Althouse | category: TikTok



a blog by Ann Althouse

"Given the app’s use by about a third of the U.S. population and its association with the everyday expression of political and personal views..."

"... outlawing TikTok would constitute a disproportionately greater move toward decoupling [from China] and might invite retaliation — as compared with outlawing commercial hardware containing surveillance-capable chips.... The optimal way forward would be for Congress to enact a law governing the collection and misuse of online personal and commercial data that would apply not only to current apps such as TikTok but also to future digital apps (whether or not foreign-owned) posing security or privacy concerns. Without such congressional action, the next best outcome would be for ByteDance, recognizing that the status quo is untenable, to sell the app to an American company. ByteDance has resisted that.... If neither is possible, only then should we resort to an outright TikTok ban — recognizing that choosing an expedient, simple solution for one national security problem might generate a more complex and enduring one."
From "The Problem With Taking TikTok Away From Americans" by Glenn S. Gerstell (of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, former general counsel of the National Security Agency and Central Security Service).

This comment over there has a lot of "up" votes:
Now look here! We blithely allow Fox to spew disinformation and lies all to the detriment of our democracy and domestic peace yet the idea that China is using TikTok in order to do unto us as Fox does unto us is so alarming that an outright ban against TikTok is being contemplated. The hypocrisy is galling. Some may say well China is a foreign nation but that ignores the fact that Rupert Murdoch is a foreigner committed to his economic interest over the interests of the American people. Ban TikTok? Ban Fox network for the same reasons. Fox has demonstrably harmed America and continues actively doing so but what harm has TikTok done?

People aren't keeping the issues separate. The op-ed writer worries about taking personal information from users, but that commenter, Roberto, is worried about propaganda — that is, not what taken in, but what is put out. 

And there's a third — completely different — concern, expressed by the commenter Chloe:

For me, the potential addictive quality of TikTok is at least as concerning as the points raised in this article. For many, it is difficult to regulate the amount of time spent on this application. From what I understand, TikTok’s algorithm—and similar iterations of it, as exist on platforms like YouTube and Instagram—is designed to keep users active for as long as possible, and can « learn » to pinpoint what kinds of videos keep one watching with ever-increasing accuracy. Willpower and self-control can only go so far when set against an algorithm that taps into our psychology and offers us content that, for many, is « too interesting » to resist. I believe that we need to seriously reflect on the place that we want such technologies to have in our lives—particularly in the lives of children and teenagers.

That is, it's not about the information TikTok takes from users or the propaganda its owners push at its users: it's the sheer mesmerizing effect of the overall experience of using this miraculously effective video experience.

Those who make other social media apps — and those who make conventional media (TV shows, movies, books, newspaper) — try as hard as they can to draw us in and keep us glued. They just haven't figured out how to do it as well as TikTok.

To ban only TikTok is like banning the Beatles or banning Brad Pitt. 

I remember when Prince sang the line: "A body like yours oughta be in jail." He was kidding around, doing art, and I fully support his singing that. But only an oppressive political force would put a woman in prison for being so sexually attractive it was dangerous to onlookers. Are we to be deprived of the most desirable things?!


ADDED: Listen to Adam Curry's analysis of the effort to censor TikTok. He says its competitors are trying to take out the competition:

"House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has backed his fellow Republicans into a corner with one of the promises he made to his far-right flank to land his job..."

"... opening the door to considering fringe legislation that would replace the income tax with a federal sales tax and abolish the IRS. Most GOP members appear determined to distance themselves as much as possible from the idea and McCarthy himself said this week he doesn’t support the legislation. But Democrats aren’t going to let the issue die quietly. They’ve been more than happy to use it as a cudgel to portray Republicans as dangerous radicals. 'You gotta be kidding me. What in God’s name is this all about?' President Joe Biden said Thursday about the plan, saying it would slap a 30 percent national sales tax on 'every item from groceries, gasoline, clothing, supplies, [and] medicine.'"
But the chief sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.)... said: “The FairTax is the only progressive tax reform bill currently pending before Congress. Each household will receive a monthly prebate based on federal poverty levels and household size that will allow families to purchase necessary goods, such as food, shelter, and medicine, essentially tax-free. This is similar to our current individual exemption and refundable tax credit system.”

Does this mean you could decline to work entirely, accept the prebate, and live very frugally on just that? I'm saying "very frugally," because I think the "prebate" is the 30% above the cost of living at the poverty level. So, if I'm a young person choosing a minimalist existence, and the federal poverty level for one person living alone is $13,590, then the prebate is $4077. Can I live on $340 a month? Well, that will be the subject of my amusing TikTok videos. They'll probably be so popular that I'll supplement my income. But I'll still get my $4077, right? 

