram, personality is sterilized from its parade of squares, and instead, mediocrity reigns. TikTok feels different than the mundane stream of older family members sharing questionable articles on legacy social media, the cloudy aura of Facebook. It’s not comparable to the long-form, heavily-edited YouTube video, produced with sound effects and plenty of video cuts. It bears no resemblance to the milling news headlines and template plug-in sentence trends that sweep through Twitter. In reality, TikTok doesn’t just feel different, it is different.
Perhaps the only similarities TikTok has with the plethora of social media formats, are the huge portion of each platform’s content that is just reposted TikTok videos. This begs the question as to whether Instagram’s copycat ploy, Reels, can be called an in-house feature, or just another way for TikTok videos to seep into daily culture. Maybe the largest difference is why someone joins the app. Joining TikTok isn’t to catch up with friends. There’s no baby-on-the-way announcements, boyfriend launches, internship bragging, new haircuts or birthday collages. TikTok is more about everyone someone doesn’t know, and how the app can cater to them, rather than the acquaintances they’ve instructed an app to keep in their life—or maybe just within a feed.
TikTok isn’t just noted for its dance challenges or its power to convince users to plummet to an uncertain fate from milk crates. TikTok’s infamy and fast-paced success comes from its world class algorithm. Unlike social media that starts with friend-building, TikTok relies wholly on an algorithm. With such a reliance on computer tracking patterns and human predictability, TikTok has to be accurate enough to tell the user what they didn’t even know they needed.
Out of all the social media apps, the general consensus is that TikTok’s “For You” page recommendations are unparalleled in their accuracy. TikTok knows you. And that gave me pause whenever I’ve felt pressure to download the app; I don’t like being that knowable. If a computer program knows me that intimately, and can deliver on that premise, I’m unsure if I could ever shake myself out of its clutches.
The first TikTok I consumed when I made my account was a pretty mundane dancing video. It was the bare bones content that reminded non-consumers of Musical.ly – the app’s predecessor. 19-year-old Alyson, who boasted almost 44k followers, stared back at me from my phone screen. She was in a red sweatshirt and mom jeans as she punched her hands to the beat of a Lil Yachty song. The comments didn’t have anything to do with the actual dancing challenge—just a stream of comments lusting after her looks. Even in TikTok’s bare iteration to its brand new consumer, the sexualization was ripe and palpable. I felt like I was in her room sitting on her shaggy carpet in an intimate scene. I tried to look at the macrame strewn on the walls and her petal pink bedding, but her eyes stared back at me. She seemed fun and alive and a whisper of someone I already knew. I wondered what it felt like to get those comments.
I’ve seen her bedroom, down to the color of her duvet, yet, I had the ability to haunt her walls without giving anything up about me. Even now, I have friends whose bedroom I will probably never lay eyes on.
I know Alyson now. But she doesn’t know me, and I’d like to keep it that way. With my first run-through of the “For You” page, I strove to be as unknowable as possible. That meant no third-party app logins, no contact sharing, and no profile details. At this point, the algorithm was at its most basic and I was at my most unknowable.
This trial run proved to be a chore. I laboriously watched every video all the way through, which can stretch up to three minutes, so as to not give any indication of interest or approval. I watched the Trinitones, a college acapella group in Dublin. There was a slew of videos that I would categorize as “my wife is scary” humor. There was a video about the five drunkest states (both my home state and the state I go to college at make the list). A news clip about how America destroyed the Black family. A tutorial on the color chemistry of fire. An explainer on a species of whales. The array of content was at its most interesting when it would surprisingly cut to a video taking on real world issues—valuable for a young target audience and consumer. Although I’m jolted out of the endless, hypnotic stream of faces and addictive melodies, receiving a video on the latest infrastructure bill felt welcome and substantial. But for the most part, it seemed TikTok mainly directed me to generic and sexist marriage humor. I found myself scrolling on my computer as I waited for the video duration to deplete. Even so, I still spent two hours on the app, bafflingly.
