Marcella is eighteen and lives in a Texas suburb so quiet that it sometimes seems like a ghost town. She downloaded TikTok last fall, after seeing TikTok videos that were posted on YouTube and Instagram. These were strange and hilarious and reminded her of Vine, the discontinued platform that teen-agers once used for uploading anarchic six-second videos that played on a loop. She opened Tiktok Followers Live, plus it began showing her a never-ending scroll of videos, the majority of them fifteen seconds or less. She watched the ones she liked a couple of times before moving forward, and double-tapped her favorites, to “like” them. TikTok was learning what she wanted. It showed her more silly comic sketches and supercuts of people painting murals, and fewer videos in which girls made fun of other girls for their looks.
Once you watch a video on TikTok, you can tap some control on the screen to respond with your personal video, scored to the same soundtrack. Another tap calls up a suite of editing tools, such as a timer which make it very easy to film yourself. Videos become memes that you simply can imitate, or riff on, rapidly multiplying much how the Ice Bucket Challenge proliferated on Facebook five-years ago.
Marcella was lying on the bed taking a look at TikTok on the Thursday evening when she began seeing video after video set to some clip in the song “Pretty Boy Swag,” by Soulja Boy. In every one, someone would look at the camera as though it were a mirror, then, just since the song’s beat dropped, the digital camera would cut to your shot in the person’s doppelgänger. It worked like a punch line. A guy with packing tape over his nose became Voldemort. A lady smeared gold paint on the face, wear a yellow hoodie, and converted into an Oscar statue. Marcella propped her phone in her desk and set the TikTok timer. Her video took around twenty minutes to create, and is also thirteen seconds long. She enters the frame in a white button-down, her hair dark and wavy. She adjusts her collar, checks her reflection, looks upward, and-the beat droPS-she’s Anne Frank.
Marcella’s friends knew about TikTok, but almost none of them were into it. She didn’t think that anyone would see what she’d made. Pretty quickly, though, her video began getting numerous likes, thousands, tens of thousands. People started sharing it on Instagram. Online, the Swedish vlogger PewDiePie, who may have greater than a hundred million subscribers, posted a video mocking the media for suggesting that TikTok experienced a “Nazi problem”-Vice had found various accounts promoting white-supremacist slogans-then showed Marcella’s video, laughed, and said, “Never mind, actually, this does not help the case I was working to make.” (PewDiePie has become criticized for employing anti-Semitic imagery within his videos, though his fans insist that his work is satire.) Marcella began to get direct messages on TikTok and Instagram, a few of which called her anti-Semitic. One accused her of promoting Nazism. She deleted the video.
In February, a friend texted me a YouTube rip of Marcella’s TikTok. I had been alone with my phone at my desk over a week night, and once I watched the video I screamed. It was terrifyingly funny, like a well-timed electric shock. It also helped me feel completely old. I’d seen other TikToks, mostly on Twitter, and my primary impression was that younger people were churning through images and sounds at warp speed, repurposing reality into ironic, bite-size content. Kids were clearly better than adults at whatever it absolutely was TikTok was for-“I haven’t seen one part of content on the website made by an adult that’s normal and good,” Jack Wagner, a “popular Instagram memer,” told The Atlantic last fall-though they weren’t the only real ones utilizing the platform. Arnold Schwarzenegger was on TikTok, riding a minibike and chasing a miniature pony. Drag queens were on TikTok, opera singers were on TikTok, the Washington Post was on TikTok, dogs I follow on Instagram were on TikTok. Most essential, the self-made celebrities of Generation Z were on TikTok, a cohort of people in their teens and early twenties that have spent ten years filming themselves by way of a front-facing camera and meticulously honing their comprehension of what their peers will react to and what they will ignore.
I sent an e-mail to Marcella. (That’s her middle name.) She’s from the military family, and likes to stay up late paying attention to music and writing. Marcella is Jewish, and she and her brothers were homeschooled. Not long before she made her video, her family had stopped in a base to renew their military I.D.s. One of her brothers glanced at her new I.D. and joked, accurately, that she looked like Anne Frank.
In correspondence, Marcella was as earnest and thoughtful as her video had seemed flip. She understood could possibly seem offensive out of context-a context that was invisible to nearly everyone who saw it-and she was sanguine about the angry messages that she’d received. TikTok, like the rest around the globe, was actually a mixed bag, she thought, with bad ideas, and cruelty, and embarrassment, but in addition with much creative potential. Its ironic sensibility was perfectly best for people her age, therefore was its industrial-strength capability to turn non-famous people into famous ones-even if only temporarily, even if perhaps in a minor way. Marcella had accepted her brush with Internet fame as being an odd thrill, rather than a completely foreign one: her generation had evolved online, she noted, watching ordinary kids become millionaires by switching on laptop cameras within their bedrooms and talking about stuff they like. The videos that I’d been seeing, chaotic and sincere and nihilistic and very short, were natural expressions of kids who’d had smartphones given that they were in middle school, or elementary school. TikTok, Marcella explained, had been a simple reaction to, as well as an absurdist escape from, “the mass amounts of media we have been subjected to every living day.”
TikTok has become downloaded greater than a billion times since its launch, in 2017, and reportedly has more monthly users than Twitter or Snapchat. Like those apPS, it’s free, and peppered with advertising. I downloaded TikTok in May, adding its neon-shaded music-note logo towards the array of app icons in my phone. TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is based in China, which, in wcsbir years, has invested heavily and made major advances in artificial intelligence. After a three-billion-dollar investment from your Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, last fall, ByteDance was worth greater than seventy-five billion dollars, the greatest valuation for just about any startup on earth.