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kottke.org posts about TikTok

The Fun Is Back in Social Media…Again!

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2018

Every time there’s a new social media app or network that breaks out, someone writes an article about how this new network encourages people to be themselves and have fun without all of the heaviness of other platforms. The latest example of this is Kevin Roose’s NY Times piece about TikTok.

TikTok has none of that. Instead, it’s that rarest of internet creatures: a place where people can let down their guards, act silly with their friends and sample the fruits of human creativity without being barraged by abusive trolls or algorithmically amplified misinformation. It’s a throwback to a time before the commercialization of internet influence, when web culture consisted mainly of harmless weirdos trying to make each other laugh.

In 2016, Jenna Wortham wrote this about Snapchat for the NY Times:

Its entire aesthetic flies in the face of how most people behave on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter — as if we’re waiting to be plucked from obscurity by a talent agent or model scout. But Snapchat isn’t the place where you go to be pretty. It’s the place where you go to be yourself, and that is made easy thanks to the app’s inbuilt ephemerality.

In 2013, Mat Honan wrote this about Vine:

It built a ground up culture that feels loose, informal, and — frankly — really fucking weird. Moreover, most of what you see there feels very of-the-moment. Sure, there’s plenty of artistry that goes into making six second loops, and there are volumes of videos with high production values. But far more common are Vines that serve as windows into what people are doing right now.

Implicit in these pieces is the idea that there’s something intrinsic to these apps/networks that makes them hew closer to real life and/or lightheartedness than older and bigger platforms…the ephemerality of Snapchat, the ease of shooting a Vine video, the fun filters and templates of TikTok. Some part of that is surely true, but what if being small and new is the thing that makes these networks fun? As I wrote in response to Wortham’s article a couple of years ago:

Blogs, Flickr, Twitter, Vine, and Instagram all started off as places to be yourself, but as they became more mainstream and their communities developed behavioral norms, the output became more crafted and refined. Users flooded in and optimized for what worked best on each platform. Blogs became more newsy and less personal, Flickr shifted toward professional-style photography, Vine got funnier, and Twitter’s users turned toward carefully crafted cultural commentary and link sharing. Editing worked its way in between the making and sharing steps.

TikTok probably feels a lot like Flickr or Twitter in the early days, where everyone is exploring and the users are all kind of doing the same things with it. As networks get bigger, they reach a point where there isn’t just one big group exploring the same space together. Instead, you have many big groups who have different goals and desires that all need to fit under one roof (essentially, politics becomes necessary)…and that can get messy, particularly when the companies running these apps want to appeal to the widest possible audience for capitalization purposes.

Novelty is probably the biggest factor though. TikTok is fun because it’s new. When you join up, you get new superpowers and flexing those abilities gives the old brain a shot of dopamine, particularly when the flexing is social. Later, when many of the social possibilities have been explored and even exploited, fun becomes harder to come by. Even Twitter can still be fun — see the replies to Wortham’s recent tweet about fave NYC moments — but the templates for interaction on the platform have long since been set in stone. It would be very surprising if a large & mature social network came along that didn’t also get less fun and “real” as it developed. That would be a special achievement.