TikTok's addictive anti-aesthetic has already conquered culture

For the record:
6:28 p.m. Jan. 4, 2023: A previous version of this story mis-titled a Boney M. song as “Ma Rainey.” It is “Ma Baker.”

If Franz Kafka were to reconceive "The Metamorphosis" for our era, he might decide to ditch the novella in favor of a series of surreal TikToks — Gregor Samsa as eyes and mouth green-screened onto a picture of a roach jacked from the web.

Kafka is long gone. But thankfully, we have Kendria Bland, a Mississippi comedian who does a semiregular bit on TikTok about the travails of a pack of domestic roaches who like to party behind the refrigerator and sneak Popeyes when the humans aren't around. One defiant arthropod, Roachkeishiana, refuses to scuttle when the lights come on and crafts a wig out of hair she finds in the bathtub. "You know how many times I got stepped on?" she says with a haughty hair toss. "I'm still here."

The skits bring together a complex array of sight gags while winking at the tropes of ’hood films and sensationalist talk shows. But the production values couldn't be more lo-fi: Bland plays every role with different wigs and uses TikTok's editing tools to green-screen herself twerking on a kitchen table and fighting a pair of beetles. The crude special effects won't win her an Oscar, but on TikTok, perfection takes a backseat to wit.

Bland's comedy represents TikTok's promise. The app, which presents short-form videos in a frantic endless scroll, is governed by (famously creepy) algorithms that deliver posts to those deemed likely to enjoy them — which is how a one-minute cockroach skit by a comedian in Vossburg, Miss., can draw 1.3 million likes and be shared almost 90,000 times, including by me. (I am here for all cucaracha content.)

Illustration for TikTok story
(Shira Inbar / For The Times)

Despite — or rather because of — its ubiquity, TikTok finds itself in the crosshairs. The app has long raised concerns for the ways its parent company, the Chinese tech firm ByteDance, may employ the mountains of data it harvests from its users. Just before Christmas, a report unearthed evidence that ByteDance employees — already criticized for suppressing content such as Black Lives Matter posts — had taken an even more Orwellian turn, using location data to track journalists. Some university campuses in the U.S. have banned the app from their networks and numerous states prohibit it on government devices. And a newly signed federal law has extended the ban to all government devices.

The alarm over security hasn't put a damper on the app. TikTok couldn't be more popular — especially among teenagers. It has had more than 3 billion downloads globally and its engagement rates outdo Facebook and Instagram. It is relentlessly sticky — addictive, one might say. And whatever its fate, it has already transformed culture: reshaping language, turning dance moves into social currency and making video into something we watch vertically rather than horizontally. When Noodle, a TikTok-famous pug died last month, obituaries proliferated across news media. The last pop concert you went to? Its set may have been inspired by the aesthetics of TikTok.

What are those aesthetics? An app as acutely atomized as TikTok can make those a challenge to articulate. So I have borrowed the format of "Notes on Camp," in which the ultimate high-low interpreter, Susan Sontag, attempts to pin down the elusive sensibility that is camp. "Many things in the world have not been named," she writes in the opener, "and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described."

So with apologies to Sontag, here are my notes on TikTok:

1. The TikTok aesthetic is an anti-aesthetic.

Instagram, with its historically square frame and vaguely cursive font (formally known as Instagram Sans), is the "Live Laugh Love" pillow of the social media apps — evoking high gloss and photogenic meals. Facebook's dull-blue interface feels so bureaucratic that critic Joanne McNeil once wrote that it looked "as if a government body were running it."

TikTok's design, by contrast, is almost no design. On a phone, practically the entire window is handed over to video, with controls discreetly laid out around the right and bottom edges. There are no brightly colored frames. TikTok's logo rarely even comes into view — usually only appearing when a video is shared.

This design reduces the presence of any one person or brand. Handles and avatars of content creators are so minimal they almost elude legibility. I am a fan of numerous creators on TikTok. I'd be hard-pressed to name more than a few of them.

2. TikTok's non-aesthetic promotes a perceived informality.

If Instagram is the airbrushed influencer, TikTok is the friend you talk trash with at the end of the day. TikTokkers face the camera in bathrobes and hair bonnets while sitting in their cars or standing before their bathroom mirror. A common convention is for people to film themselves while tucked into bed.

I follow Shabaz Ali (@shabazsays) for his biting duets (these allow TikTok users to place their own video side by side with another). In his bits, Ali offers running commentary on videos that feature ostentatious displays of wealth — such as a poolside doghouse or a heated driveway. In each post he is lying down, wrapped in a fuzzy fleece blanket. If you happen to be sprawled on a couch while scrolling TikTok (which I overwhelmingly am), the sensation is of being on a video call together, sharing an eye roll over the worst rich people habits.