See "Aspiring comedian goes viral on TikTok for living on just $100 a month in NYC."

$340 is so much more than $100, and you don't have to live in NYC. This "FairTax" innovation would lure young people into what my generation called hippiedom. As Jesus said: "The hippies you will always have with you."

"One of the biggest problems with TikTok is knowing what the biggest problem with TikTok is."

"Most TikTok hawks have focused on the surveillance of user activity that the app could conduct and the user data the company can access, or what could be called information collection.... Many experts believe that information manipulation, including censorship of user posts as well as the dissemination of propaganda and disinformation, is actually the greater threat TikTok poses.... The right way to approach TikTok is the right way to approach all foreign investment: assess a company’s susceptibility to undue influence from an adversary; gauge the likelihood that susceptibility will lead to a specific harm; and determine whether the government can reduce that likelihood through measures short of an all-out ban. The same goes for global trade generally. The United States should promote the dynamism and prosperity that result from international exchange, curtailing it only in cases of glaring need."
From "Don’t ban TikTok. Make it safer for the country" by the Editorial Board of The Washington Post.

"TikTok and ByteDance employees regularly engage in 'heating,' a manual push that ensures specific videos 'achieve a certain number of video views'..."

"... according to six sources and documents reviewed by Forbes," says Forbes, in "TikTok’s Secret ‘Heating’ Button Can Make Anyone Go Viral."
For years, TikTok has described its powerful For You Page as a personalized feed ranked by an algorithm that predicts your interests based on your behavior in the app. But that’s not the full story....

I'll have to give some more thought to how nefarious this is. 

Cory Doctorow seems to think it exemplifies the awfulness of all sorts of things: "Tiktok's enshittification."

Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.

I call this enshittification, and it is a seemingly inevitable consequence arising from the combination of the ease of changing how a platform allocates value, combined with the nature of a "two sided market," where a platform sits between buyers and sellers, hold each hostage to the other, raking off an ever-larger share of the value that passes between them....

ADDED:  I had to go out for my encounter with the sunrise, so I didn't add one last observation, which is that I've observed Spotify doing something like this. For a long time, Spotify has been foisting Nick Drake's "Pink Moon" on me. Does it relate to other things I've listened to or is the Nick Drake industry paying off Spotify? The single-minded focus on "Pink Moon" makes me think it's not the usual algorithm and there's some alternate route into my ear. And a few days ago, out of nowhere, Spotify suddenly and repeatedly pushed J.J. Cale at me. That's just not natural!, I think... as if any of this is natural. But I want it to feel natural, natural within artificiality, and not like somebody paid for this access to me.

"A Los Angeles native, [Caitlin] Reilly is hyper-attuned to the city’s calculated casualness, its particular species of phonies."

"Her [TikTok] videos are a taxonomy of L.A. types: actresses on Instagram, raspy talent agents, stressed-out publicists, dude bros, self-absorbed scenesters. Reflecting a town where everyone is at least industry-adjacent, her characters are often performing—at auditions, on Comic Con panels, on social media—while straining to hide some inner tension, which Reilly betrays with darting eyes or a quavering voice."

From "The Funniest Wasp Mom on TikTok/Caitlin Reilly revived her acting career by doing dead-on impressions of nervous publicists, actresses on Instagram, wellness influencers, overbearing mothers, and other fellow Los Angelenos" by Michael Schulman (The New Yorker). 

I liked seeing this article — about a TikTok person I've followed for a long time.

Among her sharply observed characters were “Girl who is ‘not like other girls’ ”—a dude’s lady who insists, a bit too proudly, that she prefers “Star Wars” to rom coms. There was “Lounge singer in every hotel bar,” who masks her bitterness in schmaltz. There was a recurring character, the cheerily entitled, passive-aggressive “WASP mom,” elbowing her way through a Starbucks, an Olive Garden, and her son’s Zoom class....

[S]he excels at hauteur, but she can easily shape-shift into a Southern auntie on a cruise or an acquaintance pushing a pyramid scheme. Her funniest characters reveal their contradictions in under ninety seconds, including my personal favorite, “Woman who is ‘chill’ ”—a “spatial healer” who is convinced that she’s laid-back but warns, “Don’t fucking fuck with me.”

Lots of links. They go to TikTok, of course, so TikTokophobes shouldn't click. For anyone else, these are very nicely done little clips.

"The lightest batting-away of videos you don’t like in favor of ones you do goes on to influence the algorithm’s future range of offerings..."

