Using TikTok for 1 Month

TikTok is the most talked about social media platform now. Articles about the impact it is having are published regularly in mainstream publications. People are constantly writing editorials about what it is, how it became popular, how it is owned by a Chinese company (and thus, controlled by the Chinese government), etc. I had read enough of it that I wanted to give it a try. I wanted to be a viewer on TikTok for a week (originally) to understand what it is really like. I ended up being on it for about a month. This was because I was not completely convinced that I had used all the features in the product after a week. Then, I gradually realized what was really going on: TikTok is incredibly simple; it requires no interaction from the user except for scrolling down. It is built with a singular focus on convincing people to imitate the trend that is “going viral” at any given point. There are many moving elements around the screen, and some of them are integrations with other businesses, which TikTok or the creator possibly makes money from. I think that TikTok is popular today because it solved a content creator’s biggest problem: The requirement to be original. Nothing is original on TikTok. Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy. But these are not copies. They are participants in a trend.

The First Day

After installing the app, signing up, and following some accounts, I saw that there were two tabs on the app. There was a Discover tab at the bottom of the screen. The search bar at the top had some searches which were marked as “trending.” Every time I opened the app, it opened on the “For You” page, which had a video from a user that I did not follow yet. The “Following” page which has videos from the people that I follow was deliberately harder to access than this “For You” page, where TikTok’s algorithm puts content it thinks you want to see (and possibly will keep you hooked.)

The simplicity of the app was stunning at first. I don’t say this lightly. I like plain text and spend most of my time inside a text editor or in Firefox’ “Reader mode.” While watching Video, I use the YouTube Unhook extension, which removes everything but the video’s title and the video from the screen. TikTok appeared simple to me despite my meticulous attempt to exclude moving elements from tools I use daily.

There was no text in TikTok. You can not read anything; there was nothing to read. You could see the first couple lines of the poster’s description, but only upto the 10th word or so. This was useless anyway because it generally contained the same hashtags: #foryou #fyp. This makes literacy and option for TikTok users. This is also unlike other platforms where long essays about the topic du jour are common. So, TikTok is really just a stream of videos which one would consume, much as they would watch TV. There were the quintessential “Like”, “Save” and “Share” button. Every video was set to some music, and the name of the music was in a chyron at the bottom of the screen.

You can search for people if you want, but it was clear to me that most people were meant to stay inside the For You page and discover videos there. For a few minutes, I was not sure what I was supposed to do. I have not watched TV in a long time, and I am used to watching content on demand. Being shown arbitrary videos and not doing anything to tailor the experience felt weird. This app was different: No input was required from me. This is perhaps the most jarring feature of this application for people who are used to a non-TV world where you don’t watch anything you don’t want to and content flows only after you enter a prompt of some sort. Even YouTube has text that you can read, search strings that you must enter, and video tiles that you must click before the content starts flowing. That TikTok requires its users to do nothing at all is a hearkening back to the early days of radio and TV: Turning on the device opens the firehose.

The Next Few Days

Over the next few days, I got used to the daily ritual. At some point during the day when I had a couple of minutes free (such as when I was waiting for some food to heat up), I would open the TikTok application. It would always open on the For You page, which was the first thing about the app I found to be annoying. I realized that the “Following” feature exists only to provide a “familiar” ground for users who are coming from other applications. TikTok content creators do not expect to have a loyal following. They expect their content to “go viral.”

I would swipe left to the Following tab and see content from the people I follow. One thing that is (probably) intentional is that consecutive videos are often set to the same music. They are from two different creators, using the same audio, and trying to do the same kind of dance in the video. So, each creator’s individuality rarely comes through: Indeed, that is not the point and the platform is built to emphasize that to the user.

There is no pretense of the videos being spontaneous. Every video is studied and well-rehearsed. The tempo of some of the songs is so high that it is nearly impossible to perform any dance satisfyingly on the first or even the tenth try. A lot of the dances that are performed are halfhearted attempts from a user who is in a public space and uncomfortably glancing around at involuntary spectators (a cafe or a park or a school). TikTok has not yet gotten rid of this last facet of inhibition.

