Our relationship with social media has become incredibly complicated. What was once just status updates and top eights has now become an industry, a lifestyle, an obsession. At the top of the heap is the most influential platform right now, TikTok. Who better to dissect our complicated connection to the platform than Coded Bias director Shalini Kantayya? Kantayya made a name for herself in the technology documentary space with the impactful 2020 documentary at Sundance and now she tackles the beast of contemporary social media with Tiktok, Boom.
Blame It on the Algorithm
Although Kantayya is clever with her documentary’s name, a play on the phrase tick tick boom, Tiktok, Boom is not solely about TikTok. As many of the expert subjects explain, TikTok is the example because it is at the top of the food chain, but the problems presented in the film go beyond just the platform. Kantayya expertly lays out TikTok’s origins, how it formed out of the Chinese platform Douyin and its marriage with the now-deceased app Musical.ly, how its algorithm was developed and evolved into an insanely intuitive formula for its users.
She then introduces the influencers, the young people who dominate the platform with their talents. One is a beatboxer, another a dancer; one makes skits, the other is a makeup guru. These influencers, all under the age of 30, have experienced overnight success in the form of a viral video but have also fought to maintain their audience. For those who are familiar and keep up with influencers, nothing these creators say will be surprising. They struggle to stay relevant, to fight burnout, to ignore the hate and harassment, to continuously pump out the content on a platform where you can go from hero to zero just like that.
But TikTok, Boom is not for the experts. Unlike Coded Bias, very little of what Kantayya presents in this documentary was a surprise. Instead, this documentary is very much like an introduction to truly understanding how young people operate on social media today. Not only by scrolling through videos, but participating. It goes beyond dance videos and trends and memes. Because as well as being makeup gurus and skit actors and musicians, many of these creators are also activists.
Data Is the New Oil
Kantayya’s subjects are far from the most popular TikTokers on the platform right now, but they seem to be the cream of the crop for this documentary. Because, while TikTok might just seem like any other social media app, it also has a deep geopolitical history due to its ownership by a Chinese company. Known for its insane levels of censorship, China’s involvement with TikTok means that certain types of activism on the platform have been censored.
As young activists go to the platform to spread their message to their fellow viewers, TikTok has often become a place where the disenfranchised have a voice. We see people educating others about their culture, proudly embracing themselves, and finding their voice on the platform. To go into all the ways that TikTok has tried to censor these people would take too much time (and TikTok, Boom does it far more eloquently), but it all leads to the discussion of China’s involvement in the tech industry and the stamp that TikTok has made on the world – especially the Western world.
Security and regulation are on the top of everyone’s mind when it comes to what should and shouldn’t be allowed on social media. Beyond TikTok, the doc makes it clear that data is king now, more valuable than oil. Every app is tracking you, watching you and your behavior, and tailoring what they show you to influence you. Should that data be going back to China? What are the security issues? What are they seeing?
But TikTok, Boom points out an even bigger problem. Should we just be worried about China? Silicon Valley’s tech war with China – the doc specifically focuses on Mark Zuckerberg’s involvement in trying to turn politicians against TikTok – is about more than the politics. It’s about the data and the greed to harness that data. The insidiousness of technology is how easily it can be manipulated to control us rather than work for us. Make no mistake, although TikTok’s connection to China might be painted as a boogieman figure, there’s more to worry about than just that.
Unfortunately, there is not enough time in TikTok, Boom to go into the monopolization of search engines from Google, the political influence of Facebook, the impact on the self-image of Instagram… but it presents the notion. Technology was a blessing, but it has become a beast and regulation is loose.
Tiktok, Boom looks at the general landscape of social media. It teaches terms like shadow banning and explains how hashtags work on the platform or talks about its twin app Douyin. Kantayya’s documentary explores widely but rarely dives too deep. It’s impossible to, to be fair, without turning the film into a miniseries. There’s a passing word about the xenophobia against Chinese people and Asians internationally during COVID, something that was exacerbated by Trump against TikTok after a bunch of teenagers sank his rally by purchasing tickets and not attending. That topic alone could be a two-hour documentary.
To Kantayya’s credit though, it’s difficult to explain so much without seeming like she’s stating the obvious. And Tiktok, Boom never loses its heart. The young influencers are inspiring as we listen to them talk about their hustle, one going from busking on the streets to appearing on TV, another going from criticizing a politician at a town hall to appearing on CNN. Although social media is terrifying and Kantayya is not pulling the wool over our eyes on that front, the influencers are actively pushing against it. They are vocal, they are determined, and they are not afraid. If there’s anything new to be gleaned from Tiktok, Boom by those who are already familiar with everything presented, it’s a confirmation that although there is much to do, indifference has not yet settled in.
This film review was based on the premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2022. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute. This review originally was published at Film Inquiry.