"... in a way seemingly more sophisticated than the rudimentary logic of, say, YouTube rabbit holes. This has delivered a decisive blow to the centralized feeds of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al.... The days of manually choosing whom to follow and what Netflix genres you’re interested in will be rendered quaint; soon we’ll simply be escorted down the internet burrow supposedly of our choice, and quite happily so. The rapid deterioration of Twitter under Elon Musk’s ownership signals the incoming death of at least one centralized feed, particularly when no one can agree on a worthy alternative.... There’s a part of us that senses all of this and is seeking a less fleeting connection elsewhere. We reach for one another in Discord servers, shady Close Friends allusions, invite-only newsletters, and meme accounts...."

Writes Delia Cai in "The Year TikTok Made the Multiverse Real (And Murdered the Newsfeed in the Process)/As TikTok and its cunningly customized rabbit holes subsume culture, the rest of the internet will splinter further into algorithmic isolation" (Variety).

"Kareem Rahma, a New York–based comedian, hops in the back of a cab with two camerapersons.... 'Take me to your favorite place'..."

"... Rahma instructs the man behind the wheel as a percussive score strikes up, 'and keep the meter running.'... As they break bread, [Kareem] Rahma peppers the cabbies with questions about how long they’ve been driving and where they’re from... Rahma, who has a thick mustache, rogue curls, and a Nolita Dirtbag–lite aesthetic, is always curious, never pretentious, and often funny. At the end of each episode, he takes out a wad of cash and doles out hundreds of dollars to each driver—a welcome sight to taxi drivers after the siege of Uber and Lyft—topped off with a generous tip. ... Keep the Meter Running... quickly became one of my favorite new shows of 2022."

Vanity Fair shares. 

Feel free to watch "Keep the Meter Running" — but I'm warning you: It's on TikTok!

"On Christmas Day in 2010, a short, bespectacled 27-year-old Chinese programmer named Zhang Yiming logged onto Douban, a Chinese hybrid of Rotten Tomatoes and Goodreads..."

"... to share his thoughts on a movie he had just watched. Zhang used his Douban account as a chronicle of his personal development, recording the books he wanted to read ('What Would Google Do?' 'Catch-22' and 'The Road to Serfdom') and the movies he’d seen ('The Departed,' 'Good Will Hunting,' 'Inception'). The movie Zhang watched that Christmas was 'The Social Network.' The movie was of particular interest to Zhang.... Born in 1983 as the only son of a librarian and a nurse, Zhang came of age in a China flush with reform and newfound connections to the West.... Zhang loved the freedom that technology offered and displayed a fondness for the West, politically as well as culturally. In 2009, when Chinese authorities blocked access to several websites, he took to his personal blog to voice his disapproval, according to a Wall Street Journal profile. 'Go out and wear a T-shirt supporting Google,' he wrote. 'If you block the internet, I’ll write what I want to say on my clothes.'..."

Much more about Zhang and the app he created in "How TikTok Became a Diplomatic Crisis/A Chinese app conquered the planet — and now the U.S. is threatening to shut it down. Can the world’s biggest virality machine survive?" (NYT). 

Just one more snippet: "Gliding across cultures as a kind of internet-era anthropologist was part of what made working at TikTok interesting and novel. When the app was first introduced, every country and every market had a slightly different proclivity. Thai users liked videos of people dancing at school; Japanese users preferred funny videos about otaku, young people obsessed with anime, manga and video games; Vietnamese users especially enjoyed deft camera work. The United States proved harder to crack, until TikTok’s product managers let the users drive the creation of a new category — Americans, it turned out, had an unusual attachment to memes."

"[S]everal key Senate Democrats... say they’re at least open to a blanket ban on TikTok in the U.S. which keeps lawmakers up at night worrying about..."

"... Chinese agents scraping data and their children up at night watching lava fail to melt ice.... [W]hile Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. wanted more time to review the bill, he suggested lawmakers should be prepared to get out of their comfort zone with more aggressive legislation.... The idea of banning TikTok, which is owned by Chinese parent company ByteDance, was born during the Trump administration, when the former president tried to muzzle the social media app by executive order. A court halted it and Biden ultimately revoked the executive order when he took office, instead conducting talks with TikTok about a potential deal to address their concerns.... You can hold off on breaking the sad news to the Gen Zers in your life, a full TikTok ban is still unlikely, in part because it would spur substantial pushback from Americans among whom the app is very popular....."

Writes Liz Hoffman in "Democrats are dancing around a TikTok ban" (Semafor).

Not banning social media is considered a Democratic Party "comfort zone"? Well, at least there's that, but they're taunting each other into being "more aggressive."

"Given the app’s use by about a third of the U.S. population and its association with the everyday expression of political and personal views..."

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