What does Bella Poarch’s hypnotizing head-bobbing video says about algorithm-driven entertainment?
Hello from The Goods’ twice-weekly newsletter! On Tuesdays, internet culture reporter Rebecca Jennings uses this space to update you all on what’s been going on in the world of TikTok. Is there something you want to see more of? Less of? Different of? Email email@example.com, and subscribe to The Goods’ newsletter here.
IIt’s December, which is always a time to reflect on the past 12 months, although the major difference this year is that nine of them were collectively terrible.
Well, terrible with one exception: Over the past few weeks, writers have begun publishing their odes to 2020, the year of TikTok. By April, it had already surpassed 2 billion downloads; it now has an estimated 850 million monthly active users. BuzzFeed’s Scaachi Koul wrote that TikTok was “2020’s only silver lining”; Bookforum’s Charlotte Shane described it as “a precious source of solace during an unendingly precarious time.” Vulture’s Zoe Haylock argued that it was “the best medium for our absurdist present.”
For what it’s worth, I agree. Or, at least I did, until I saw TikTok’s top 100 trends of 2020, which ranks the most popular people, memes, and subcultures on the platform (whether or not these were heavily curated is unclear — TikTok did not provide data to back up its claims regarding what makes a “top” trend).
What you’ll find there is both heartening and not. In the music section, Black artists make up nine of the 10 hits, although one of them was Jason Derulo’s rather shameless remake of an already-viral reggaeton beat, which he released without permission from the little-known New Zealand artist Jawsh 685. Emerging creators like vegan cooking influencer Tabitha Brown and Minnesota-based Doctor Leslie were highlighted in the list, but the vast majority of creators named had mostly gone viral for being traditionally good-looking or otherwise interesting to look at. The most popular video of the year, for instance, was of a woman named Bella Poarch with an exceptionally childlike face making cosplay expressions to a grime song. It has been viewed more than half a billion times.
What does Bella Poarch’s inexplicable rise say about the future of entertainment? I think this recent Kyle Chayka piece that basically tries to answer the question “How do you describe TikTok?” makes a lot of really salient points. He’s written extensively on algorithms and their effects on the culture, and on TikTok, the algorithm is the entirety of the experience. On the For You page, users don’t curate their feeds like they would on Twitter or Instagram; the decision of what to watch is made for them, and none of us are allowed to know why the videos we see are the ones served to us.
Chayka compares TikTok to two forms of legacy media: magazines and television, with the user acting as both editor and consumer. “‘The mix’ is famously how Tina Brown described the combination of different kinds of stories in Vanity Fair when she was the magazine’s very successful editor-in-chief in the ‘80s,” he writes. “Brown’s mix was hard-hitting news, fluffy celebrity profiles, glamorous fashion shoots, and smart critical commentary, all combined into one magazine. TikTok automates the mix of all these topics, going farther than any other platform to mimic the human editor.” At the same time, he says, it’s also “an eternal channel flip, and the flip is the point: there is no settled point of interest to land on. Nothing is meant to sustain your attention.”
The result, he argues, is what essentially amounts to “soft censorship,” or a feed that becomes as “glossy, appealing, and homogenous as possible rather than the truest reflection of either reality or a user’s desires.” How did a perfectly average competitive dancer become the No. 1 internet celebrity in the world? Why did half a billion people watch Poarch’s face bob up and down? Because these two women are the logical endpoint of the world’s most powerful entertainment algorithm: young people centering their conventional attractiveness in easily repeatable formats.
With every new TikTok star who dances or smirks their way to a million followers come just as many more people asking why they deserve to be famous in the first place. The cycle of overnight fame and equally swift backlash is going to keep happening, because as more people download and use TikTok, the algorithm gets better at choosing the content we all must pay attention to.
Those are problems we can save for next year, though. As Koul writes in BuzzFeed, “Look, I know TikTok is probably evil, as most tech companies turn out to be, but that’s later me’s problem. Current me just wants to be soothed.” Here’s to a year of avoiding the news and getting lost in the void.
TikTok in the news
- The TikTok sale was supposed to be done by now. It appears no one cares.
- Another TikTok talent management company, IQ Advantage, has been accused of using scammy practices to retain clients, including contracts that required them to give the company a deposit of $299 before signing (an extremely unusual deal), Business Insider reports. Thankfully, the company appears to have shut down in November.
- A smart and sort of scary read on whether TikTok is equipped to handle the responsibilities of a global platform, by Rest of World’s Louise Matsakis.
- Versailles — like, the palace — is on TikTok now. It’s only the latest historic institution to turn to the platform in an effort to reach its young users.
- A cool look at how TikTok blows up rap verses before they’re even songs.
- Miley Cyrus is doing the most on TikTok (including asking out a fan, it’s very cute!).
- Do not watch the videos from this crime scene clean-up crew’s TikTok account if you are squeamish about blood.
- This Starbucks taste test and its follow-up videos are a WILD ride; friendly reminder that before you leave angry reviews on scented candles, make sure you don’t have Covid-19!
One Last Thing
Let’s face it, we’re all just jealous of the “chamomile tea bitches.”
Author: Rebecca Jennings