TikTok is a black box that was never designed to create a healthy community. So why do we think it is one?

The transition from friend-follower internet to Recommended For You internet is a shift that drastically changed the way that interact
with each other online

And I think it deserves a little bit more attention and analysis when we’re talking about the digital landscape that we all exist in.

Today, social media is about collective reactions to viral conversations.

We’ve completely lost that feeling of the more antiquated kind of social media that was about relationships with people you knew in real life.

That early internet sense of ‘togetherness despite distance’ was one of the things that was so attractive about the web back in the day.

And when I say “back in the day”, I mean it. My journey to the interwebs started back when fax machines were still regularly in use.

That community feeling is something that we’ve lost.

That community feeling is something that most platforms lose as they mature.

TikTok in the early days of the pandemic, felt like it had a lot more community in it than it does today.

Some have proposed that this is just the lifecycle of platforms, that as they become more driven by commercial interests, they lose their sense of community and start feeling more like the ad platforms they are.

The feeling of being in community dissipates as we become consumers and creators of content rather than consumers and creators of updates.

This causes a decrease in user selected content.

You hit the follow button less often than you used to.

You hit the subscribe button less often than you used to.

You become more passive in how you consume this content, because in an algorithm-centric model of consumption, you just don’t matter as much any more.

Remember back in the day when a friend would post on your Facebook wall?

You cared. You zoomed right over to see what the wrote.

But now, commenting rarely even gets seen by the creator, let alone liked or replied to.

Content creators are swamped in comments, emails, DMs and they just can’t get to it all in a timely fashion (or if they do, they have help and you might end up talking to an assistant or moderator rather than the creator themselves).

So it’s less gratifying to be online because it feels impossible to have a conversation, even with someone who you think you’d have a riveting conversation with, about a topic you’re both passionate about.

We’ve given up a lot of agency in what our feeds look like.

Companies are developing highly complex black-box technologies that we admit and allow to shape our lives and the general discourse, but we have no idea how they really work.

Heck, sometimes even the companies that made them don’t know exactly how it all works.

This leads us to getting even further alienated from the products and services that we consume and allow to run our lives.

The interesting thing is that this combination of loss of agency and the obfuscation of how the algorithms really work is coinciding with a decrease in computer literacy in the younger generations.

Gen Z now has to contend with a tech skills gap that they didn’t create and don’t get a lot of help managing.

Knowing how to share links, but not knowing where the files those links lead to are stored, shows us just how far removed users have become from the technology.

I learned everything the hard way because I grew up with external storage.

I had to manage partitions to make space for a new software I wanted to install, but didn’t have space for.

I’m not saying we all need to understand exactly how a social platform algorithm works, but the less we understand how the systems we use work, the more we’re relying on others to explain, maintain and fix issues with them.

Initially, I feel like there was more pushback when the shift to algorithms serving you content started to emerge.

We didn’t want to lose that community feeling.

But now, we’ve all just had to accept our collective fate.

There are some attempts at reviving that old school social feel with platforms like Mastodon, but our habits have been profoundly shaped by how social media platforms today work and adjusting to platforms that don’t serve up short-cycle dopamine hits can be difficult.

The thing that we really miss about the old days is community.

That feeling of feeling the same way about something, sharing a laugh because the people around you get it, and feeling connected to something bigger than yourself.

But I don’t think it’s possible to build true community on a platform like TikTok.

And I say this despite having seen several creators on BookTok (my main haunt besides HorseTok and animal videos) saying that they’ve built a wonderful community around them.

But those statements usually come in videos where they’re tearfully explaining why they don’t want to leave TikTok for other platforms.

I’ve been on BookTok since early 2022 and it’s been… an experience.

It’s been good and bad.

To me, it seems like the extroverts do really well, the ones who aren’t afraid to get loud and controversial, the ones who like to make videos in which they’re yelling even when they’re happy and excited.

