Think back to 2016. Vine was dead. YouTube was popular but the freedom it promised viewers was slowly starting to unravel… conspiracy theories: hello flat earthers! Instagram changed and now inhabited influencers only. Facebook… Do I even need to say anything? The last hope of our generation was Twitter and even then it harbored dark corners of misogyny and racism. When the dust settled, ByteDance saw an opportunity to be a leader in the new world, the new world of social media that is.

It came on the scene when social media had plateaued. TikTok! By October of 2018, TikTok had surpassed Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube in downloads. Over time it consumed users of all ages. The formula seemed to launch a select few into stardom. However, the promise of the app seemed to fall in the same category as its predecessors. Behind the dances and challenges, lies a sinister evil that only falls on the shoulders of those who are anything but white. Hello TikTok, are you listening?

Do you remember the first social media app you downloaded on your phone? Was it Instagram, maybe Twitter? Did you know that it would be the biggest thing since the internet? How could we know then what we know now?

Vine left a gaping hole in an entire generation’s need to create and connect. Yes, we still have Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter but the reality of these apps led to a dark and deep hole of censorship, misinformation, and bias in every corner.

A Mediakix study estimated that total spend on Instagram influencers would be $1.7 billion in 2019 and increase to $2.3 billion by the end of 2020. Previously, $800 million was spent in 2017 increasing to $1.3 billion in 2018. Instagrams mission is “to capture and share the world’s moments.” It was an authentic approach to an app but it slowly evolved into another way to make money and brand oneself, not only that but it fell short in its ability to create fast and engaging ways of communication.

ByteDance took a hold of the absence that had been left in the market. It was quick and subtle but the popularity of TikTok seized the nation. It was brand new and flashy, reminiscent of Vine and Musically. It offered popular dances like the Renegade, the Woah, and Say So.

But what lurks behind the algorithm? What even goes into an algorithm? How does audience engagement work? Two content creators on different sides of the app discuss their journey on TikTok and what is left for them.

* * *

Meet Jay or @creedthots.gov

She’s a self-described fat woman who doesn’t give a shit what people think. Her content is funny, self-deprecating, and loud. She joined TikTok in 2019 as a senior in high school.

“If I’m going, to be honest, I was just bored,” said Jay. “I wanted to see what the fuss was about and now I’m obsessed.”

Her first viral video was of her recounting a story of when she was little and she’d accidentally drank bleach. She remembers her friends messing with her in class and the excitement they had when they realized she’d gone viral, 20,000 likes and views overnight.

However, the newness of TikTok wore off after she’d realized her views were slowly tanking. Then, her videos started being taken down.

“I made a joke about how people like to make fun of fat people for just existing in response to a comment and it got taken down for harassment and bullying,” said Jay. “And I didn’t even bring the other user up, I was talking about myself.”

Jay faces numerous comments from users that display fatphobic and racist rhetoric. And yet, there are hardly any ramifications for those comments, rather it seems that TikTok is targeting the profiles of specific people like Jay.

During the summer of 2020, anyone who used the #blacklivesmatter, their profile was shadowbanned or deleted. TikTok has since released a statement pledging to fix the bias in their algorithm and highlight diverse creators on the app.

The amount of times that TikTok has taken down Jay’s videos in the name of “Community Guidelines” is offensive. She admits that she does cuss occasionally but when rebutting a nasty comment, she finds that she is censored more.

“Personally, I don’t really see a difference in the app,” said Jay. “I have mutuals, thicker women, whose videos get taken down for nudity because they’re in a tank top or showing skin but there is a skinny person in a bikini and they don’t get taken down.”

TikTok once had policies in place to censor content from users it believed to be “ugly, overweight, disabled, or poor.” Not only did the policies prohibit content from being suppressed but they enabled a toxic environment on the app.

Jay is not only plus-sized, she is Mexican, queer, and proud to be. However, an app that bases popularity on the way someone looks or doesn’t look is detrimental to creating a space for creativity and free expression. 

If a fatphobic or transphobic user stumbles across Jay’s video and the app is knowingly suppressing her content, shouldn’t they be held accountable for the horrendous comments left? As of today, that has yet to be determined. 

* * *

Before the summer of 2020, Kayode’s Instagram consisted of workout videos, video games, occasional pranks, and had an emphasis on football.

“I started doing TikTok as a bet with my sister,” said Kayode. “We were trying to see who would get famous first before the end of quarantine.”

He won.

Between the lull of football and the pandemic, Kayode decided that he wanted his platform to change; he wanted to be more than an athlete.

However, it wasn’t until after the death of George Flloyd that Kayode’s page started to define itself. He expressed his own experience as a young black man in America. He went to protests in Los Angeles and decided to record his videos.

Just as his platform started to grow and define itself, TikTok started taking down his videos. Sometimes they cited “community guidelines” or “hate speech”.

“I posted a video about police brutality for about an hour but it had zero views and I didn’t want to have any content violation or strike so I just took the video down myself.”

This is shadowbanning. Ever heard of it? It is “the practice of blocking or partially blocking a user or their content from an online community so that it will not be readily apparent to the user that they have been banned.”

“I don’t use any AAVE, or African-American vernacular so that it doesn’t come off as “aggressive”,” said Kayode.

Censoring creators is one thing, a very bad thing, but censoring creators when speaking on personal experiences or for the way they speak? That leads to a whole host of issues…

Marc Faddoul, who is currently a research scientist with the School of Information Head of School and Associate Dean Hany Farid at Berkeley. One day he decided to a social experiment of sorts and it led to a very interesting conversation pertaining to algorithms, specifically on TikTok.

Faddoul created multiple user profiles on TikTok and documented the interactions. When he followed a random profile, TikTok would only recommend profiles that looked the same.

“The algorithm appears to cluster users based on their appearance,” said Faddoul. “But rather than that, the algorithm picks up on the user behavior that is very much driven by user behavior.”

What started out as an app that was supposed to generate engagement among the youth has now become an entire network of small cataclysmic events that perpetuate societal standards and racist practices.

Recently, Kayode decided to take a break from posting videos on TikTok.

“I’m just tired,” said Kayode. “It’s exhausting having to constantly check myself.”

Since being interviewed, Kayode took an extended hiatus from social media to focus on his mental health and find the motivation to create content again.

Jay no longer sees herself staying on the app for much longer.

“You know I can handle a lot,” she said. “But I just don’t see a future for someone like me on the app.”

TikTok continues to reach milestones for its usage. However, it is clear that there is a lot of work to do when it comes to making the platform equal for all.

Until then, Kayode and Jay will hold on to the promise of this app.

Brittany Zendejas is a freelance journalist. She is dedicated to telling stories about the Latino community which helped shape her into the writer and person she is today. Brittany is currently pursuing a Masters in Journalism at the University of California in Berkeley.

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