At this point, I experienced a muted victory for not giving myself away just yet, something I would go on to regret. The second run-through was meant to see if, despite any data the algorithm had collected on me that I couldn’t control, I could trick TikTok into thinking I’m someone entirely unlike me. I wanted to see if this algorithm was truly all-powerful through the data it collects. With how much personal information existed on my phone, was it even possible to slip into a new identity or was I cursed with my own? I wanted TikTok to know the wrong person.
Going with the most generically opposite alter-ego my mind jumped to, I sprung on the most niche video that had appeared on my feed so far. Welcome to mechanic TikTok. Hi, I’m “Dave,” a man who likes cars. I clicked on the first profile of my TikTok tenure and watched long talking videos on Chevy Silverados from a mechanic, with a side job of nearly 500k TikTok followers, of course. This is where I experienced nearly instantaneous regret. It started innocently, but with content of little interest to my lifestyle. I was now immersed in a feed full of house inspections from inspector AJ—the toilet seat was too loose and there was an unacceptable amount of caulk around the showerhead. I’m subjected to a surprising amount of diesel Ford humor. Someone coined “The Diesel Boi” has a bio that reads, “My mullet is just as bad as my truck.” 40k followers.
As my fingers cramped from scrolling, I started descending in a more worrisome direction, away from my core beliefs and content that made me feel safe. There were videos about “white boy summer” and Joe Rogan clips. There are whispered monologues with sorrowful piano chords detailing the “quiet desperation” of men because there is, among other things, a “wife you have to feed.” Videos labelled “men’s point of view” dejectedly expressed that women automatically think they could be “a predator and they have to carry pepper spray and tazers to defend themselves against you.” The video doesn’t proceed to interrogate why a woman would have to be on guard or afraid. A sentiment that carries constant mental weight for many is characterized a man’s burden, and the comments are filled with thanks. 740k views. Another video proclaimed toxic women are to blame for men who are players. (“They don’t wanna be players.”) I just sat there puzzled and slightly angered. Can’t anyone be toxic? And don’t people control their own actions? I had officially entered a Twilight Zone of strictly heterosexual sexism that felt like an exhausting pile-on.
After another two hours of TikTok consumption that all started from an honest attempt to make the algorithm think I enjoyed car repair, I wanted out. I desperately kept refreshing and scrolling, refreshing and scrolling, trying to find anything that felt comfortable or recognizable for myself. Refresh. “Boobs are key. Boobs are magic.” Refresh. “I sound more like Trump than Trump.” Refresh. “BLM: Bang Local Milfs.” Refresh. 20 men slapping butts. Eight videos about thigh high socks. One video of a man making barbeque shrimp and pasta with a belt of beer cans around his waist. Body parts are treated as objects to slap and squeeze while a sexualization of youthful, minor traits hangs uncomfortably over every video passed. I felt uniquely trapped, forced to consume media that ranged from disinterest to being deeply uncomfortable.
I’d spent my entire life choosing what media I wanted to consume, but now, I felt powerless. Unlike any other app design, TikTok feels inescapable from the present content on the screen. It filled the whole screen, immersing me fully in what’s being depicted, said, or shouted at me. I desperately searched for a dog or a upbeat craft tutorial; finally, a recipe on homemade tortillas appeared. Instantly, I liked it, saved it, and made sure the magical algorithm knew that yes, I liked this content. I didn’t know if I genuinely wanted cooking videos, as I in fact couldn’t cook. But that was beside the point, I just jumped on a chance to change the tides. I welcomed, or maybe begged, TikTok to know me. Others had told me this was supposed to be fun, and I guess I had to give some of myself away for that bargain.
Gwyneth, a TikTok user since the fall of 2020, joked that the weirdest side of the app she’s ever been on is “straight TikTok.” Two-year user Caroline said the strangest side of TikTok she got trapped on was Christian cover songs. “I haven’t escaped it yet,” she said. Aleeyah, a power user since 2019, just sent me terrifying animations of nightmare fuel—poorly animated people with unsettlingly long limbs climbing up walls to Lorde songs. I couldn’t look away. Aleeyah told me, “I’ll see you on the other side.”