Except that you're not.

3. On TikTok, you don't follow people, you follow an algorithm. Or, rather, the algorithm follows you.

Unlike other apps, TikTok doesn't require you to follow anybody in order to view videos. In fact, the app undermines the practice, shooting videos straight to the For You Page (a.k.a. the FYP), which greets you every time you log on. That feed is driven not by your careful selections but by algorithms.

In 2020, TikTok offered a cursory explainer on this recommendation system, which is drawn from your device's settings as well as your habits. "A strong indicator of interest, such as whether a user finishes watching a longer video from beginning to end," the post explains, "would receive greater weight than a weak indicator, such as whether the video's viewer and creator are both in the same country."

Alex Zhu, the Chinese tech entrepreneur who devised TikTok's progenitor, the lip-syncing app Musical.ly, has likened these algorithms to a set of "invisible hands." But the New Yorker's Jia Tolentino has a better metaphor: "Some social algorithms are like bossy waiters: they solicit your preferences and then recommend a menu. TikTok orders you dinner by watching you look at food."

When you first land on TikTok, it is a fire hose of random content. But once the algorithm plugs its feelers into your brain, it starts feeding you videos suited to your sensibilities. I currently sit at a confluence of various socially useless Toks — among them, Latin American Meme-Tok, Awkward Christianity-Tok and Rudy Valencia-Tok (the unfolding story of an everyday cuate who appears to have been busted on the app for cheating on both his wife and his mistress, inspiring telenovela levels of plot deconstruction).

This hyperspecialization makes TikTok incredibly sticky. Imagine a TV channel geared to your most peculiar tastes. (There is, indeed, a whole corner of TikTok devoted to lampooning TikTok's habit-forming qualities.)

But it can also suck you into an algorithmic hole. Vox's Sara Morrison recently wrote about how TikTok's algorithm had pummeled her with videos related to trauma and death. "What I am getting is a glimpse at just how aggressive TikTok is when it comes to deciding what content it thinks users want to see and pushing it on them."

4. TikTok's megastars get the spotlight, but it's the randos who feed the addiction.

The big TikTok influencers with tens of millions of followers — such as Charli D'Amelio and Khaby Lame — are the ones who land media profiles and sponsorship deals. But ultimately TikTok's appeal rests on that endless scroll of content being shoveled into your lizard brain. That means lots of little posts from people whose content you've never seen before and are liable never to see again.

A good night on TikTok — my TikTok, at least — is a thoughtful armchair analysis of Netflix's "Harry & Meghan," a Korean grandma transforming leftover Costco chicken into a sumptuous kalguksu and an old man riding a cow along a major thoroughfare in the Central Valley. On their own, these videos would never rise to the level of must-see anything. But in the aggregate, it becomes entertaining — like chatting with a group of witty (algorithmically selected) friends at a party: "You won't believe it, but on the way over here, I saw a guy riding a cow."

Naturally, this raises questions about the ways in which we all labor for free to generate content for social media companies. (That's a story for another time.) But it's also indicative of how a virtual nobody can become TikTok famous overnight. Put up a compelling post — say, a toddler dancing on a table at a mountaintop rave — and it will be dueted, parodied, imitated and shared ad infinitum, including by Ukrainian soldiers on the front line.

5. TikTok prizes performance.

Kylie Jenner's posing might work as a still image on Instagram, but it feels like dead air on TikTok. The short-form video format favors action, which is why spoofs about the Kardashians are far more engaging to watch than the Kardashians themselves. (I'm a devotee of Yuri Lamasbella (@yurilamasbella), who, armed with a few wigs and a ring light, perfectly skewers their expressionless affect.)

Commentary, comedy, music, movement, dance, clever cuts, found footage, catchy audio and animals doing funny things are all grist. Sometimes it's a truly bizarre combination of all of the above, such as a surreal nine-second collage of tigers and a motorcycle racing through a cornfield with footage of Turkish TikTok influencer Yasin Cengiz — known for making his belly bounce when he dances — superimposed on top.

The manic nature of these short films — which began as 15-second videos when TikTok launched in 2016 and can now run to 10 minutes in length — feel like a return to the roots of cinema. Thomas Edison's early Kinetoscope films from the late 19th century, short looped films seen via a viewing cabinet, come to mind. These mini-movies featured boxing, acrobats and a body builder flexing his muscles — films full of frenzied physical activity to convey the radical nature of the new motion pictures.

Naturally, fragments of old Kinetscope films have made their way onto TikTok.

6. TikTok prizes repetition.

Manic performance reads well on an app on which you have about six seconds to grab someone's attention. So does repetition. If a concept or visual gag gains traction, repeating it can extend the moment.

