Marcella is eighteen and lives in a Texas suburb so quiet that it sometimes seems like a ghost town. She down loaded TikTok last fall, after seeing TikTok videos that were posted on YouTube and Instagram. They were strange and hilarious 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 Mycheats Tiktok, and it began showing her a never-ending scroll of videos, most of them fifteen seconds or less. She watched the ones she liked a few 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 people painting murals, and much less 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 for the same soundtrack. Another tap calls up a suite of editing tools, such as a timer that makes it very easy to film yourself. Videos become memes that you can imitate, or riff on, rapidly multiplying much just how the Ice Bucket Challenge proliferated on Facebook 5 years ago.
Marcella was lying on her bed taking a look at TikTok over a Thursday evening when she began seeing video after video set to some clip of the song “Pretty Boy Swag,” by Soulja Boy. In each one of these, a person would check out the camera as if it were a mirror, then, just as the song’s beat dropped, your camera would cut to your shot from 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 converted into an Oscar statue. Marcella propped her phone in her desk and set the TikTok timer. Her video took around 20 mins to make, and is also 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 not one of them were into it. She didn’t think that anyone would see what she’d made. Pretty quickly, though, her video began getting numerous likes, thousands, tens of thousands. People started sharing it on Instagram. Online, the Swedish vlogger PewDiePie, that has over 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 may not help the case I was attempting to make.” (PewDiePie continues to be criticized for employing anti-Semitic imagery in the videos, though his fans insist that his work is satire.) Marcella began to get direct messages on TikTok and Instagram, some 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 was alone with my phone at my desk over a week night, and when I watched the video I screamed. It had been terrifyingly funny, like a well-timed electric shock. In addition, it got me to feel very old. I’d seen other TikToks, mostly on Twitter, and my primary impression was that young people were churning through images and sounds at warp speed, repurposing reality into ironic, bite-size content. Kids were clearly much better than adults at whatever it absolutely was TikTok was for-“I haven’t seen one part of content on the website produced 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 making use of 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 within their teens and early twenties who have spent 10 years filming themselves by way of a front-facing camera and meticulously honing their knowledge of what their peers will reply to and whatever 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 hearing music and writing. Marcella is Jewish, and she and her brothers were homeschooled. Not long before she made her video, her family had stopped at 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 from context-a context that was invisible to just about everyone who saw it-and she was sanguine concerning the angry messages that she’d received. TikTok, like the rest of the world, was actually 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 best for people her age, and thus was its industrial-strength capability to turn non-famous people into famous ones-even only if temporarily, even if perhaps in a minor way. Marcella had accepted her brush with Internet fame as an odd thrill, and not an entirely foreign one: her generation had evolved online, she noted, watching ordinary kids become millionaires by turning on laptop cameras within their bedrooms and talking about stuff they like. The videos that I’d been seeing, chaotic and sincere and nihilistic and extremely short, were natural expressions of kids who’d had smartphones since they were in middle school, or elementary school. TikTok, Marcella explained, had been a simple reaction to, plus an absurdist escape from, “the mass quantities of media our company is subjected to every living day.”
TikTok has become downloaded greater 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 towards the variety of app icons on my phone. TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is situated in China, which, in wcsbir years, has invested heavily and made major advances in artificial intelligence. After a three-billion-dollar investment through the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, last fall, ByteDance was priced at greater than seventy-five billion dollars, the highest valuation for virtually any startup in the world.