TikTok, TikTok – Is it time for the dumbing down of our generation?
No, this is probably not the first article on the internet explaining why TikTok = Bad. Condemnation of their privacy policies, dangerous challenges, or its damage to one’s attention span is well-trodden ground; but few sources comment on the content of the platform. No doubt, the short-form content on the platform has plenty of merits. Apart from the random dance trends and quirky challenges, the algorithm exposes users to new content which could actually be educational and serve to be nuggets of practical wisdom. It broadens one’s horizons when the app exposes them to novel content, elucidating lesser-known niches so that a wider audience can appreciate them. Who knew that cleaning a horse’s hooves could be so fascinating and serve as ASMR-worthy content??
Needless to say, users can enjoy quick entertainment thanks to bite-sized media available on TikTok. The simple swipe-to-next-video function also adds to a seamless experience when consuming TikTok content.
Additionally, the strength of the app really lies in the low barriers for entry required to film and edit content on the app. Anyone with a smartphone and internet connection can easily become a full-fledged content creator (or an overnight internet sensation). But as for the quality of content one is creating – that's a whole different story. It doesn't take a genius to figure that the app’s features serve as double-edged swords.
Production-wise, it is easy for anybody to create a decent-quality video about any topic they wish. The app’s simple User Interface and editing tools help someone who is the furthest thing from an expert come across as decently credible. There's something about watching someone looking straight into the camera and speaking articulately, coupled with the occasional flashing of infographics and data that makes us think the content creator is more legitimate than they really are. Since the advent of TikTok, so many people are suddenly coming out as “experts” in relationships, psychology (there's way too many “How to gaslight someone” videos out there), social and political issues.
The kicker is that these content creators are unaware that what they are saying is either misguided or factually inaccurate. Other times, what they are saying is indeed true, but they did not present the issue with enough nuance or do so without sufficient context, which is a recipe for disaster. There was a clip of this man which garnered some attention by eloquently professing why everyone should be paid the same, regardless of job (he compared apple-pickers and medical doctors). It is worth mentioning that many people in the comments supported his stance and found no fault in his logic. It’s one of those videos where if you happen to come across when you are just mindlessly browsing the app, there’s a chance you could be seduced by his reasoning and eloquence. It’s only if you’re really paying attention to his argument then you’d be able to pick apart his logic — but who wants to rack their brains while watching entertainment?
In other instances, users might find it tricky to tell if a video is genuinely trying to be educational, or is simply satire. There was a video about a lady giving a tutorial on escaping when someone chokes you with a rope from the backseat of your car. Her trick was to simply slide two fingers under the rope and decline your seat – while the perpetrator yanks with both his hands at full force. But since the lady was wearing a vest that says “Police”, she is without a doubt, credible.
The main issue really arises when consumers of this content blindly believe what they see, and this isn't helped by how the app is conducive for quick, easy and mindless consumption. Because people consume TikTok in such a laid-back fashion, they rarely think twice to reflect on the content they watch and ask themselves if it is really true. Waiting in a line? Got plenty of time to scroll through a couple of videos. Waiting for a perpetually late friend to arrive? Keeping yourself entertained by scrolling through TikTok seems like the natural thing to do. Avoiding eye contact with someone in the distance? Just scroll. Basically, TikTok is perfect to fill in lull periods in our daily lives. And when the lull period is over, you close the app and respond to the new developments in your environment — like the arrival of your friend. And yet, the compelling video you just watched on how vaccines might cause more harm than good still lingers at the back of your mind.
But not all misinformation on social media is clear-cut and distinct – some are maliciously subtle and inconspicuous, presented like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Once again, it’s probably because of how the app allows anyone to create content that somewhat sounds legitimate at first glance. Only upon careful inspection and research can one deduce how a certain video is more wrong than right. But we all live fast-paced lives and everyone’s got better things to do than reflect on the entertainment they consume; one can't help but wonder what will become of our generation – one in which mindless consumption of content out of boredom is the norm?