A man dancing in a public square in Asia set to Boney M.'s "Ma Baker" becomes popular, so the account holder posts endless variations. Fijian TikTokker Shaheel Prasad (@shermont22) goes viral for his spoofs of runway models, strutting barefoot while bearing pieces of hardware as if they were haute couture, so he produces dozens of similar posts. "This is a trend that will be bound to end," he told the New York Times' Guy Trebay. "But meanwhile I will try to keep doing it as long as I can."

Repetition moves across accounts too. A popular tune — say, a remix of Busta Rhyme's "Touch It" or Armani White's "Billie Eilish" — can become a staple for videos featuring smash-cut wardrobe changes. Songs, settings, movements, dances and concepts are relentlessly rehashed, wringing a measure of soothing predictability from TikTok's general anarchy. It also creates a low barrier for entry: Users don't have to be original to achieve prominence; all they need is a clever spin on a trending hashtag.

Ultimately, the endless repetition can feel like a trap. I've seen some creators repeat concepts to the point of exhaustion. It brings to mind an early episode of "Black Mirror" in which Daniel Kaluuya plays a man in a technological dystopia: Suffering a break over the exploitative practices of a nameless entertainment state, he threatens to kill himself with a shard of glass during a live broadcast. This reckless act of candid expression proves so popular that he is condemned to repeat the act every night.

7. TikTok is an ouroboros of looking.

On Instagram, if you feel passionately about a post, you can leave a comment. On Twitter, you can retweet and add a comment. But TikTok is unique in its duet function, which has spawned a near-infinite array of reaction videos commenting alongside other posts — like a hall of mirrors, or that Greek snake of antiquity eating its own tail.

A staggering number of duets involve one person commenting on the kitchen prep of another. (TikTokker @chefreactions is a master in this category, a professional chef known for verbally dismembering hack recipes: "That looks as if E.T. ended in a tragic house fire.") And, of course, there's the duet train, in which one user pairs her video with another who pairs it with another and another — like a digital exquisite corpse. The format was employed to terrific effect on the sea shanty "Soon May the Wellerman Come," which went viral last year, allowing performers to add successive layers to the original song.

The duet is one of the most intriguing aspects of the app: a form of looking that is far more active than clicking "like." Even more intriguing: Many duets are very simple in nature, featuring one person quietly observing rather than offering a judgmental reaction. These calm expressions of looking rarely go viral. But there is something affirming about them.

It recalls a point once made by critic John Berger. "Soon after we can see, we are aware that we can also be seen," he wrote. "The eye of the other combines with our own eye to make it fully credible that we are part of the visible world."

8. TikTok is real life.

If all of this seems irrelevant because you aren't on TikTok, well, TikTok has found its way to you regardless.

The TikTok effect has sent Big Tech back to the drawing board on long-established apps. In July, a Google exec revealed at a conference that, according to internal studies, 40% of young people turn to TikTok or Instagram when looking for a basic service like lunch — not a search engine like Google. Since then, Google has made user reviews much more prominent on its maps and now delivers many more images, graphic text boxes and social media feeds in its results.

Illustration for TikTok story
(Shira Inbar / For The Times)

And the influence extends beyond the internet. TikTok has inserted new slang into the language and generated new works of theater. (Remember the fans of Pixar's "Ratatouille" who essentially crowdsourced a musical that wound up on a New York stage?) And the app is a juggernaut in the music industry, where new songs and old ones alike can become hits — like Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams," which became a cultural touchstone after being resuscitated by an Idaho skateboarder with a taste for cranberry juice in 2020. Now performers such as Megan Thee Stallion collaborate with TikTok to test the waters on singles releases.

But the TikTok effect goes beyond basic virality; its aesthetics manifest within the literal architecture of art.

Rosalía's Motomami tour featured a stripped-down set with three vertical screens that projected live images of the singer and her dancers. Green-screen effects were employed, showing the singer playing piano, for example, against a backdrop of rolling green hills. (Very TikTok.) The climax was the moment Rosalía launched into the hit "Bizcochito." The choreography begins with a familiar viral gesture of the singer standing with her hand on one hip, pretending to chew gum while looking annoyed.

When I attended her concert in October, this pantomime had been all over TikTok for weeks. When the sequence began, the crowd roared in response. Cellphones went up. And the young woman seated in front of me recorded the sequence and uploaded it to TikTok. TikTok came to life, then promptly became more content for TikTok.

To TikTok, we submit our gaze. And through the filter of the algorithm we find it projected back at us — broken down and commodified into bite-size morsels that might feel like the intimate dispatches of a thousand individuals but, in the end, are simply the output of an opaque, all-knowing machine.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.