Dirt: Channel surfing
TikTok echoes cable.
Drew Austin on social media’s evolution (devolution?) into television.
When I finally joined Tiktok, the first thing the app showed me was an argument between a father and son, standing at the edge of an above-ground pool in their backyard. The father is holding his son’s Xbox, which he throws into the pool, sending the desperate son jumping into the water to save it (“I have a game in there…Halo 3!”). I immediately recognized a familiar pattern from reality TV and shows like Jerry Springer: domestic dysfunction erupting into darkly amusing slapstick humor, tempered (or magnified) by the ambiguity about whether it’s authentic or staged. The thrill of using a new app suddenly felt like something more mundane. I was aimlessly watching TV again.
Further TikTok viewing reveals a wide variety of similar genres and microgenres, many of which recombine well-established TV tropes in novel ways, from Jackass-style pranks to cooking to infotainment. Part of TikTok’s excitement is seeing a new video start and trying to figure out what the hell it is. That usually becomes clear within a few seconds; the pattern-matching process mirrors the instant recognition that enables efficient channel surfing. We may train the TikTok algorithm to give us what we like, but the algorithm also trains us to expect its identifiable categories of output.
TikTok’s content and form both reflect something that is increasingly true about the internet: It is becoming more like TV.
After the long reign of Web 2.0, characterized by social media’s interactivity and user-generated content, the pendulum has swung back toward the passivity that traditionally characterized TV. A growing portion of the public-facing internet is something to consume rather than actively shape, at least for non-creators. This is partially because TV itself has moved directly online via streaming services. But other platforms, like TikTok and the increasingly Reel-dominated Instagram, have also become more TV-like, encouraging most users to default to lurking while a smaller cohort of creators makes all the content.
It’s fitting, then, that TikTok so often resembles the fragments of shows encountered on cable TV, or the amateurish public-access programming that Wayne’s World lampooned in the ‘90s. As a hybrid of social media and streaming, TikTok, more than any other platform, is the bridge from the internet of peer-to-peer social media to whatever comes next, which will probably be more like TV. TikTok’s own executives disavow its status as a social network, calling it an entertainment platform (TikTok users still generate its content, of course, but the majority—66 percent—do not).
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In a 2020 essay about TikTok, Kyle Chayka noted the similarities between the experience of using the app and watching TV: “TikTok is an eternal channel flip, and the flip is the point: there is no settled point of interest to land on…Like cable television, the viewer does not select the content on TikTok, only whether they want to watch it at that moment or not.” In other words, the passivity is the point. The more effectively the user shapes the algorithm, the more completely they can sit back and enjoy what it feeds them (and if that process isn’t entirely “passive,” neither is channel surfing).
As TikTok’s influence spreads to other areas of the internet, so does the spectator role that the platform dictates. The widely-criticized Instagram product changes that CEO Adam Mosseri announced in July reflected that influence: a heightened emphasis on Reels and the implicit demotion of content shared by friends in the feed.
Instagram’s announcement validated the strategic value of both TikTok-style algorithmic passivity and the creator economy’s professionalization of content production. It was social media finally collapsing on itself. After all, the worst part of Facebook was that your feed was always full of your actual friends’ chaotic drivel, and the best part of TikTok is that your friends have nothing to do with what shows up on your screen (Instagram and Twitter, meanwhile, are somewhere between those two extremes).
The easiest way to fix social media’s biggest flaws, it turns out, is by dismantling social media altogether. TikTok demonstrates how best to accomplish this, by slyly disguising its “entertainment platform” as a social network: a version of TV where the viewers produce the shows for free. Instagram’s mistake was actually announcing their intention to do something similar.
The internet has long since unbundled TV in its traditional form, with streaming services fulfilling the role of marquee programming and shows that people consciously choose to watch. But TV always entailed much more than that. It’s not surprising that other platforms and products have divided up the bundle’s less tangible components. As writer P.E. Moskowitz observes, “Social media replaced newspapers and classifieds, TikTok replaces America's Funniest Home Videos, etc.” — in other words, TikTok provides everything we’d unintentionally stumble across while channel surfing and then forget just as quickly as we’d discovered it.
Maybe, in the aggregate, this messy, ephemeral, fragmented content was always the most valuable part of TV. Even Netflix recognizes the need for it, backstopping their hit shows with an endless long tail of documentaries and stand-up comedy specials that often resemble the user-generated content on YouTube and TikTok (but without any hope of algorithmic virality). Streaming and social media continue to converge. TikTok launched TikTok TV last year. Tech entrepreneur Michael Mignano recently pronounced social media dead, predicting that Netflix itself will embrace user-generated content.
If Netflix does make itself more like TikTok and YouTube, it will strengthen the platform’s own claim as a replacement for TV, while affirming a deeper desire for types of content that other media provide more naturally. TV’s stubborn endurance—its reappearance on the internet—is another reminder that nothing ever goes away, it just keeps assuming new forms. — Drew Austin
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