No, TikTok Is Not Ruining Society

No, TikTok Is Not Ruining Society

While society rushes to critique almost every new technology (even radio was once considered a vice), Silicon Valley glorifies it at all costs. This time, however, is different. Because it’s not American technology in the spotlight—it’s Chinese. 

The ominous technology in question is TikTok, which started as Douyin, a video-based social media platform launched in China in 2016. Douyin quickly became popular in China, garnering 100 million users in a year, and then expanded around the world with a new name. As it has become a global sensation, TikTok has faced allegations that it harms its users, society at large, and even national security. Now the app is banned or restricted in some form in sixteen countries and could now be outlawed in the United States within a year.

Yet the purpose of TikTok’s algorithm is not so different from that of other social media platforms: Its job is to maximize watch time so the app can serve more advertisements. Critics of “the algorithm” forget that it has no set morality, no set value system. It is merely a reflection of what content is most optimal for capital flows given our late-stage capitalist society.

This is what capitalism does: It rewrites the rules of society to align with it. Behaviors and products that only made sense in certain contexts are now omnipresent. For example, there are Che Gueverra shirts sold on Amazon; I don’t think I need to explain how that’s a paradox. But it makes money, so it doesn’t matter that it doesn't make sense. Capitalism strips away at underlying values and replaces them. It rewrites the array of social expectations and concepts—the “codes” of society as Gilles Deleuze writes.

The profit motive is why your social media feed has no sense of context. It will show you an advertisement for a dating app right after showing you a video about an international tragedy. It doesn’t care that it’s frying your brain and desensitizing you. The matrix multiplication going on in the backend tells the algorithm which posts to show to keep you scrolling so the app makes more money. The algorithm itself is completely immune to human values.

Social media algorithms have been around for decades, and they have had some dire consequences. Facebook has contributed to genocide in Myanmar and shifted election outcomes, yet it is still glorified in Silicon Valley. But this time, because it’s a Chinese app that has achieved mass adoption, we must ban it, say the Silicon Valley elite.

The idea that TikTok promotes “un-American values” is laughable. TikTok’s primary algorithmic innovation is that it is interest-based rather than follower-based. Historically, social media platforms served you content posted by those you follow. TikTok flipped the script: Your “For You Page” is overwhelmingly filled with videos from people you don’t follow and is based on your content interests. Anyone can get mass exposure—it does not matter how many followers you have. You just have to make good content. That universal shot at success is the American ideal. The same was not true of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or other platforms until TikTok emerged and democratized influence.

So, what is this talk about “un-American” values really about? It’s a thinly veiled political agenda. Giving a voice to anybody and everybody has predictably ignited considerable opposition to the status quo. TikTok then becomes threatening for the new Silicon Valley, which has matured from being composed of young hippies to elites who benefit from the status quo.

One thing is clear: There is no “un-American score” for which the TikTok algorithm is optimizing your feed. It is simply multiplying different matrices to maximize your watch time and, in effect, maximizing the platform’s monetization.

If certain content fulfills this capitalist agenda, that is not the fault of the algorithm; it’s an inherent part of American society. A Chinese “For You Page” is vastly different from an American one, but that is because the content preferences there are just different. It is not because of some conspiracy by the Chinese as American politicians claim. If anything, TikTok has long maintained a dedicated “STEM” feed in the United States, but it never picked up much traction. That fact says a lot more about our educational system than it does about TikTok’s intentions.

The TikTok algorithm is simply a tool to maximize profit. We should regulate the app to keep children safe, of course. But let’s not act like the algorithm is an independent force. The uncomfortable truth is that the app is an amplifier of forces already at play.

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