Marcella is 18 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 which had been posted on YouTube and Instagram. These were strange and amusing 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 Tik Tok Followers Live, and it began showing her an endless scroll of videos, the majority of them fifteen seconds or less. She watched those she liked a few times before moving on, 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 a control button on the screen to react with your personal video, scored towards the same soundtrack. Another tap calls up a suite of editing tools, including a timer which makes it simple 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 5 years ago.
Marcella was lying in her bed looking at TikTok on a Thursday evening when she began seeing video after video set to some clip from the song “Pretty Boy Swag,” by Soulja Boy. In each one of these, someone would look into the camera as though it were a mirror, then, just because the song’s beat dropped, your camera would cut to some shot of the person’s doppelgänger. It worked like a punch line. A guy with packing tape over his nose became Voldemort. A woman smeared gold paint in her face, put on a yellow hoodie, and transformed into an Oscar statue. Marcella propped her phone on her desk and set the TikTok timer. Her video took around 20 mins to create, and it is 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 not one of them were into it. She didn’t feel that anyone would see what she’d made. Pretty quickly, though, her video began getting hundreds of likes, thousands, tens of thousands. People started sharing it on Instagram. On YouTube, the Swedish vlogger PewDiePie, that has over a hundred million subscribers, posted a video mocking the media for suggesting that TikTok enjoyed a “Nazi problem”-Vice had found various accounts promoting white-supremacist slogans-then showed Marcella’s video, laughed, and said, “Never mind, actually, this will not assist the case I was trying to make.” (PewDiePie continues to be criticized for employing anti-Semitic imagery in his videos, though his fans insist that his work is satire.) Marcella begun to get direct messages on TikTok and Instagram, many of which called her anti-Semitic. One accused her of promoting Nazism. She deleted the video.
In February, a buddy texted us a YouTube rip of Marcella’s TikTok. I was alone with my phone at my desk on the week night, so when I watched the video I screamed. It was terrifyingly funny, like a well-timed electric shock. Additionally, it made me feel very old. I’d seen other TikToks, mostly on Twitter, and my primary impression was that young adults were churning through images and sounds at warp speed, repurposing reality into ironic, bite-size content. Kids were clearly a lot better than adults at whatever it had been TikTok was for-“I haven’t seen one bit of content on there made by a grown-up that’s normal and good,” Jack Wagner, a “popular Instagram memer,” told The Atlantic last fall-though they weren’t the only ones making use of 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 individuals within their teens and early twenties that have spent a decade filming themselves via a front-facing camera and meticulously honing their knowledge 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 coming from a military family, and loves 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, she looked like Anne Frank.
In correspondence, Marcella was as earnest and thoughtful as her video had seemed flip. She understood that could seem offensive from context-a context which had been invisible to just about everyone who saw it-and she was sanguine regarding the angry messages that she’d received. TikTok, like the rest of the world, was a mixed bag, she thought, with bad ideas, and cruelty, and embarrassment, but also with much creative potential. Its ironic sensibility was perfectly designed for people her age, and thus was its industrial-strength ability to turn non-famous people into famous ones-even only if temporarily, even only if in a minor way. Marcella had accepted her brush with Internet fame as an odd thrill, rather than an entirely foreign one: her generation had evolved online, she noted, watching ordinary kids become millionaires by turning on laptop cameras in their bedrooms and speaking about stuff they like. The videos that I’d been seeing, chaotic and sincere and nihilistic and extremely short, were the natural expressions of kids who’d had smartphones because they were in middle school, or elementary school. TikTok, Marcella explained, had been a simple response to, as well as an absurdist escape from, “the mass amounts of media we are exposed to every living day.”
TikTok continues to be 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 to the variety of app icons on my phone. TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, relies in China, which, in wcsbir years, has invested heavily and made major advances in artificial intelligence. Following a three-billion-dollar investment from your Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, last fall, ByteDance was valued at greater than seventy-five billion dollars, the highest valuation for any startup on the planet.