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 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 utilized for uploading anarchic six-second videos that played on a loop. She opened Mycheats Tiktok, and it began showing her a never-ending scroll of videos, the majority of them fifteen seconds or less. She watched those she liked several times before moving on, and double-tapped her favorites, to “like” them. TikTok was learning what she wanted. It showed her more absurd comic sketches and supercuts of people painting murals, and much less videos in which girls made fun of other girls for looks.
When you watch a video on TikTok, you can tap a control button on the screen to react with your own video, scored towards the same soundtrack. Another tap calls up a suite of editing tools, including a timer which make it easy to film yourself. Videos become memes that you can imitate, or riff on, rapidly multiplying much how the Ice Bucket Challenge proliferated on Facebook 5 years ago.
Marcella was lying on the bed taking a look at TikTok over a Thursday evening when she began seeing video after video set to your clip in the song “Pretty Boy Swag,” by Soulja Boy. In every one, a person would look at the camera just as if it were a mirror, and then, just since the song’s beat dropped, the digital camera would cut to a shot from 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 in her face, put on a yellow hoodie, and turned into an Oscar statue. Marcella propped her phone in her desk and set the TikTok timer. Her video took around 20 minutes to help make, 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 were onto it. She didn’t feel 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 more than a hundred million subscribers, posted a video mocking the media for suggesting that TikTok had 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 attempting to make.” (PewDiePie continues to be 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, some 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 a week night, and once I watched the video I screamed. It had been terrifyingly funny, like a well-timed electric shock. Additionally, it made me feel totally 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 much better than adults at whatever it was TikTok was for-“I haven’t seen one piece of content on there produced 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 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 significant, the self-made celebrities of Generation Z were on TikTok, a cohort of men and women in their teens and early twenties who may have spent 10 years filming themselves by way of a front-facing camera and meticulously honing their comprehension of what their peers will respond to and what they will ignore.
I sent an e-mail to Marcella. (That’s her middle name.) She’s 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, that 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 that was invisible to nearly everyone who saw it-and she was sanguine regarding the angry messages that she’d received. TikTok, like the rest of the world, had been 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 if only temporarily, even only if in a minor way. Marcella had accepted her brush with Internet fame as an odd thrill, rather than a completely foreign one: her generation had evolved online, she noted, watching ordinary kids become millionaires by flipping on laptop cameras inside their bedrooms and talking about stuff they like. The videos that I’d been seeing, chaotic and sincere and nihilistic and extremely short, were natural expressions of kids who’d had smartphones given that they were in middle school, or elementary school. TikTok, Marcella explained, was actually a simple response to, and an absurdist escape from, “the mass amounts of media our company is subjected to every living day.”
TikTok continues to be downloaded more 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 variety of app icons in my phone. TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is situated in China, which, in wcsbir years, has invested heavily and made major advances in artificial intelligence. After a three-billion-dollar investment from the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, last fall, ByteDance was worth a lot more than seventy-five billion dollars, the greatest valuation for virtually any startup on earth.