TikTok: Is it all fun and games?

In a world where 15 seconds of fame has replaced the traditional 15 minutes, a TikTok user with zero followers can get their video to reach tens of thousands of people. So is the platform’s trick inclusivity, and allowing fair competition among posted videos?

Well, the simple answer to this is categorically no.

How did it start?

TikTok started as a small video-sharing app, developed in China in 2016. It was launched for international markets the following year and has since gained a staggering 1.1 billion users. Most popular among the ‘Gen Z’ demographic, this social media platform is sometimes funny, sometimes cringy – but always addictive.

So, TikTok has successfully tapped into the zeitgeist of rapidly emerging and falling ’trends’. Ten years ago, something like ‘the ice bucket challenge’ could entertain the internet for a good few months. But not in this day and age. Why else might this ‘done before’ platform (think Vine) be so popular? Well, perhaps this could be something to do with the moderation of the site.

Putting on a pretty face

While in theory, any video could reach tens of thousands of people instantly, there are restrictions based on potential popularity. Moderators have been told to suppress posts created by users deemed too ugly, poor or disabled for the platform. This feeds on the company’s MO of being ‘aspirational’, and TikTok has deemed the ugly, poor and disabled to be contrary to the sparkling image they want to conjure up.

Numerous categories of people were put on the ‘no go’ list, including anyone with unusual body shapes, such as those suffering from dwarfism down to anyone who was “chubby or too thin”. Documents obtained by The Intercept found these startling revelations, amongst others, that shine a light on TikTok’s moderation process.

No politics please

Also censored from soaring into the limelight were videos with political speech or those that may harm ‘national honour’. This may baffle some as TikTok has always marketed itself as a paragon of self-expression, where an ‘anything goes’ attitude allows for limitless creativity.

However, the discouraging of political dissent feeds into the example set by the Chinese government, for this Chinese-owned company. Ostensibly, a policy of defending ‘national security’ through moderation sounds sensible and responsible.

However, the list of material banned from the platform is beguiling: no videos that have rural poverty in the background, cracked walls, people with beer bellies or ‘disreputable decorations’ in their home.

Once these poorer TikTok users are identified, the company can then artificially narrow their potential audience. This is a great shame as some of the best TikToks I have seen have been the bizarre ones made by people not living in privilege. Yes, pretty LA people doing magic tricks in their mansions can be fun to watch, but what about, for example, poorer, toothless people doing ‘Jackass’ style bike tricks in a trailer park? TikTok’s moderation policy would try and suppress their content.

Not representative of a generation

The justification given by TikTok is that business is business: ‘aspirational’ videos will attract and retain new users. Vine has come and failed before it, as have countless other video-sharing start-ups, and what TikTok is doing is simply strategic. Still, their reasoning reflects a sadly shallow online society. While we hope Generation Z are a harbinger of acceptance and tolerance, these reports show that TikTok does not represent their generation.

It is a phenomenon, yes, a happy, fun platform that reaches out to ‘everyone’ with open arms. But don’t be fooled – not everything that glitters is gold.