Some users are using the platform to post vlogs (video blogs). These are a few minutes long and well-edited; the cuts are fast and a lot happens in a single video. There is little the user can notice well enough to comment on. (There is no “contemplative” sequence where the user might think about the content that has just been shown to them. There are no monologues where the creator really lets the viewer in. It is like being in the lobby of a busy office and watching a lot of deal closures and people handshaking, but not knowing exactly what people are happy / sad / excited about.)

Solving the “Requirement of Originality” Problem

The rise of social media was a boon for people who are hoping to become popular and make money off that popularity. It was a bane for people who are already popular or are going to be popular through traditional routes: reality TV shows, movies, music, models. The problem was that the mid-range celebrity had to now do this on top of everything else that they are already expected to do: Create content on social media, have a lively feed for brands to see, and a loyal following for brands to want to tap into. The number of followers is important for people who want to star in their big break movie or participate in a photo shoot for a large brand or appear on the cover of a magazine. The public’s adoration online is a proxy for competence among the agents who are looking for new talent. Would you be paid to promote the Fyre festival if you did not have a large following?

This group of “new wave” celebrities has to constantly make new content to stay relevant. Repetition or reposting will not cut it. They must create “original content” to retain their following. TikTok solved this problem and gave all mid-range celebrities a way out of the content creation rat race. What if copying was not taboo? What if copying an ongoing trend was expected by users and rewarded by brands? What if the stakes of not creating a new trend were lowered enough to make it not worth the time of mid-range celebrities to come up with new trends?

Who started the ALS ice bucket challenge? I don’t know. I know what the challenge is. I know what ALS is. The challenge ostensibly served its purpose. And it provided some ready made content creation opportunities for those who are forced, due to their profession, to create content.

TikTok provides these readymade content creation opportunities on an hourly basis. A mid-range celebrity can maintain their following by practicing the dance that is trending right now, and performing it for their followers. They don’t have to come up with the dance. While the creation of content might still take the same amount of time, the forced need to be creative is done away with; as is the risk of messing up and offending your followers, a route many a celebrity have taken with the wrong choice of words.

Bucking the Traditions of Social Media

In a few days of intense use1, I realized that this app gets rid of most of the “fluff” that is expected from content on other social media platforms:

  1. Content should be original
  2. Content should have inherent meaning or purpose. The purpose can not be solely “I want this to go viral.”
  3. Content should be discoverable through the user’s preferred path. Companies will build elaborate search infrastructure. What if users understood, through product design, that searching was discouraged? Please do not resist.
  4. Content should be spontaneous

So, what remains? The main purpose of all content on TikTok is to “go viral.” On TikTok, even virality’s definition is constantly changing. Trends used to be a few weeks long. Now, trends come and go in a couple days. So, if you were to not check your phone for a weekend, it is totally possible that you completely missed a trend. Also, you will never know that the trend ever existed because the next trend is probably already popular and users are posting content from that trend.

In a strange way, TikTok actually makes the “Fear of Missing Out” on social media less “world-ending,” even for heavy creators and users. When you don’t know what you missed, there is no reason to be really guilty about not using the app for a few days. However, TikTok’s algorithm is known to reward consistency. If you consistently provide free content to TikTok so that they can show it to people and make money off it, they will put you in their feeds. So, the FOMO for users is reduced significantly, while the FOMO for creators might be reduced only marginally.

Absurd and Unnecessary Sexualization of Content

A lot of content on TikTok is strangely sexual; that is, the content is much more sexual than the demands of the content are. A dance that can be performed anywhere is performed at the beach. A video that can be shot sitting still is shot while the subject is cutting a fruit in the kitchen. A video that can be shot at any time of the day is shot when the subject is out on a run or in a gym. A lot of content on TikTok is created by women. I am not sure whether it was my bias when selecting people to follow or whether the content creators on TikTok are mostly female; mirroring the general fact that men are heavier users of video platforms such as YouTube.

