Has TikTok turned?

In his seminal 2018 book — 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now — computer scientist Jaron Lanier talks about the joy of being an early adopter on new social platforms. It’s the brief moment in time when the platform has yet to turn its users, through the subtle nudges of algorithmic amplification, into “assholes”, as Lanier puts it.

Think of the biggest platforms. You know what this honeymoon period felt like. On Twitter, it was when the most high profile “row” would be about a t-shirt slogan at Topman, and the most outspoken person on it was Stephen Fry, or Ashton Kutcher. On Facebook, it was when you saw only your friends, could find out that the girl you liked was single, and planned your birthday night out. On YouTube, it was when plucky creators worked with tiny budgets and big creativity, and the only rabbithole to be found was a cute video of a rabbit… in a hole.

I was thinking about Lanier’s observations when reading this piece in the Guardian about TikTok creator Andrew Tate, who has risen to fame on TikTok by posting — what else — misogynistic comments:

[The] 35-year-old is not a fringe personality lurking in an obscure corner of the dark web. Instead, he is one of the most famous figures on TikTok, where videos of him have been watched 11.6 billion times.

Styled as a self-help guru, offering his mostly male fans a recipe for making money, pulling girls and “escaping the matrix”, Tate has gone in a matter of months from near obscurity to one of the most talked about people in the world. In July, there were more Google searches for his name than for Donald Trump or Kim Kardashian.

His rapid surge to fame was not by chance. Evidence obtained by the Observer shows that followers of Tate are being told to flood social media with videos of him, choosing the most controversial clips in order to achieve maximum views and engagement.

That last paragraph. Sound familiar? We’ve hit the tipping point — enough is known about the algorithms of TikTok, about the reach it can have, for the next wave of users (and uses) to start to settle in. Tate’s fans being told to flood TikTok with his most controversial clips is a pattern we’ve seen on the likes of Reddit and others, where coordinated pile-ons are richly rewarded.

Lanier’s asshole argument doesn’t let you or me off the hook, either. He argues that this kind of content, coupled with the advertising models that rely on triggering your impulses, turn us into worse, angrier people. Twitter used to be such fun, Facebook used to be so useful. Similarly, I fear the joy of TikTok is showing signs of ebbing away. Conspiracy theories — previously daft and fleeting — are being formalised; stars made of peddlers. The app has become a forum for division and fear. Until now, TikTok had largely been free of such dreck.

For me it has been, for the past maybe two years or so, the only “cheerful” social network, a place where you feel better having used it, most of the time. In a podcast interview a few years ago I described TikTok as a reason to be optimistic, due to an algorithm that rewarded creativity over negativity. But Lanier’s theory on the shittification of popular new social media apps is that there’s an inevitable perfect storm when bad actors want to flood in with engagement, and platforms all too willing to oblige in the name of growth and revenue.

Different teams within a tech company can be working on features that, in isolation, seem harmless, but end up amplifying the worst of what is now on offer. Things such as this, for example:

Some of the commentary out there sees the above — linkable keywords in comments — as a welcome threat to Google’s search dominance, an argument that makes no sense whatsoever. What I see is the internet’s newest exploitable space.

And that’s not to say bad actors (of a certain definition) are the only ones that might stand to ruin the experience that has made TikTok such a beloved app, and such a threat to Facebook. Here’s what advertisers think:

I’m not saying advertisers shouldn’t see TikTok as a channel, or have a strategy to capitalise on it. That’s what these platforms are literally designed for. I’m just saying that once they do, once they know what makes users tick, and they learn the tricks to get attention… that’s when a social network moves into its next, more miserable phase. On the internet, we can’t have nice things for long.

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