Marcella is eighteen and lives in a Texas suburb so quiet that it sometimes seems like a ghost town. She down loaded TikTok last fall, after seeing TikTok videos that were posted on YouTube and Instagram. These were strange and hilarious and reminded her of Vine, the discontinued platform that teen-agers once utilized for uploading anarchic six-second videos that played on a loop. She opened Tik Tok Followers Live, and it began showing her a never-ending scroll of videos, most of them fifteen seconds or less. She watched those she liked several times before moving forward, and double-tapped her favorites, to “like” them. TikTok was learning what she wanted. It showed her more ridiculous comic sketches and supercuts of men and women painting murals, and fewer videos in which girls made fun of other girls for their looks.
When you watch a video on TikTok, you can tap some control on the screen to respond with your own video, scored for the same soundtrack. Another tap calls up a suite of editing tools, such as a timer that makes it very easy to film yourself. Videos become memes which you can imitate, or riff on, rapidly multiplying much the way the Ice Bucket Challenge proliferated on Facebook five years ago.
Marcella was lying on her bed looking at TikTok over a Thursday evening when she began seeing video after video set to some clip of the song “Pretty Boy Swag,” by Soulja Boy. In each one of these, an individual would look at the camera as if it were a mirror, and after that, just as the song’s beat dropped, the camera would cut to some shot in the person’s doppelgänger. It worked like a punch line. A guy with packing tape over his nose became Voldemort. A girl smeared gold paint on the face, wear a yellow hoodie, and turned into an Oscar statue. Marcella propped her phone on the desk and set the TikTok timer. Her video took around 20 minutes to make, and it is thirteen seconds long. She enters the frame in a white button-down, her hair dark and wavy. She adjusts her collar, checks her reflection, looks upward, and-the beat droPS-she’s Anne Frank.
Marcella’s friends knew about TikTok, but almost none were on it. She didn’t believe that anyone would see what she’d made. Pretty quickly, though, her video began getting hundreds of likes, thousands, tens of thousands. People started sharing it on Instagram. On YouTube, the Swedish vlogger PewDiePie, who has greater than a hundred million subscribers, posted a video mocking the media for suggesting that TikTok had a “Nazi problem”-Vice had found various accounts promoting white-supremacist slogans-then showed Marcella’s video, laughed, and said, “Never mind, actually, this will not assist the case I was trying to make.” (PewDiePie has become criticized for employing anti-Semitic imagery in the videos, though his fans insist that his work is satire.) Marcella began to get direct messages on TikTok and Instagram, many of which called her anti-Semitic. One accused her of promoting Nazism. She deleted the video.
In February, a friend texted me a YouTube rip of Marcella’s TikTok. I used to be alone with my phone at my desk on a week night, so when I watched the video I screamed. It had been terrifyingly funny, like a well-timed electric shock. In addition, it got me to feel very old. I’d seen other TikToks, mostly on Twitter, and my primary impression was that young people were churning through images and sounds at warp speed, repurposing reality into ironic, bite-size content. Kids were clearly better than adults at whatever it had been TikTok was for-“I haven’t seen one bit of content on there produced by a grownup that’s normal and good,” Jack Wagner, a “popular Instagram memer,” told The Atlantic last fall-though they weren’t the only real ones making use of the platform. Arnold Schwarzenegger was on TikTok, riding a minibike and chasing a miniature pony. Drag queens were on TikTok, opera singers were on TikTok, the Washington Post was on TikTok, dogs I follow on Instagram were on TikTok. Most essential, the self-made celebrities of Generation Z were on TikTok, a cohort of individuals in their teens and early twenties who have spent 10 years filming themselves by way of a front-facing camera and meticulously honing their knowledge of what their peers will reply to and the things they will ignore.
I sent an e-mail to Marcella. (That’s her middle name.) She’s from the military family, and wants to stay up late listening to music and writing. Marcella is Jewish, and she and her brothers were homeschooled. Not long before she made her video, her family had stopped at a base to renew their military I.D.s. One of her brothers glanced at her new I.D. and joked, accurately, that she looked like Anne Frank.
In correspondence, Marcella was as earnest and thoughtful as her video had seemed flip. She understood could possibly seem offensive out of context-a context that was invisible to nearly everyone who saw it-and she was sanguine regarding the angry messages that she’d received. TikTok, like the rest around the world, had been a mixed bag, she thought, with bad ideas, and cruelty, and embarrassment, but also with much creative potential. Its ironic sensibility was perfectly suited for people her age, therefore was its industrial-strength ability to turn non-famous people into famous ones-even only if temporarily, even if only in a minor way. Marcella had accepted her brush with Internet fame as being an odd thrill, rather than a completely foreign one: her generation had grown up online, she noted, watching ordinary kids become millionaires by flipping on laptop cameras in their bedrooms and talking about stuff they like. The videos that I’d been seeing, chaotic and sincere and nihilistic and extremely short, were the natural expressions of kids who’d had smartphones because they were in middle school, or elementary school. TikTok, Marcella explained, was a simple reaction to, and an absurdist escape from, “the mass amounts of media we are subjected to every living day.”
TikTok has become downloaded more than a billion times since its launch, in 2017, and reportedly has more monthly users than Twitter or Snapchat. Like those apPS, it’s free, and peppered with advertising. I downloaded TikTok in May, adding its neon-shaded music-note logo towards the selection of app icons on my phone. TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, relies in China, which, in wcsbir years, has invested heavily and made major advances in artificial intelligence. Following a three-billion-dollar investment from the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, last fall, ByteDance was priced at a lot more than seventy-five billion dollars, the best valuation for just about any startup on earth.