Perhaps it is also only natural to question the types of content that take off on the platform. As of date, trend-following appears to dominate the platform – be it using trending audio or performing the latest viral challenge/dance, combined with the right hashtags. Compared to several years ago, today’s viral content seems extremely varied or sometimes even random — some don't even seem to require much originality or effort to produce. One can simply hop onto a trendy bandwagon (be it the latest dance or a social issue commentary) or rehash old popular content — and this alone can promise exposure boosting, by virtue of the algorithm of course.
Sometimes the inherent appeal and worth of some of this content seem pretty questionable. There's so much content that is stolen or simply subpar, but people seem to worship them anyway. For instance, lip-syncs have been big since Musical.ly was at its prime, but ever since ByteDance acquired it, its popularity has been blowing up even more on TikTok. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but from a content creation perspective, it seems I think it’s pretty sad to see media from many years ago being stripped down to just an audio segment and being recycled in the form of trendy lip-syncs. And yet, it’s probably the case that most of the viewers and consumers of these audio clips have no clue of their origins. Not knowing the source material is also fine and all, but the real question is, how does a clip about random people syncing their mouth movements to “stolen” audio, with the occasional head bobbing and gesturing, garner millions of Likes and comments? I dare say that these types of videos gain the traction that they have because their creators are pleasant to look at.
There's also those accounts that unabashedly “steal” content from other sources and treat it as their own without crediting the source. And because these content come from older sources (which are genuinely high-quality entertainment) that the younger generation is unaware of, they will see these TikTok accounts as the original source – isn't that just lamentable for the original artists? I have come across a guy on TikTok with a huge following, who “reacts” to full-length sketches from Saturday Night Live and Key and Peele, both being behemoths in comedic content creation. Quotation marks for “reacts” because I’m not too sure if watching a man subtly raise his brows and shake his head are significant or entertaining reactions. From the comments section, it isn't hard to deduce that the appeal of his TikToks isn't his reactions, but the content he “reacts” to, which he is riding coattails off of. No prizes for guessing whether he credited the original artists.
Surely no one would think this sort of content requires serious talent, skill or effort? But that’s the thing with our generation – good content doesn't signify effort or skill anymore – if enough people think it is appealing, it simply just is. It doesn't mean that quality content has to be commensurate with skill and effort, but TikTok enables any kind of content to go viral, blurring the lines between what is actually considered good, high-quality entertainment, and entertainment that is just regarded as good simply because the algorithm shoves it in our faces and enough people share it.
You say, these issues are not just characteristics of only TikTok, but all video-based social media in general. There is certainly truth to that, but comparing it to its closest competitors or former video platforms, it becomes clear that TikTok is a new variant of its own kind. It seeks to both entertain and educate – something that YouTube does as well but in a more accessible and laid-back format which leads to more rapid consumption. More skill and effort has to be put into making YouTube videos, so the bar for entry for random people to create hogwash is higher; it might be safe to assume the misinformation there isn't as rampant. Not to mention their tight policy on cracking down copyrighted content. Musical.ly was solely a lip-syncing platform with proper licenses for the audio used, which is pretty innocuous. Vine was largely used for entertainment purposes only, with its 6-second video limit severely restricting educational content (or misleading facts), but for TikTok, it is a different story. The longer allowance for video length allows for a greater variety of content to be produced such as entertainment or commentary, resulting in the aforementioned problems.
But let’s face it, everyone is aware of the flaws associated with the most downloaded app of all time, but as a society we aren't going to boycott it. At the end of the day, entertainment is supposed to be – well, entertaining, and TikTok manages to achieve this. Despite the app’s flaws, its normalised usage in our society makes us think: surely it can't be that bad*.* And it isn't, or it doesn't have to be, as long as people don't let the app dumb them down or lower the bar for quality content. It’s fine, as long as people are not mindlessly scrolling through the app and believing everything that they see on it. People should use their brains because the internet is rife with ignorant and misleading individuals. Be mindful when consuming the app, it’s best to double check when it comes to complex issues such as politics or world news. If you chance upon content that you think is really dumb, don't give it more attention than it deserves in the form of shares or comments – simply swipe away.
And here’s a pro tip not many people know of: you can dislike videos by pressing and holding till the menu pops up, and then clicking on “Not Interested”. The internet may be a dangerous place with both dumb people and content alike, but together, we can stop stupidity from spreading by becoming smarter users ourselves.