This TikTok Controversy Perfectly Captures Our Bizarre Cultural Moment

Understanding the TikTok backlash will help you better understand all of the craziness going on in the world right now.

 

It’s nearly impossible to keep up with the news cycle. The past few months have been a dizzying array of conflicting reports about the pandemic, disturbing cases of police brutality, mass “Karen”-ing, debates over internet censorship, international diplomacy and people getting summarily “canceled” for their opinions on those subjects.

 

If that paragraph is inscrutable to you, don’t feel bad — even the most Extremely Online have trouble making sense of contemporary internet culture.

 

Fortunately, the controversy surrounding the popular video-sharing app TikTok seems to combine all of these issues into one handy, problematic package. 

 

To understand what’s going on with TikTok is to understand what’s happening on the internet writ large. So here’s a primer:

 

What is this TikTok you speak of?

 

You don’t know TikTok? Lol, ok, Boomer.

 

Not to be confused with the timeless Ke$ha banger, TikTok is the white-hot, video-sharing app that is based in China but extremely popular among young people in the West. The app is mostly known for its videos of Zoomers lip-syncing and dancing to hip-hop tunes, but it contains video content of all kinds. (I highly suggest these videos of a couple rehabbing an old Tudor vacation home.)

 

There’s an argument TikTok might be the most influential platform on the internet outside of Facebook and Google. TikTok has launched countless popular memes and viral dance crazes, and brands have been quick to embrace it.

 

TikTok has achieved what so many other companies (e.g. Quibi, Vine) have failed to do: create a sustainable business around short-form video. ByteDance, the holding company that owns TikTok, boasts 1 billion users across its stable of apps and it’s safe to assume the majority of those are on TikTok.

 

So why’s it controversial?

 

Social media platforms in the U.S. have been embroiled in a long-running debate about what role, if any, they should play in editing the content shared on their networks. (Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is at the epicenter of this issue, and has held firm that Facebook will not engage in any further editorial oversight.)

 

As fraught as that issue is, it pales in comparison to the political issues facing TikTok. TikTok is subject to the stringent censorship laws of the Chinese government, which last week made TikTok inaccessible in Hong Kong as part of its crackdown on pro-democracy protests in the region.

 

This makes TikTok a political minefield for the company, brands and users alike. TikTok wants to break into Western markets, but those cultures tend to be adamantly pro-free speech (though who knows these days). Brands and users don’t want to be associated with an app that censors political dissidents, but TikTok is so immensely popular that it’s hard for them to disengage.

 

What’s this got to do with cancel culture?

 

That’s a little more complicated, mostly because no one can agree on whether cancel culture is even real, let alone what the hell it is.

 

Generally speaking, someone is canceled when they suffer personal and/or professional consequences for some past indiscretions they committed. The internet mob mobilizes against the person, deems them radioactive and does its best to destroy that person’s life as holistically as possible. Fun!

 

A bunch of popular TikTok personalities turned on each other last week, in a public feud dubbed the “TikTokalypse.” The incident appears to be little more than petty teenage drama, but it comes amid a large discussion about cancel culture.

 

Lots of celebrities have been getting canceled lately, so much so that a bunch of public figures, including Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, signed an open letter in Harper’s magazine saying that cancel culture was stifling free speech and hurting the marketplace of ideas.

 

Now people want to cancel TikTok for kowtowing to the Chinese government and pulling out of Hong Kong.

 

 

Confused yet? I don’t blame you. That’s the world we live in now: exciting, bewildering, exhausting. Imbued with politics at every turn and constantly-shifting. And it’s all on display with TikTok.