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. They 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 Tiktok Max Hearts, plus it began showing her a continuous scroll of videos, the majority of them fifteen seconds or less. She watched the ones 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 men and women painting murals, and fewer videos in which girls made fun of other girls for their looks.
Whenever you watch a video on TikTok, you can tap a control button on the screen to react with your personal video, scored to the same soundtrack. Another tap calls up a suite of editing tools, including a timer which makes 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 5 years ago.
Marcella was lying on the bed looking at TikTok on a Thursday evening when she began seeing video after video set to your clip from the song “Pretty Boy Swag,” by Soulja Boy. In each one of these, a person would look at the camera as if it were a mirror, then, just since 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 on the face, put on a yellow hoodie, and turned into an Oscar statue. Marcella propped her phone on the desk and set the TikTok timer. Her video took around 20 minutes to help make, and 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 none of them were into it. She didn’t believe that anyone would see what she’d made. Pretty quickly, though, her video began getting countless likes, thousands, tens of thousands. People started sharing it on Instagram. Online, the Swedish vlogger PewDiePie, who has 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 help the case I was attempting to make.” (PewDiePie has become criticized for employing anti-Semitic imagery in the 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 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 when I watched the video I screamed. It absolutely was terrifyingly funny, like a well-timed electric shock. Additionally, it got me to 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 better than adults at whatever it had been TikTok was for-“I haven’t seen one piece of content on the website created by a grownup that’s normal and good,” Jack Wagner, a “popular Instagram memer,” told The Atlantic last fall-though they weren’t the sole ones using 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 important, the self-made celebrities of Generation Z were on TikTok, a cohort of individuals in their teens and early twenties who have spent 10 years filming themselves via a front-facing camera and meticulously honing their understanding of what their peers will reply to and the things they will ignore.
I sent an e-mail to Marcella. (That’s her middle name.) She’s coming from a military family, and wants to stay up late listening 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. Certainly 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 it could seem offensive away from context-a context which was invisible to just about everyone who saw it-and she was sanguine about the angry messages that she’d received. TikTok, like the rest around the globe, was a mixed bag, she thought, with bad ideas, and cruelty, and embarrassment, but in addition with the much creative potential. Its ironic sensibility was perfectly designed for people her age, and so was its industrial-strength capability 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, and never a completely foreign one: her generation had evolved on YouTube, she noted, watching ordinary kids become millionaires by switching on laptop cameras within their bedrooms and speaking about stuff they like. The videos that I’d been seeing, chaotic and sincere and nihilistic and incredibly short, were the 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 reaction to, as well as an absurdist escape from, “the mass amounts of media we are exposed to every living day.”
TikTok has been 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 for the array of app icons on my own 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 the planet.