The hypersexualized nature of content on the platform has been noticed by others. An alarmist article from the conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal was the only systematic study of the type of content shown on the “For You” page that I could find. It mentions that TikTok has loosened its policy and started allowing more sexual content in its feeds:

Policing content has been complicated by the company’s decisions in recent years to loosen some restrictions in the U.S., including around skin exposure and bikinis, according to several former executives and content moderators. The result has been more sexualized videos on the platform, the people said.

One final comment that I would like to make is the apparent dissonance of feminist-leaning content on TikTok. This is undoubtedly a sign of the increased prevalence of feminist viewpoints in wealthy pockets of society. But how can one explain the self-objectification that is prevalent on TikTok?

I remain confused by this question. Amia Srinivasan, the feminist thinker, who recently published her collection of essays “The Right to Sex” tackles this in her essay, “Talking to My Students About Porn”, Srinivasan explains how girls and women in the 2000s are outspoken about being feminists and well-versed in identifying the injustices that are happening around (and to) them under the auspices of patriarchy. They are articulate in their expression of dissatisfaction with the status-quo. Despite this improvement in the feminist consciousness level among women, their sexual conditions are worse than before.

The young women Orenstein discusses in Girls & Sex would have known, unlike my younger self, exactly what to say. They would not have been ashamed, as I and all my friends were, to call themselves feminists. How should we understand the relation between this raised state of feminist consciousness among young women, and what appear to be their worsening sexual conditions: increased objectification, intensified body expectations, decreasing pleasure, and shrinking options for sex on their terms? Perhaps girls and young women are becoming more feminist because their worsening circumstances demand it. Or perhaps, as Orenstein suggests, feminist consciousness is for many young women a mode of false consciousness, which plays into the hands of the very system of sexual subordination they take themselves to be opposing. Does a discourse of sexual empowerment and autonomy mask something darker and unfree?

– Amia Srinivasan in her essay “Talking to My Students About Porn.”

Why Does TikTok Exist?

Money. Why do gossip magazines exist? Why do “storytime” channels exist on YouTube? Why do celebrities participate in 72 Questions?

A quick look at the way TikTok makes money shows us who the real users are: The brands who pay creators to promote their products. TikTok is a private company and not much is known about the business, except for what can be garnered from the public statements of creators on the app. The app remains free of ads as of July 2022.2

There is a lot of discourse on the Internet about how the real user is the advertiser and the users who are using the product are pawns whose data is sold to the advertisers by the platform. I won’t belabor the reader by repeating this discourse. This article from 2017 explains the basics well.

On TikTok, as on other platforms, content creators are paid for promoting products and brands. These brands including fast-fashion brands like SheIn (which deserves a separate post of its own) or other clothing brands like Sephora.

The Traditional Celebrities Takeover is Not Coming to TikTok

Every new social media platform that came around was quickly taken over by celebrities and news outlets. Facebook and Twitter feeds are almost always full of posts from these media outlets and personalities who employ large teams churning out content professionally and at a volume no individual user or group of individual users can hope to match. Why hasn’t this happened on TikTok yet?

I think the reason lies in the fact that there is no “reading” on TikTok. Unlike Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, TikTok creators are not incentivized to send people out of the app. So, while TikTok itself might show “promotions” which might send users out of the app (briefly), the same feature is not extended to users. The description is too short to convey anything of value and it is incredibly hard to create news or celebrity content that will sit well between two videos of a subject dancing in the foreground and a fast-paced Pop song in the background. The cost of bad content is steep because the next video is always just a flick away.


The following pieces of work have influenced me over the past few months regarding what TikTok is, how people make money on it, and the idea behind this kind of a social media platform.

  1. I am using “intense” relative to my general usage of the phone. I spent a few minutes on Tik Tok every day. 

  2. There is a promotion icon which lead to a payment services app in Japan.