Hi! This is a 3,400-word essay about a technology that was totally new to me as of a few weeks ago. You can click the headline to read it in your browser. It’s a total experiment, so please let me know what you think.
For someone who writes about technology, I’m not really an early adopter. I don’t use virtual-reality goggles or participate in Twitch streams. Like everyone on the internet, I heard a lot about TikTok — teens! short videos! “hype houses”! — but for a long time I didn’t think I needed to try it out. How would another social network fit into my life? Don’t Twitter and Instagram cover my professional and personal needs at this point? (Snapchat I skipped over entirely.) What could TikTok, which serves an infinite stream of sub-60-second video clips, add, especially if I don’t care about meme-dances, which seemed to be its main purpose?
Then, out of some combination of boredom and curiosity, like everything else these days, I downloaded the app. What I found is that you don’t just try TikTok; you immerse yourself in it. You sink into its depths like a 19th-century diver in a diving bell. More than any other social network since MySpace it feels like a new experience, the emergence of a different kind of technology and a different mode of consuming media. In this essay I want to try to describe that experience, without any news hooks, experts, theory, or data — just a personal encounter.
The literary term “ekphrasis” usually refers to a detailed description of a piece of visual art in a text, translating it (in a sense) into words. Lately I’ve been thinking about ekphrasis of technology and media: How do you communicate what using or viewing something is like? Some of my favorite writing might fall into this vein. Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1933 essay “In Praise of Shadows” narrates the Japanese encounter with Western technology like electric lights and porcelain toilets. Walter Benjamin’s 1936 “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” shows how the rise of photography changed how people looked at visual art. By describing such experiences as exactly as possible, these essays become valuable artifacts in their own right, documenting historic shifts in human perception that happened as a result of tools we invented.
We can’t return to the headspace of buildings without electric lights or a time when photography was scarce instead of omnipresent, but the texts allow us a glimpse. So this is my experiment: an ekphrasis of TikTok, while it’s still fresh.
When you begin your TikTok journey, you are not faced with a choice of accounts to follow. Where Twitter and Instagram ask you to build your list yourself (the former more than the latter) TikTok simply launches you into the waterfall of content. You can check a few boxes as to which subjects you’re interested in — food, crafts, video games, travel — or not. Then there is the main feed, labeled “For You,” an evocation of customization and personal intimacy. Videos start playing, each clip looping until you make it stop. You might start seeing, as I did, minute-long clips of:
— Gravestones being scraped down
— Wax being melted to seal letters
— An animated role-playing game
— Firefighters making shepherds pie
— Tours of luxury apartments
— Students playing pranks on their teachers
— Dogs and cats doing funny things
The videos are flashes of narrative, many arduously constructed and edited, each self-contained but linked to the next by the shape of the container, the iPhone screen and the app feed. It’s like watching a montage of movie trailers, each crafted to addict your eye and ear, but with each new clip you have to begin constructing the story over again. Will the cat do something funny? Will the couple break up? Will this guy chug five beers? Or it’s like the flickering nonsense of images and text as a film spool runs out.