'This app is free and therapy is not': Why Gen Z will keep using TikTok

  • TikTok's core audience is Gen Z, a generation that simultaneously balances a deep understanding of how the internet has eroded privacy with the reality that living online is basically a requirement for young people who don't want to be hermits.

    TikTok's core audience is Gen Z, a generation that simultaneously balances a deep understanding of how the internet has eroded privacy with the reality that living online is basically a requirement for young people who don't want to be hermits. Bloomberg photo by Shiho Fukada.

 
 
Posted11/23/2019 6:00 AM

The media executive had a dire message for Kayla Curry and her classmates: If you have TikTok on your phone, delete it.

The executive, who had come to talk to the journalism students at Missouri State University, was concerned about the app's Chinese owners and the potential that TikTok could be used to spread disinformation, according to Curry. Soon after that, the 19-year-old sophomore got a news alert from the New York Times reporting that TikTok was under a national security investigation by the U.S. government.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Curry joined TikTok in September. She's a pretty typical user of the short video app: scrolling, sometimes for hours, watching an endless stream of videos that TikTok's mysterious algorithms guessed she would love. But as she read about the off-screen dimensions of the app, about who decides which videos get seen and which don't, she started to worry. And she processed that worry by making a TikTok video joking about it.

"Apparently TikTok is owned by a Chinese company that data-mines user information and sells it to the Chinese government," Curry said, directly addressing the camera. "Yikes.

"But honestly it's a small price to pay," she continued, "because this app is free and therapy is not." Her video has more than 370,000 views.

TikTok referred The Washington Post's request for comment to an October statement on the company blog, which said TikTok's data for U.S. users is stored in the United States, and that TikTok is "not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government." Earlier this month, The Post reported that ByteDance, TikTok's Chinese parent company, subjected moderators to oversight and strict content rules as recently as last spring, according to multiple former employees. TikTok has said it has since changed the moderation process for U.S. content and is working on making the app more responsive to the expectations of American users.

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TikTok's core audience is Gen Z, a generation that simultaneously balances a deep understanding of how the internet has eroded privacy with the reality that living online is basically a requirement for young people who don't want to be hermits. Members of that generation are accustomed to the tension of projecting their lives to the world while coming to grips with the scrutiny and surveillance that follow.

Gen Z, after all, was responsible for the "FBI Man" meme, which inspired touching vignettes of government agents that they assumed were monitoring all of their activity and devices. (For example: The FBI Man who has watched you for years through a hacked webcam sheds a tear as he watches you graduate from high school; the FBI Man who monitors your phone wonders when you will finally find love.)

The FBI Man meme was an early example of what happens when you still have to live under the watchful eye of faraway tech companies and their customers and collaborators. Living without a digital footprint is the only way to avoid compromising your privacy online, and Gen Z has more or less stopped "trying to tip toe around it," Curry told The Post in an email, "because we know we can't avoid it."

"People our age are on all kinds of different social media platforms and we've heard countless stories about how our information is out there for everyone to see," Curry wrote. She knows that signing up for an account at Google, for instance, grants the company access to a ton of information about her. She doesn't love that, "but life without Google? Insane."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

TikTok users can be surprisingly confessional, speaking to the camera as if they're FaceTiming with a friend. Even if they know nothing on the app is really private, many young users treat TikTok as a space that exists outside the realm of parents and other authority figures. Confessional content also tends to do well on TikTok. The presence of corporate authorities is also treated as beside the point, with social media influencers on various platforms setting the tone.

"Creators are critical of host platforms and feel that they don't have their best interests at heart," said Zo Glatt, a researcher at the London School of Economics who studies content creators. "However, creators still use these platforms, often to share intimate details of their lives, because they want to communicate with their audience-community (whether these are friends or fans)."

Internet users are hostages of their habits, regardless of generation, and so people who are outraged by the behavior of social media companies (and the behavior their platforms inspire in the rest of us) tend to register their disillusionment by contributing content to the very platforms they are criticizing. Facebook users post articles about Facebook's alleged deceptions of its users. In tweets, Twitter users admonish each other to "never tweet."

On TikTok, users make videos that convey concern about the platform's security or criticize the Chinese government and dare TikTok's moderators to take it down. Some feature images of Winnie the Pooh -- whose resemblance to Chinese President Xi Jinping became a popular meme, prompting censorship of the cartoon bear in the country. Others discuss the protests in Hong Kong or, like Curry's video, concerns about data privacy. And although some of these videos do appear on the "for you" feeds of American users, they're merely blips on the app's endless feed of family-friendly hashtag challenges, dance videos to the Home Depot theme song and jokes about boomers.

Some TikTok users are trying to actively test their own concerns about TikTok's Chinese ownership.

David, a 22-year-old TikTok user with about 60,000 followers who is part of a small group of individuals collecting information about censorship on the app, made two videos in recent weeks on China's alarming measures to forcibly assimilate the mostly Muslim Uighur minority, and potential censorship on TikTok, "as an experiment to see what would get views, what would get response from viewers." David asked that The Post withhold his last name because he was worried about how TikTok's moderators might respond to his videos.

His videos did well, but it's tough to turn concerns about the future of democracy into a catchy meme: Largely unanswered questions about the implications of a Chinese app attracting a huge audience of young Americans don't make for fun hashtag challenges. And, David worried, talking about those concerns can make you sound a bit conspiratorial.

Many TikTok users are aware of the app's Chinese ownership and the resulting complications, but it's more of a "jokey awareness" from what they're seeing in a few short viral videos. American TikTok content on China is a lot of Winnie the Pooh and relatively little discussion of, for instance, how increasingly forceful crackdowns against pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong have turned a university campus filled with students similar in age to TikTok's core user base into the site of a siege. And that dovetails with the dominant tones of TikTok: confessional, playful and relatively wholesome.

"People are protesting in Hong Kong against the Communist Party and getting beaten and silenced," Curry says, "whereas in the U.S., we don't have to think twice about expressing our views."

TikTok is a space where forgetting about that reality is as easy as flipping to the next video.

"We're all just in too deep, I think," says the college sophomore. "And it's hard to break yourself from anything related to social media these days once you're hooked."

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