The most weighted interest in what signals the algorithm to show the user a specific video comes from how long a user watches and stays on any given video. In some ways, collecting data on watch length may be the secret behind TikTok’s algorithm. In comparison, “likes” are intentional indications of what the user wants to like. Perhaps what they’re comfortable with sharing, what they want others to think they like, or who they aspire to be. Collecting the seconds, the hesitation, the hovering, TikTok coaxes its users to unintentionally give their real self away.
While TikTok is certainly not the first to collect these data subsections—consumer data is the business of the internet and some are basics such as age or gender identity—it’s more about how TikTok uses the data to inform your app experience via its mystical algorithm. A lot of what is talked about when it comes to data collection is the selling of information for ad targeting, not how to make arguably the most addictive form of social media at present. At the end of the day, a user is just a client for TikTok,. A literal number—each user is assigned a TikTok ID number upon sign-up for algorithmic purposes. TikTok knows its users, and TikTok is beginning to know me. But, like any “free” service, the app is a mutually beneficial business-client relationship. The app provides a stream of content that caters to each user and works solely to entertain. And because of that service, a user keeps on engaging, and keeps on coming back for more.
My childhood friend Mallory has sent me a total of 60 TikToks since she first installed the app in March 2020. The one-sided relationship of TikTok sharing began with a video titled “worst NYC apartment ever!” A realtor makes miniscule movements around a small closet-esque room. “If you want to see where the bathroom is, like for part 2,” he says. (The answer? It’s in the apartment complex hallway). The TikTok came alongside a text promising that won’t be us when we somehow live out our New York fantasy. Often, I didn’t feel I was providing matching energy in our friendship solely based on the fact I didn’t have TikToks to share to her.
Initially anti-TikTok, Mallory said she caved during the consuming boredom of early pandemic atmosphere. “Ever since then, it’s been an addiction I’m ashamed to admit it. It’s incredible. It’s informative, funny, scary, and sometimes sad. It just has a lot of emotions to it,” she said. When talking to others about their TikTok consumption, I’ve noticed most people are able to mark time periods by the type and subject of videos they were recommended. Mallory flags the fall of 2020 as a stage of high amounts of Harry Potter fan fiction. Right now, her feed is mainly Marvel fan cams and storytime videos. For her, she felt that TikTok punishes her if she’s been off of the app for a few days. If she’s not interacting and engaging, the less tailored the content becomes.
“One night it’s like the worst TikToks. I don’t laugh at all and I don’t like anything,” said Mallory “Last night I was on TikTok for an embarrassing amount of time and it was one after the other. ‘Like, like, like.’ I’m laughing out loud to myself because they’re so funny. You can get a hit or miss kind of a day.” In comparison, Mallory lamented how bad she feels the Instagram and Facebook algorithms are. After the TikTok experience, she carries an expectation that other social media should know that users she interacts with most should be reflected in the feed; the other apps can’t meet the mark of TikTok’s personalization service. Even with the millions of data Facebook sells to third-parties, the app isn’t interested in fully getting to know its user.
I pushed my frustrations and inability to escape from the side of TikTok I trapped myself in onto Mallory. I was begging the app to learn who I was, because the alternative was a dark wasteland of inflamed ideals.
The disaster of the TikTok algorithm experiment behind me, only slight traces of diesel engines remained. Unopened on my phone, the app sits next to Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. I’ll never know how much each app sees me as a fully formed person. Once I was able to slowly desexualize and demasculinize my “For You” page, I found myself unsure of who I even was in this space. What do I really like? What interests and aesthetics do I want to see reflected back at me? I honesty wasn’t sure; the most I could do was get my feed populated with run-of-the-mill safe videos of dogs and babies. But convincing an app that you’re everything you’re not, directs you to think about all the subconscious detail intake of the real people around you. Computer programs aside, does anyone really know themselves? And most frighteningly, can an app know me better than I know myself?
“I’m going to delete it,” I told Mallory a day after unloading the algorithmic trauma. Maybe she thought about how much we could stay connected through video sharing while being states away from each other. Maybe she wanted me to be able to talk about the latest trend on a level playing field with her. Maybe she just needed to drag me with her so I could quit being so holier-than-thou about the whole ordeal. Either way, she reflexively shook her head and served me a scolding look.
“You have to keep it,” she said. “Maybe wait a minute.”