cUr      sOr

TikTok and Algorithmitized Safe Spaces

by Ella Wiberg

Notes:TikTok-QueerTok on the Lesbian Masterdoc:

I recently translated the Lesbian Masterdoc to Danish. Read it here.
People love to hate on TikTok, viewing it as an especially abhorrent (so-called) social media platform. I most often agree. TikTok is the new digital plague, engineered to corrupt whole generations with a new level of brain rot. TikTok takes advantage of us as interrelational, social and cultural beings with desires, feelings of shame, and so forth. TikTok is biopolitics. Through meticulous monitoring of our behavior, the app makes us addicted to the continuous stream of dopamine kicks, in the form of a never-ending row of quick video content, that is algorithmically curated only for you.

The stats speak for themselves. TikTok users spend an average of 52 minutes on the app a day, and 90% of users visit TikTok more than once per day. In my opinion, that’s complete goblin mode. TikTok is designed to foster rabbit-holes - to pull us into echo chambers that keep us on edge and fuel our most inner desires of being loved, accepted, in control, care free, successful, or whatever else we might long for. 

This critique is legit. But it’s also a double standard, when it is not equally applied to other social media platforms, or to the metadata-driven economic model of web2 platform capitalism as such. I often hear TikTok being singled out as especially dangerous because it is Chinese, as if a machine dispensing “digital crack cocain”, as an article in Forbes has put it, only could have its origins in the depths of the Chinese Communist Party. I believe this argument is rooted in xenophobia, as TikTok most fundamentally is a product of capitalism, not something specifically Chinese. It is a product of the exact same fundamental economic structures that have shaped all the big Western platform capitalist companies, such as Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, and Twitter. If we hate TikTok for its use of metadata to manipulate us as cultural bodies, we must apply the same critique to web2 platforms created in the depths of Silicon Valley, since they do the exact same thing. There are LOTS of reasons to be afraid of Chinese surveillance, but as Cambridge Analytica and the like have shown us, there is not much reason to like surveillance by US-american companies any better. 

So, I am also a hater, but I try to hate TikTok for the same reasons I hate Facebook. Still, there is a difference. TikTok actually delivers on the dystopia/dream of an internet of personalized metadata-based algorithmically-optimized content, compared to all other platforms. In other words, TikTok seems to be peak platform capitalism - so far. TikToks algorithms are so good, that it has become a meme in itself. Supposedly, TikTok knows you better than you do.
QueerTokA variation of this meme, is that TikTok knows that you’re queer before you do. (Some examples here, here and here.) The meme usually goes something like this: You download TikTok because you’re bored during lock-down. You notice that the app keeps showing you queer content. You can’t stop watching, and get stuck in a queer echo chamber. After a couple of months of intense exposure to queer peoples life, reflections, and experiences, you’ve had to accept your repressed sexual feelings, leave your hetero relationship, start therapy, start dating, and perhaps get a new haircut.

An element in this collective coming out story is a Google Docs named Am I a Lesbian? (Masterdoc). The document has been shared numerous times on ‘QueerTok’, ‘LesbianTok’ and ‘QuestioningTok’. It’s a guide to thinking about your possible lesbian attraction, as well as experiences of compulsive heterosexuality. It was created by Angeli Luz and posted on tumblr in January 2018 by Luz under the username @cyberlesbian. It has been described as “something of a cult classic on the lesbian internet” by Queers Built This on Vice. QueerTok and the so-called ‘lesbian masterdoc’, have created a more nuanced story about queerness and lesbianism than the dominating ‘born-this-way narrative’. 

What I call the born-this-way narrative, is the idea that sexuality and gender is a stable essence or kernel inside a person that is formed sometime in the womb, and that one is aware of at an early age. Queer people know they are queer, but can’t live their truth due to societal pressure to be hetero and/or cis. The born-this-way narrative is obviously an experience that many queers have, but not one that all queer people share. Some queer people experience a changing sexuality and/or gender identity, and many queers first ‘discover’ their queerness or become queer later in life.

The born-this way narrative has the political advantage of not questioning or challenging heterosexuality and cisness as such (and thereby the norm and identity of the dominating culture). It understands gender and sexuality as something predetermined and non-cultural, and therefore non-negotiable. It is something that is laid upon us as at some point before birth as a kind of meta-biological truth. 

This means that if you’re gay, you know you’re gay. And if you are straight, you can be certain that you won’t suddenly discover that you actually are gay. If you’re straight, you’re straight, and can continue on living your straight life, without ever stopping to think about your attraction. Born-this-way politics presents itself as a political movement asking for inclusion and equality alongside cis and hetero people, without challenging the core beliefs of cisheteronormativity, and thereby the cishetero gender norms, including marriage, sexual scripts, and the gendered division of labour. QueerTok nuances this story.
Substance, not just content.TikTok is especially good at creating echo chambers due to its expert use of metadata, but also due to the way you are invited to navigate the app, and because TikTok’s design makes it very accessible to invent, make and upload content. There are a few important aspects to consider: 

  1. The centrality of the (never ending) scrolling feed, where it’s necessary to interact in order to consume content, by swiping down to the next video. This is the opposite of Youtube’s auto-play function, which automatically plays the next algorithmically chosen video if you don’t interact.
  2. The centrality and quality of the creator function, which makes it easy and inviting to create and upload content. Much easier than on Youtube.
  3. TikTok’s trending formats and shorter videos makes it easy to brainstorm possible content within existing frameworks, and makes it doable because of the short timeframe.
  4. The app is created as a mobile-first platform, whereas Youtube was created in 2005 and bought by Google in 2006, just before smartphones took off. 

This design secures the constant upload of fresh professional and amatur content. It’s faster than Youtube, and therefore also more on time and dynamic as a place for social commentary on video. With this form, I believe TikTok is better than other web2 platforms at creating substance, and not only brain rotting content. ‘Better’ does not mean ‘good’, it means more effective. The algorithm can make bad things even worse, such as propel people into eating disorders, or “bombard” young men with misogynistic videos. This is extremely serious and definitely a threat to the very fabric of society. But echo chambers as such are not always a bad thing. 
Echo chambers as safe spacesTikTok can provide a currated queer space, that showcases a diverse queer perspectives and experiences, that either aren’t accesible to the user or that the user wouldn’t have thought to access because of societal norms. TikTok can use the metadata traces it has designed for you to leave, to send you content that can help you ask yourself those very important questions that compulsive cisheterosexuality discourages you from asking.

Sometimes an echo chamber is a safe space. TikTok can algorithmically create those safe spaces for acceptance as well as doubt, which don’t exist in the user's immediate environment. They can be of big importance when you try to think about things that your society largely ignores, doesn’t accept, or directly tries to persuade you against thinking, like that your queer attraction might not be a delusion, wrong, sinful, discusting, shameful, but instead true, real, and beautiful. That’s important when you consider that queer perspectives are not always welcomed online. According to the Digital Youth Index, “young LGBTQ+ people are more than twice as likely to experience hate speech online compared with those who identify as heterosexual”

QueerTok can create a space with room for reflections and questions on love, sex, flirting, shame, identity, queer history, politics and perception, as well as acceptance of unsaid feelings of lust, confusion, shame, guilt and the variety of ways people have found their queerness. QueerTok could not exist without the harvesting of metadata and the magic of feeding it to an algorithm. I am overall very skeptical of web2 platform capitalism, but I think this is an important aspect to remember in our critique, and in the creation of a better and more democratic internet.