Marcella is 18 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 on YouTube 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 Max Hearts, plus it began showing her a never-ending scroll of videos, many of them fifteen seconds or less. She watched those she liked several times before moving on, and double-tapped her favorites, to “like” them. TikTok was learning what she wanted. It showed her more ridiculous comic sketches and supercuts of people painting murals, and much less videos in which girls made fun of other girls for looks.
When you watch a video on TikTok, you can tap a control button on the screen to respond with your personal video, scored to the same soundtrack. Another tap calls up a suite of editing tools, such as a timer which make it easy 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 five years ago.
Marcella was lying on the bed taking a look at TikTok on a 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, an individual would look into the camera just 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 her desk and set the TikTok timer. Her video took around 20 minutes to create, 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 none of them were into it. She didn’t think that anyone would see what she’d made. Pretty quickly, though, her video began getting hundreds of likes, thousands, tens of thousands. People started sharing it on Instagram. Online, the Swedish vlogger PewDiePie, who may have over a hundred million subscribers, posted a video mocking the media for suggesting that TikTok enjoyed a “Nazi problem”-Vice had found various accounts promoting white-supremacist slogans-then showed Marcella’s video, laughed, and said, “Never mind, actually, this will not help the case I was working to make.” (PewDiePie has become criticized for employing anti-Semitic imagery in the videos, though his fans insist that his work is satire.) Marcella started to get direct messages on TikTok and Instagram, a few of which called her anti-Semitic. One accused her of promoting Nazism. She deleted the video.
In February, a buddy texted us a YouTube rip of Marcella’s TikTok. I used to be alone with my phone at my desk on a week night, and when I watched the video I screamed. It absolutely was terrifyingly funny, like a well-timed electric shock. Additionally, it made me feel very old. I’d seen other TikToks, mostly on Twitter, and my primary impression was that younger people were churning through images and sounds at warp speed, repurposing reality into ironic, bite-size content. Kids were clearly better than adults at whatever it was TikTok was for-“I haven’t seen one bit of content on the website created by a grown-up 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 people inside their teens and early twenties who may have spent a decade filming themselves by way of a front-facing camera and meticulously honing their knowledge 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 likes 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. Among her brothers glanced at her new I.D. and joked, accurately, that 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 away from context-a context which was invisible to just about everyone who saw it-and she was sanguine about the angry messages that she’d received. TikTok, like the rest around the world, was actually 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 capacity to turn non-famous people into famous ones-even if perhaps temporarily, even if perhaps in a minor way. Marcella had accepted her brush with Internet fame as an odd thrill, and never a completely foreign one: her generation had evolved online, she noted, watching ordinary kids become millionaires by switching on laptop cameras inside their bedrooms and speaking about stuff they like. The videos that I’d been seeing, chaotic and sincere and nihilistic and incredibly short, were the natural expressions of kids who’d had smartphones since they were in middle school, or elementary school. TikTok, Marcella explained, was a simple reaction to, plus an absurdist escape from, “the mass amounts of media we are exposed to every living day.”
TikTok has been downloaded over 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 for the selection 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. After having a three-billion-dollar investment from your Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, last fall, ByteDance was priced at greater than seventy-five billion dollars, the greatest valuation for any startup on the planet.