When people speak about the TikTok algorithm, it’s often with the same awestruck pride one might find in their mom’s end-of-year Christmas letter. Always latent beneath such appraisals of an app simply doing the job it was coded to do is the recognition of the way big tech functions: by the transubstantiation of desire and attention into monetizable objects.
But this peripheral awareness is precisely that — peripheral. It’s far easier and comfier to compartmentalize or reject any knowledge of the mechanics of your own brain rot and simply let it fester, let it click on Instagram ads like a dopamine-addled lab rat frenetically pressing a food lever.
I’ve always taken umbrage with this brown-nosing of the algorithm on an ethical level, but also because it doesn’t reflect my experience on TikTok. I feel a distinct alienation from and constant frustration with my “For You” page. I am regularly confronted with a proper septic tank of everything I find deeply spiritually ugly or sinister: Tech bro “day in the life” videos, athleisure-clad influencers with Bloom nutrition sponsorships and shrill women proudly regaling their Hinge terrorism. Or maybe the algorithm only knows one thing about me: I am a hater and cynic to my core.
It’s no secret (but a truth often ignored) that what you don’t like is just as algorithmically useful as what you do. The experience boils down to scrolling past ads, including those masked as content. This is, after all, the essential quality of modern life: a ceaseless exposure to art and aesthetics’ inextricability from consumption. Maybe I’m jaded beyond repair and thus unable to fairly take stock of the current digital landscape, but in the TikTok era, things seem uniquely bleak and terrible.
In the aesthetic wasteland, personal artistic tastes are merely superficial. Where they once functioned as a means of sculpting one’s identity, they now serve a higher power: selling stuff. It’s upsetting that reading Ottessa Moshfegh and Joan Didion as a girl on the internet no longer signals an intellectual preoccupation with self-destruction or American artifice but instead encodes a certain archetype that is equal parts aspirational and repulsive.
The aspirational dimension of this kind of personality signaling is bound to both literal and figurative commodification. In order to be perceived as a “toxic BPD Morissey Diet Coke Lolita coquette Fiona Apple Miu Miu ballet flat girl,” you have to be a consumer — and a pretty insidious one at that. In this mold, the TikTok era has spawned further stratified consumer classes predicated on the niche interests of individuals, often teenage girls.
Now, in the spirit of candor and integrity, I must make a confession. Deep into quarantine, deranged by my isolation from real people other than members of my immediate family, my underripe adolescent brain conceived of a TikTok idea. The idea, naturally, was unoriginal. Bandwagoning (as is my wont) I filmed myself leafing through a pile of my most beloved “hot girl” paperbacks — “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” “The Stranger,” “The Idiot” (both the Dostoyevsky and Elif Batuman versions) — while a sound bite taken from the Red Scare podcast looped in the background.
Recounting this narcissistic blunder now at the wizened age of 19, it strikes me as an offense for which I should be drawn and quartered. The clamorous need I felt to both legitimize and idealize my intellectual pursuits and fold them into some sort of trendy online self presentation had the paradoxical effect of reducing them to trivial ornamentation for a contrived and embarrassingly capitalist persona.
On some level I think I knew this when I posted the video, which garnered — as I had an inkling it would — around 5000 likes. I evidently lacked sufficient clarity of cultural consciousness enough to post a video of this kind, only possessing a faculty for passive engagement, the kind most of us participate in for sometimes multiple hours a day.
It’s this passivity, this smooth-brained mode of content consumption, that scares me. It not only threatens our collective ability to engage with more traditional media, but it engenders a cognitive dissonance in our methods of social media participation. In this remixed techno-capitalist hellscape, attunement to the abuse of our desires is even more imperative than it was a decade or even two years ago. Vigilance coupled with earnest artistic pursuits outside of the digital is the closest we have to a solution.