I haven’t personally met anyone who became a friend, mostly because I’m not very active there.

I think the space does have value, but I don’t think it’s a community.

I do absolutely think community can come from it, as it can come from any shared interest, but I think that requires going outside of TikTok.

For a space to be a community, I think it needs to be moderated by human beings who themselves are a part of that community.

Curation by those same humans is also necessary for it to be a healthy, thriving community.

The thing that makes communities communities is the transparency.

We know who the participants of the community are, we know who the moderators are and we know what the rules are.

But on BookTok we don’t even know who we’re in this group with. Because the group make-up for content piece A is different than this group for content piece B, even if they’re both on BookTok.

If we don’t like the way a community is run, we can protest, demote poor moderators or splinter off into our own little communities.

On social platforms like BookTok, there is no conscious input from the creators about who gets to see their content, what they see or when they see it.

The algorithm decides all of that.

Or, possibly, TikTok’s own human boosters, who come with their own biases (personal and company dictated).

While there is some truth to the joke that your feed or FYP is what you make it, it’s not that straight forward.

As Matt Lorence said, he definitely scrolls through a fair amount of content that he sees without interacting with it or actively disliking it. He even hits not interested a lot, but the algorithm still bombards him with content from outside of his own interest groups.

I feel like there’s a harder push on TikTok for commercial content, a trend that has now started influencing how other platforms feel as they desperately scramble to catch up.

The one thing the algorithm is designed for, is to keep you on the platform.

The one this it’s not designed for, is fostering a healthy community.

This means that if showing you content from like-minded people that makes you engage and stay longer, it’ll show you that.

If showing controversial content from creators that you fundamentally disagree with makes you engage and stay longer, it’ll show you that.

It doesn’t care whether you like something or not, it cares about whether you engage or not and for how long.

And yes, watching a video until the end is engaging with the algorithm, telling it to send you more stuff like that.

And we can’t even tell if TikTok is making ethical decisions or not because it’s a closed source, meaning we can’t see the code.

TikTok is a black box.

We don’t know how it’s making the decisions.

And even when you know that an algorithm is sending you specific content to get you to engage, your actions are limited to your own individual responsibility.

You can choose to not engage with a certain type of content.

But you can’t tell other people what to do.

We can’t organise as a group to make a collective decision on how to deal with that particular content.

And I think a lot of people on BookTok have been faced with the reality that they are a marketing cohort (spoiler: they don’t like it).

First there was the Seattle Kraken debacle where a hockey team saw a potential new market in the women on BookTok, and jumped on the bandwagon, trying to create content that was in line with what was going on (it was cringe and has since been removed), but failed when it all crossed a line into inappropriate and sexualising, eventually taking a left turn into harassment.

Most recently there was Nate Lembke, who was using women authors to get his own book to hit the NYT Bestseller list.

The biggest argument for his content was rage farming, but I think there might be more to it.

While I don’t think his motives or the way he went about achieving his goals was wholesome or fair, I think he was driven by misogynistic biases more than anything else.

The interesting thing about all these people coming into BookTok and trying and leverage the “community” for some sort of financial gain, is what that says about BookTok.

Both of the incidents mentioned sent BookTok into a tizzy, for slightly different reasons.

But ultimately I think that the people who still view BookTok as a community despite it not really being able to fulfil the parameters of one, makes them feel icky and used when agents come onto BookTok, specifically to sell you something.

Now, there are already a lot of creators and accounts that are on BookTok only to sell things, so this is not new.

But it’s interesting to see where BookTok draws and redraws this line in the sand, and which rules apply to which “infiltrators”.

Because, as I said before, you can only affect your individual responsibility.

If you can spot a bad actor on BookTok, you can choose to not engage with that content, choose to give them neither your attention nor money, but you can’t tell others how to react or what to consume.

All you can do is sit back and watch the collective reaction to a viral conversation (which doesn’t go viral accidentally).

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