Plus, why India is banning the app.
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 protected], and subscribe to The Goods’ newsletter here.
“Do you think it was really the TikTokers?” my dad asked me this weekend. It was the first time that he had ever brought up the video app I have covered for years, though I knew exactly why it was happening now: People like him — extremely offline white men in their 50s — had heard that few people had shown up to a Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, because a bunch of TikTokers had sabotaged it.
This has been a recurring narrative over the past month as nationwide protests against the police state have been bolstered by digital vigilantes. When the Dallas Police Department attempted to crowdsource videos of illegal activity at protests, K-pop stans flooded its app with fancams of their favorite stars. YouTubers are monetizing clicky videos and donating the ad revenue to anti-racist causes, and people on Twitter suggested playing loud Disney music while far-right Infowars correspondent Kaitlin Bennett attempted to interview protesters so that Disney’s notoriously litigiousness would ensure the footage was unusable. (My colleague Aja Romano has a really great explainer on all of these tactics.)
A thread of some of the TikTokers/Zoomers who reserved tickets to Trump’s rally to shrink the crowd today in Oklahoma pic.twitter.com/ITz4NAbeTD
— Jenna Amatulli (@ohheyjenna) June 21, 2020
There’s no question that lots of TikTokers and K-pop stans registered for tickets to the Trump rally and didn’t show up. It’s not a novel idea; when Trump held a rally in my very liberal hometown in 2016, tons of Bernie and Hillary supporters did the same. Were they really the reason only fewer than 6,200 people showed up to an arena with 19,200 seats and an outdoor overflow area? The Trump campaign certainly won’t say so — communications director Tim Murtaugh tweeted that the campaign weeds out trolls by looking for fake phone numbers, but that didn’t change the fact that just days beforehand, Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale had bragged about receiving a highly improbable 1 million ticket reservations.
There were essentially two reactions to this news story last week, one being the stale chorus of “the teens will save us!” and another being “but aren’t troll armies supposed to be bad?” Though the latter argument, recounted by the Washington Post’s Molly Roberts, feels rather naive at this particular point in history, multiple others, including the MIT Technology Review’s Abby Ohlheiser and the New York Times’ Charlie Warzel, wrote about why the former stance is just as problematically simplistic.
As one former Democratic digital strategist told Vice, neither explanation accounts for what is more likely a sloppily run campaign. “I think people liked the myth that teenagers could take down the Trump Death Star, but I would not be surprised that the Trump campaign was seeing those numbers and decided they didn’t need to do follow-up calls because their numbers were so good.”
Anyway, I tried explaining all this to my dad, but I had had multiple glasses of rosé and I suspect he didn’t really care all that much either way. But it’s a conversation that I’m sure we’ll keep having to have until the election and almost surely afterwards too. As TikTokers are now getting hired on presidential political campaigns and years-old conspiracy theories are finding new life on the app, its unique ability to spread political messaging effectively and immediately will only be more relevant.
I’ll leave you with this somewhat reassuring quote from communications professor Neta Kligler-Vilenchik during an interview with John Herrman: “As early as Socrates’s concern that the written word would eradicate wisdom, every new technology has been believed to either be our savior (the internet will bring people around the world into one global community!) or our doom (robots will make us all unemployed!). To me, this continuity is quite reassuring, because it shows us that our fears and hopes are not so much around the traits of the specific new technology, rather they are broad societal fears and hopes that are projected onto whatever technology is new and not yet understood.”
TikTok in the news
- The Indian government has banned TikTok over national security concerns, along with 58 other Chinese-owned apps. India is TikTok’s biggest market outside of China, but its reputation there has long been pretty terrible — last year, TikTok was banned on Indian smartphones for two weeks after a court ruled that it could expose children to sexual predation.
- After years of frenzied speculation, TikTok revealed the secrets to its mysterious algorithm — sort of. That TikTok uses personal engagement to determine what shows up on your For You page has never been in doubt, and very little of what the company revealed in its blog post was all that surprising or very different from what other social media companies have disclosed about their own systems. Which is to say, nothing useful.
- The TikTok competitors continue to swirl: While Zynn (that app that was a complete TikTok knock-off but offered to literally pay users to use it) has been removed from the iOS App Store, deeper-pocketed companies are closing in. Instagram is expanding its 15-second video app Reels to France and Germany, and Youtube is officially beginning testing on Shorts, another feature where videos top out at 15 seconds. One question that probably doesn’t matter but that I’m fascinated by: Who decided that 15 — not 10 or 30, was the magic number?!
- An art museum in Florence is really, really good at TikTok.
Today’s the last day of Pride Month, so I’m simply begging you to read this story on Lesbian TikTok, the absolute best corner of the app. It tells the story of young women who are using TikTok like people have used all social media apps for as long as they have existed, which is to say, as if it were actually Tinder.
One 20-year-old made her move by sending another girl a series of four $2 Venmo payments, each captioned with lines from a fake “girlfriend application.” She landed the gig, and the two have been filming their relationship for TikTok since February. The magic of Lesbian TikTok isn’t just that it connects women who date women around the world when a litany of factors can make it difficult to meet partners in real life. It’s helping young women understand their sexuality and giving them the space to come out.
One Last Thing
This is the only good Vogue challenge!
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Author: Rebecca Jennings