There are no worse advertisements on the internet than those for the Chinese short-video platform TikTok, which has been plastering YouTube and Instagram with terrifying dollops of algorithmic sludge since its relaunch in August. You might have encountered the ads before; they are roughly 10 seconds long and feature yet-unknown actors performing brief pre-scripted skits that range from broad comedy to pure gibberish, and all of it is sped-up, pitch-shifted, and filtered to ensure maximum annoyance. Try and watch this one, which I have inadvertently seen at least a dozen times already while trying to watch Japanese dog-grooming videos:
If you opted not to watch it, which is a decision I understand and respect, the above video is a scripted conversation between two heavily made-up young adults. Person 1, a woman whose voice is unaltered, asks “do you want to try it?” She is not holding anything. “No,” replies Person 2, his voice digitally transformed into a pained high-pitched yelp. “Okay.” Person 2 then squeals something unintelligible; my best guess is “a sharpie.” Without any context, it’s difficult to gauge whether that makes sense. “Do you want to smell it,” Person 1 asks. Person 2 weakly raises his hand to his face and then, in what must be intended as the punchline, utters the word “help” in complete deadpan. It’s difficult to imagine anyone downloading an app after having this eerie context-free horrorshow thrust into their feed, but the fact that the ad campaign remains active implies that at least a few of the 67 million views must have translated into click-throughs.
I am not the first to notice how terrible TikTok and its associated ad campaign are. The users of YouTube, where TikTok’s ads are most prominent, have not taken kindly to the sudden onslaught of pitch-shifted inanity. The majority of top YouTube results for “TikTok” come in the form of the “cringe compilation,” a genre in which commentators exhibit and discuss the internet’s shittiest content. Many of these compilations have several million views, including the one uploaded by PewDiePie, who has long been YouTube’s most-subscribed channel thanks to an enormous Gen Z fanbase. That TikTok is already considered tremendously, painfully uncool by the most mainstream single internet personality suggests a major miscalculation in its business model and particularly in its aggressive U.S. rollout.
TikTok has been a known quantity in Asia since 2016. Its introduction to the U.S. comes on the heels of an $800 million merger with musical.ly, a similar app that gave 200 million (largely preteen and teen) users the ability to lipsync to snippets of popular songs and launch the results into the ether. Like musical.ly, TikTok is both a collection of filters and templates and a full-fledged social network. Users, both by themselves and in tandem, can lipsync to song clips, prewritten skits, and bits of movie dialogue, which they can then run through a number of auditory and visual effects. This is not that dissimilar to what Snapchat does, but rather than reserve these low-effort, ephemeral gags for an ephemeral format like Snapchat’s expiring messages, TikTok encourages users to post their creations to its own social network, where they will be ranked by views on the home screen.
For example, you could participate in #pillowchallenge, which asks users to “shoot a neverending loop of yourself falling into bed” along to a provided audio clip. More than 15,000 people, most of whom appear to be grown-ass adults, have submitted entries so far; the top-viewed ones have gimmicks such as using a different built-in TikTok face filter every time the loop restarts, or just making a zany face. There is precious little room to differentiate one’s content within these rigid constraints, which makes the element of competition feel out of place. If every #pillowchallenge is the same length, contains the same elements, and is perfectly timed to match the same song clip, how do you tell a good one from a bad one?
The same question applies to #pandacrunch, which asks users to apply TikTok’s panda face filter and crunch on a vegetable side-by-side with a stock video of a real panda doing the same. There are 43,000 of these, and even the lucky ones at the top of the pile are still just clips of people eating celery while staring at their phone cameras. Sent privately to a friend a la Snapchat, these “challenges” might provide a brief moment of mirth, but only because you are doing them, and the recipient would already know you. Who cares what someone you’ve never seen before looks like through a face filter?
The paint-by-numbers approach to viral trends recalls the Harlem Shake craze of 2013 — just follow a set of very specific instructions, time everything correctly, and then launch the finished product into a wildly oversaturated marketplace, where it will try to compete with tens of thousands of identical copies but quickly fall to the bottom of the heap. The stiff competition encourages users to add every top hashtag to each post in order to maximize exposure, meaning that the #meangirlsday trend contains equal parts lipsynced Mean Girls quotes and spillover from #lipchallenge or #flashlightchallenge. There are few other options if you want to rise above the teeming masses of identical entries.
Who cares what someone you’ve never seen before looks like through a face filter?
The worst TikTok templates are the ones that push the limits of what should be allowed in an app geared toward middle schoolers. Take, for example, the popular trend #whichgirlfriend, which has users lipsync along to a prerecorded track: “Hey Siri, call my girlfriend.” The phone replies: “Which one?” It’s bewildering. I assumed joking about Siri in 2018 was exclusively the province of senior citizens, and I also assumed that everyone who found that sort of facile wife/girlfriend gag funny died of old age around the time The Honeymooners went off the air. I also thought children, who fall into neither category, were the target audience. If you are indeed 100 years old, though, you’re in luck — you can watch 23,000 different men lipsync to it, in a row. You can also watch thousands of men attempt sexy poses while lipsyncing to the chorus of douche-rock band Falling In Reverse’s 2011 track “Good Girls, Bad Guys,” which goes: “so why do good girls like bad guys / I’ve had this question for a really long time / I’m a bad boy and it’s plain to see / so why do good girls fall in love with me?” I was creeped out enough by this before I found out Falling In Reverse’s singer Ronnie Radke is a convicted felon who was arrested for domestic violence in 2012 and accused of rape in 2015. Not great.
Of course, many of my broader critiques of the TikTok model could also apply to the late short-video app Vine, which had its moments but also gave rise to a truly horrid culture of easy viral success and hollow fame. The platform’s most unfortunate content came from a cadre of vapid Justin Bieber lookalikes who did little else but mug at the camera and half-heartedly act out unoriginal comedy skits. It’s hard to believe that for a time in 2013, that was the hottest shit on the planet. There were actual real-life tours that bussed good-looking teen boys around the U.S. to take selfies with fans. There was a Netflix original series about one of the tours, and watching the first episode, which used the heavily scripted style of the worst reality shows to try and make Vine teens’ hotel arguments seem interesting, was one of the most harrowing experiences of my life.
After Vine was (stupidly) shut down in late 2016, a cottage industry of hugely popular Vine compilations emerged on YouTube. Watching these without having lived through it the first time, one would be forgiven for assuming that Vine’s six-second constraint sparked a cultural renaissance. All the greats are there, memorialized forever, like the kid saying “wow” after watching a woman blow a huge vape cloud, the guy destroying a neon Krispy Kreme sign with a spinning kickflip, and the toddler pointing at a flock of geese and saying “look at all those chickens.”
The bowlcutted bros who basically ran the app the first time around, like Logan Paul, Cameron Dallas, and Curtis Lepore, are virtually absent in the retelling, and there is scarcely any Supreme merch on display. Instead, the platform’s most memorable entries — those which saw the time constraint not as an opportunity to go viral with even less effort, but as a vital new form — survive. But this posthumous separation of the wheat from the chaff is unlikely to happen with TikTok, because TikTok is laid out in a way that it all but requires users to limit their creativity to the bare minimum needed to get some content, any content, out into the great digital garbage patch. To use TikTok at all is to become Logan Paul. It cannot be rehabilitated.