Opinion | What Critics of the Hottest Social Media App Don't Get – POLITICO

Fourth Estate
A defense of TikTok.
A cultural sensation of the 2020s, TikTok has also become the internet’s whipping boy. | Martin Meissner/AP Photo
Opinion by Jack Shafer

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Jack Shafer is Politico’s senior media writer.
TikTok has a lot to answer for. In Britain, regulators want to fine the social media app for violating the privacy of minors. In California, the app faces a freshly bundled 80-pack of lawsuits charging it and other social media apps with hooking kids on the site. The Biden White House is pressuring the Chinese-owned app to improve data security, and some policy lords want at least part of it sold to an American or its American data stored domestically. When not denouncing TikTok for ruining the mental health of its young users, killing them, shortening our attention spans, serving oodles of political misinformation or contributing to political polarization, writers and lawsuits fault it for encouraging every self-destructive behavior from cutting to anorexia.
These criticisms land particularly hard on TikTok because it has recently conquered the internet. TikTok now gets more visits than Google. Its average American viewer logs on for 80 minutes a day. And two-thirds of our teens use it. Once considered a delightful boon that entertained and diverted, the time-wasting app has recently followed the path of other new media sensations to become regarded as a bane. A cultural sensation of the 2020s, TikTok has also become the internet’s whipping boy, shamed by governments and advocates more often these days than even Facebook.
Let’s stipulate from the get-go that TikTok deserves most of the bricks thrown at it. But in inventorying TikTok’s many downsides, let’s not forget to place the app in a historical context that might deflect some of the collective fury aimed at it. Setting aside for a moment the fact that Chinese proprietors control the personal data tossed off by the app, TikTok has much to commend it, and we shouldn’t be shy about saying so.
New forms of media and communication have attracted suspicion and hostility ever since Plato denounced writing as something corrosive to memory. When the telegraph arrived in 1858, the New York Times denounced it as “superficial, sudden, unsifted, too fast for the truth,” and others declared it was a new way “to cheat, steal, lie, and deceive,” as historian Tom Standage put it. The telephone earned similar opprobrium for breaching class and family order. It allowed anybody to enter your home. It turned the socially minded into shut-ins. It reduced parents’ gatekeeper power over their children. In 1894, a Philadelphia newspaper editor warned readers that disease could be spread over a telephone line. Similar scaremongering attended the arrival of radio and television, which allegedly polluted morals and vegetized viewers. More of the same has been directed at computer games, the internet and smartphones, and will be used against VR if ever widely adopted. In the 1890s, some critics even diagnosed societal dangers in electrification.
The basest criticism of TikTok’s algorithm-powered river of short videos is that it’s a worthless time-sink, a sordid place for teenagers to swipe mindlessly though a never-ending deck of videos until their fingers blister. But is this uniquely bad? Wasting time on a silly diversion commands a solid pedigree. It’s called leisure time. Do not millions of grown-up house-spouses and retirees chain-watch soaps or cable news all afternoon without having to eat a griefburger over it? How many Americans tank up on football all weekend and then return on Monday and Thursday nights for refills?
Yes, today’s average adolescent might be squandering an hour-and-a-half on TikTok daily, but haven’t earlier generations spent equal amounts of watching mindless television? Didn’t ’60s kids dial their transistor radio tuners from station to station in search of the perfect beat the way today’s TikTok users swipe though the app looking for stimulation? Weren’t there ’90s scares about “internet addiction”? Previous generations wasted hours each day talking to their boyfriends and girlfriends on the phone. Others played Dungeons and Dragons or Pokémon, read piles of comic books, played computer games endlessly or hung out at the games arcade.
Every generation has found kicks in forms of media that required little effort on their part but frightened their parents. Conceding again that devoting an evening with TikTok isn’t as socially redeeming as volunteering at the soup kitchen or studying for an algebra final, we can’t allow the psychobabblists to tell us that TikTok is polluting the minds of a generation without filing a countercomplaint. There’s plenty of good to say about TikTok!
TikTok’s highest value might be the way it gives the young a zone of separation from the adult internet (Twitter, Facebook). (Yes, adults use TikTok, too, but most of the fretting over the app is about what it does to kids.) Beaten down by helicopter parents, young people need media real estate they can call their own. For many users, TikTok provides a sense of community, a common base of reference. Like the long telephone calls of old, along with chatrooms and smartphone DMs, TikTok provides a media space in which adolescents can carry on without adult interruption. It’s a place to go to discover new music, follow fashion, explore hairstyles and track trends. In other words, a sourcebook on how to be a teen.
Nobody would ever call TikTok’s news coverage comprehensive, but you can find timely and witty coverage there of current events at the Washington Post account, the BBC’s, and various commentary outposts. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, TikTok allows users to express their personalities and creativity in videos, and some young creators are even earning megabucks for their efforts. Can their videos be banal and silly? Sure. But more banal than a round of golf or more pointless than gardening? Particularly for LGBTQ kids, minorities or subcultures, it serves as a place to meet others of your kind and not feel so alone. TikTok must be a lifeline for a gay kid who lives in the sticks. In this case, at least, we should be grateful for the power of the algorithm.
Of course, TikTok can be anxiety-inducing, a tool of conformity and bullying, and a place to encourage teens to attempt dangerous “challenges.” But inducers of anxiety, conformity, bullying and risk-taking abound in society. In this regard, the perils of TikTok are more like normal life than they are an outlier.
Sometimes the best way to judge a person or institution is to ask who opposes them. In the case of TikTok, always remember that President Donald Trump sought to ban it and the Russian government recently fined it for refusing to delete content that crossed laws against posting “LGBT propaganda.” With enemies like that, how bad can TikTok be?
No, I don’t have a TikTok account. Send your favorite TikTok to [email protected]. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My RSS feed bullies my Twitter feed on TikTok.
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