BY Rob Horning in Opinion | 29 APR 20
Featured in
Issue 211

How TikTok Turns Status Games into Spectator Sports

On the video-sharing app, laughter lubricates the wheels of the desperation train

BY Rob Horning in Opinion | 29 APR 20

Courtesy: TikTok

There is no shortage of ill-advised ‘challenges’ on the video-sharing app TikTok. A trending hashtag will encourage the platform’s mainly teenage users to film themselves doing something embarrassing, dangerous or malevolent. Sometimes, this is as innocuous as mimicking a dance move; at other times, it might involve sticking a coin into an electrical socket. In March, parents were invited to worry about the ‘Skull-Breaker Challenge’, which involves two kids tricking a third into jumping in the air so they can trip that person up and maybe break their head open.

The panicked reporting about this probably got more attention than any ‘skull-breaking’ itself. But, on a metaphoric level, this challenge neatly sums up how TikTok is designed to make you feel: if you keep track of the latest trends, you can enjoy the memes and feel included in the laughter. If you fall behind, you’re fair game  for ridicule.

Teens are sometimes misconstrued as being more adventurous than adults, and their adoption of a platform is taken as proof that it’s doing something new. But TikTok is merely the latest app to cater to young people’s acute anxiety about social standing and their susceptibility to its own minute calibrations. New platforms offer the fantasy of turning early adoption into massive fame through a primitive accumulation of influence. Like YouTube and Instagram, TikTok has spawned – seemingly out of nowhere – stars complete with agents, production companies and followers in the millions. They sometimes sing, dance or do comedy skits, but often their chief talent appears to be their unflagging, congenial availability. Once the gold rush is over, however, social-media platforms mainly allow ordinary users to emulate these famous accounts, compulsively submit themselves to judgement by their peers and, hopefully, acquire confirmation that they are not outcasts.

Though commentators have been eager to see TikTok as something innovative, a different kind of app that will generate brand-new celebrity and less toxicity, its main differentiating feature is its full foregrounding of algorithmic recommendation. Rather than wait for users to shape the contours of their own feeds (friending or following other accounts), TikTok throws content at users and sees how they respond, developing a profile of their tastes as they log more time on the app.

‘Cereal Challenge’, 2020. Courtesy: TikTok

This imperious attitude towards shaping a user’s tastes finds an analogue in TikTok’s ‘participatory’ content that is essentially coercively conformist. Both presume that the user is incapable of an autonomous response to media, or that such a response indicates a problem. So, the platform feeds users a low-level current of pseudo-recognition – the platform wants to know me better! – that fuels a corresponding desire for a more salient social reassurance. When users participate in hashtagged challenges – among the easiest and least socially risky ways to make content, signalling a willingness to be led – the algorithm interprets that as a demand to see further participatory memes, which translates into a heightened pressure to conform. The more users participate, the more fleeting that participation will feel and the more ludicrous the stakes become. Why not try the ‘Cereal Challenge’ and let someone use your mouth as a breakfast bowl?

Algorithmic feeds ruthlessly conflate attention with desire, making it inexhaustibly valuable, perpetually scarce. The TikTok user shaped in the platform’s image will thus pursue attention at all costs: an impulse often rationalized as ‘comedy’, as class clowns have long demonstrated. Hashtags and challenges standardize and automate the class clown’s inventive pleas for validation, while laughter lubricates the wheels of the desperation train.

But, for its rituals of inclusion to have any emotional weight, TikTok must also make a spectacle of the excluded. The incentive to produce new victims gets stronger as the app’s rationale as an organizer of social hierarchy gathers momentum. It’s not coincidental that – according to documents published by The Intercept in March – TikTok’s moderators were once instructed to algorithmically suppress videos that showed ‘ugly’ or poor people. When hashtags bundle local pleas for judgement into forays into a broader attention economy, their significance changes: petty status games become lucrative spectator sports. The millions of views reinforce the idea that the game is inescapable. TikTok’s ‘Skull-Breaker Challenge’ is especially effective at sending this message: isn’t it better to conform on your own terms – as contradictory as that may seem – than have your skull broken? 

The article first appeared in frieze issue 211 with the headline ‘Class Clown’.

Rob Horning  is a writer and editor of Real Life. He lives in New York, USA.