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 which had been posted online and Instagram. These were strange and hilarious and reminded her of Vine, the discontinued platform that teen-agers once used for uploading anarchic six-second videos that played on a loop. She opened Tiktok Like Club, plus it began showing her a continuous scroll of videos, many of them fifteen seconds or less. She watched the ones she liked a few times before moving forward, and double-tapped her favorites, to “like” them. TikTok was learning what she wanted. It showed her more silly comic sketches and supercuts of individuals painting murals, and much less videos in which girls made fun of other girls for their looks.
When you watch a video on TikTok, you can tap some control on the screen to react with your own video, scored for the same soundtrack. Another tap calls up a suite of editing tools, together with a timer that makes it simple to film yourself. Videos become memes that you simply can imitate, or riff on, rapidly multiplying much just how the Ice Bucket Challenge proliferated on Facebook 5 years ago.
Marcella was lying in her bed taking a look at TikTok on the Thursday evening when she began seeing video after video set to a 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, and after that, just since the song’s beat dropped, your camera would cut to a shot in the person’s doppelgänger. It worked like a punch line. A guy with packing tape over his nose became Voldemort. A girl smeared gold paint on the face, wear a yellow hoodie, and transformed into an Oscar statue. Marcella propped her phone on the desk and set the TikTok timer. Her video took around 20 minutes to create, 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 not one of them were on it. She didn’t feel 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 greater 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 does not help the case I used to be 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, many of which called her anti-Semitic. One accused her of promoting Nazism. She deleted the video.
In February, a pal texted me a YouTube rip of Marcella’s TikTok. I was alone with my phone at my desk on the week night, and when I watched the video I screamed. It absolutely was terrifyingly funny, like a well-timed electric shock. In addition, it made me feel totally 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 a lot better than adults at whatever it absolutely was TikTok was for-“I haven’t seen one part of content on there made by an adult that’s normal and good,” Jack Wagner, a “popular Instagram memer,” told The Atlantic last fall-though they weren’t the only real 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 essential, the self-made celebrities of Generation Z were on TikTok, a cohort of individuals in their teens and early twenties that have spent 10 years filming themselves by way of a front-facing camera and meticulously honing their comprehension of what their peers will react to and what they will ignore.
I sent an e-mail to Marcella. (That’s her middle name.) She’s from a military family, and loves to stay up late paying attention 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 with a base to renew their military I.D.s. Among 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 could possibly seem offensive out of context-a context that was invisible to just about everyone who saw it-and she was sanguine regarding the angry messages that she’d received. TikTok, like the rest of the world, was a mixed bag, she thought, with bad ideas, and cruelty, and embarrassment, but also with so much creative potential. Its ironic sensibility was perfectly suited for people her age, therefore was its industrial-strength capability to turn non-famous people into famous ones-even only if temporarily, even if only in a minor way. Marcella had accepted her brush with Internet fame as being an odd thrill, rather than an entirely foreign one: her generation had grown up online, she noted, watching ordinary kids become millionaires by flipping on laptop cameras in 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 given that they were in middle school, or elementary school. TikTok, Marcella explained, had been a simple reaction to, and an absurdist escape from, “the mass quantities of media our company is 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 to the array of app icons on my phone. TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, relies in China, which, in wcsbir years, has invested heavily and made major advances in artificial intelligence. Following a three-billion-dollar investment from the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, last fall, ByteDance was worth a lot more than seventy-five billion dollars, the highest valuation for any startup on earth.