There are many, many apps that have attached themselves to me like techno-parasites, sucking at my fingertips to steal my time, money, and brain cells. The vampire algorithms of Instagram, YouTube, Vine (remember those simple days?), and now TikTok, have drained and exhausted me. Unfortunately for my reading lists and pending assignments, there is something that keeps me on my phone. I just can’t stop fucking scrolling.
TikTok has become the butt of casual jokes among grumpy 20-somethings. There’s a constant expression of despair aimed either at the stupidity of the app and its users or at their own ‘ancient’ misunderstanding of ‘youth culture.’ Early on in the TikTok trend, I found myself moaning about my grand old age, and despising the way it separated me from the ‘kids’ of today. My friends all made fun of me, saying I was ridiculous for even showing interest in the colourful, post-emo land of e-girls. I just couldn’t help it; the highlight reels I kept seeing on Twitter were so convincing, and I wanted to be in on the joke. So, to assure myself of my youthfulness (I’m a crusty 21 now) and to spite all of my mates, I cleansed myself of any doubts and downloaded the app. Immediately, I was hooked. My time on any other social media was brought to a standstill, as I sunk deeper and deeper into the never-ending flow of content. Most nights, while in bed, I would jump on TikTok for ‘five minutes’ before going to sleep. I would then jolt up at 2 am, clutching my phone in hand, wondering how the time had gone by so quick. There’s a certain kind of zombie-ish trance that the Supalonely dance can put you in.
TikTok has become known for its time-wasting ability. In conversations, and memes, TikTok is referred to as an addiction, like a dark hole to fall down. I mean, even in my own description, it seems like I’ve been sucked into The Matrix and stopped living in the non-virtual world. This popular discourse brings about moral panic about addiction; god-forbid the teens rot their brains with evil smartphones! However, the concern is not necessarily completely without merit; TikTok utilises particular app affordances to keep you scrolling through snappy, short videos for as long as possible. Affordances are the capabilities given to you through the design of a site or application, encouraging and allowing certain types of use. As in, the app design affords you certain types of activity. The affordances of an app are particularly useful in analysing the type of behaviour that designers hope to incite from the user. And so, the affordances of TikTok reveal the dark magic exercised by developers to keep your dirty little thumb scrolling all night long.
There are a few key aspects of app design that reveal why TikTok is so seductive. The flow of content is endless and consistently available via a downwards scroll. There is no complex behavior that you have to engage in order to continue consuming content. On YouTube, you have to make active choices in the content you consume, and on Instagram, the actions of liking and commenting are much more centralised in the layout. TikTok simply asks you to flick your thumb up and rewards the action with fresh content. Consumption is made simple and entirely seamless. It would take you more energy to stop and look up from your phone, so, naturally, you continue to do what is easiest. The app also hides the time from view, unlike any other social media platforms. It’s like you’re in a casino, with no clocks and no windows, and nothing to do but give TikTok your attention, which they sell to advertisers for stacks of cash. Lastly, the ability to reuse audio lends TikTok users the ability to remix and reference content within the app, meaning trends grow and change very quickly. The constant newness of the platform means users never get bored and continue to add to the expansive library of TikTok content, drawing more eyeballs to ads.
TikTok isn’t the only platform to utilise sneaky app affordances; Instagram is increasingly moving towards a marketplace model, encouraging users to make purchases within the app. Facebook has become key for moving around the internet, and every time the site is used to create an account, Zucky gains access to your every move. It pays to be aware of how developers are encouraging you to spend your time because, in the attention economy, it is very valuable. I’m not going to be getting off TikTok any time soon though. There’s a really interesting culture built on that app, with younger kids questioning ideals of beauty, impending climate change, and political unrest, with an insane amount of detached irony. At the moment I need the hearty laughs those teens can provide me. I’ve got my friends hooked too, so I’d have to avoid the group chat to shake the habit. And, when we are all in isolation, I’ll finally have the time to learn all those dances! The next few weeks might give a bit of time to spare. Why not shill for a social media company and become a TikTok influencer? It’s what I’m going to do to avoid my readings. Hopefully, I can find my way out.