‘I felt myself still reliving a past which was no longer anything more than the history of another person.’
—— Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
It is four in the morning when my alarm goes off, the familiar waking sound of bells tolling from my phone speaker. I slide my thumb across the screen, which reads 4:01 a.m. My partner stumbles to the toilet, playing a TikTok to wake herself up. The audio is a montage of songs spliced together and confused: Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘WAP’ combined with the theme of Dvorak’s 9th Symphony, the New World orchestral setting juxtaposed against the sultry lyrics: ‘Gobble me, swallow me, drip down the side of me…’
Synced with trending pop licks, TikTokers make snapshots of memory that might have once been described as ‘home videos’. Medleys and mashups accompany users changing outfits to each key change, contrasting their childhood phases, rehashing pop culture tropes and lip-syncing infectious diatribes, producing endless inscriptions of life events that become as addictive, flexible and tasteless as a wad of bubblegum—and discarded, flavourless, just as quickly. While I’m waiting for the kettle to boil I flick through a handful of these videos, one with a pink-haired teenager discussing ‘Shit customers used to say when I worked in bookshops’, another where a pair of sunhat-wearing teens are knocking back ciders and swinging a basket of berries in a ‘Cottagecore’ montage, and another where a skateboarder is gliding along an expanse of concrete, swaying as they dip into a quarterpipe. These second-hand memories all become entangled in a sticky knot, and as I work, I find myself singing TikTok mashups under my breath as we plug the milking cups onto a thousand cows, replaying snippets of speech in my head that will make me snort with laughter, or cringe, or even feel a pang of misplaced nostalgia at the recollection.
If you remember shows like Australia’s Funniest Home Videos you’ll recognise the same maverick glosslessness that many TikToks and YouTube videos reproduce in digital form. Only the sense of time is undone—there is no timestamp on the camera filter, no chronological order that separates a video two weeks old from one filmed this morning. This sense of anonymity gives the tempting notion that you, too, could be ‘TikTok famous’ if you had the right ingredients to convert into social capital, including but not limited to a photogenic appearance, dance moves, a sense of humour, or even just a lack of inhibitions around sharing your personal life.
Nowadays, instead of amassing private troves of videos and photo albums, our memories are disseminated publicly through phones, buried in news feeds and social media caches, even redeployed through Facebook memories and Instagram reels. These platforms routinely use our personal histories to capitalise off nostalgia, but the rehashing of memories in multimedia can be cause for embarrassment and distress. Pictures don’t lie—nor do they leave much room to process grief and trauma, as the static nature of social media creates little separation between the past and present. Sometimes I find myself cautiously navigating pages on Facebook and Instagram in order to avoid photos of a dead friend. Online images seem to hold a surreal kind of power vested in the illusion of atemporality.
The analogue winding of memory is like a clock stretching time around its wheel. But in the case of TikTok, videos feel like a reality show where anyone can be a participant and an audience.
Sometimes I think of my own internal memories being packaged in clunky VHS tapes, feelings become so clunky and awkward that they can no longer be accessed in the original form in which they were recorded. They become physical objects of nostalgia; no longer able to be played on the compact discs that have become the norm, they sit in garage sales and thrift shops like relics. The memories they contain are trapped inside a hollow, tacky casing, captured and bound in tape, images and sounds that are flattened and lit up inside a screen. The analogue winding of memory is like a clock stretching time around its wheel. But in the case of TikTok, videos feel like a reality show where anyone can be a participant and an audience. It’s a strange feeling, one that’s far removed from the experience of watching television.
In the attention economy, popularity is easily converted into monetary capital. The algorithm is the engine that drives views, likes and shares, creating ephemeral glimpses of fame as one face fades into another. Voices and memes merge into one another’s speech, creating artificial communities from curated taste and interests. But there’s something saccharine about the term ‘community’ when it is used to describe a shared interest without proximity, whether metaphysical or geographic. On TikTok we are said to ‘interact’ but in reality, we are seeing ourselves beside ourselves. We are all angles and no depth, trapped in moving images that never touch.
After work, I eat a bowl of two-minute noodles and watch a cooking video in bed. It’s soothing. The creator talks about capitalism and individualism as they toss herbs and spices into a pan of onions. I can almost smell it. During the night I will dream of eating while the same disembodied voice speaks to me. I feel unnerved when I wake up, disjointed and uncertain. Where does memory end and life begin?
It’s 6.30pm and I am lying on the couch, scrolling through TikTok as I wait for my partner to come home from her shift at the farm. It is the first evening of daylight savings—a strange hour. Dusk is supposed to be slipping into nightfall but the fragile sunlight still feels resolutely midday-ish. Linear time has been exposed as an illusion, and in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, 2020 has in some ways become a year lived on hold, a pause. I feel like we are living in separate lanes, a two-speed highway, as I scroll through social media photo reels of my friends in Hobart, where people I went to high school with are getting engaged, finishing postgraduate degrees, growing up. I try and picture myself a few years from now, when our individual experiences of living through the pandemic will have become a part of our collective memory. As I think about this, a sponsored video comes up.
Meet your new AI friend, it says, and a digitally moulded face of a woman in her mid-twenties is rotating on the screen. A cascade of piano chords falls in a perfect cadence as she smiles wanly. She looks as exhausted as I feel, with shadows under her eyes. I wonder about the image of a woman as a design choice. Does everyone see the same graphic, or has this image been crafted especially for maximum relatability to a casual worker and millennial? An uneasy feeling stirs in my belly. But my thumb lingers over the profile of the digital ‘friend’ . The idea of communing with a fundamentally non-real person, let alone knowing that whatever bot or algorithm is filtering my thoughts and sentiments for behavioural data, is kind of chilling—but then, isn’t writing this down a similar act of expression? Is sharing this data through an online article so different from deploying my thoughts to an AI bot?
In February 2019, TikTok reached 1 billion downloads, which doubled in just over a year to reach 2 billion as the COVID-19 crisis set in.With over 40 per cent of its users being between the ages of 16 and 24, I wonder how much this app capitalises off the loneliness of young people growing up in the shadow of a pandemic, at the same time as it has opened doors to virtual worlds.
If memory is selective, so too is the algorithm… As every night the human brain sorts through every memory for keeps and throw-aways, an algorithm sorts videos #ForYou.
In the isolation of COVID-19, TikTok has allowed many people to enter the rooms and chambers of other people’s lives, mediated through the #ForYou algorithm. Navigating the stream of videos sometimes feels like a labyrinth, where one like will unlock the door to a pathway aligned to mutual viewers’ liking patterns. One video opens with a disorienting montage of two-second clips: You go through LGBT TikTok, and then Poly TikTok, then Cottagecore TikTok, then Witchtok, until finally, you reach Frog TikTok!: The video concludes with a green tree frog sitting with a glum-looking expression. But while TikTok has opened virtual doors for communities isolated by the pandemic, it has also cleared the way for many behavioural futures marketers to cash in on the memories of its young users.
If the way to determine someone’s behaviour in future is to look at their past, then TikTok is arming companies with the tools to be able to advertise on a psychologically immersive level. As Shoshana Zuboff writes in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, one of the many tactics of surveillance capitalism include monitoring social media users’ data and deploying advertisements to remind users of a brand or company at exactly the right time, depending on pre-recorded behavioural patterns, in order to trigger predictable consumer behaviour.
The segmented nature of the TikTok algorithm provides a map through the labyrinth only visible to its manufacturers, showing demographics and potential markets in its behavioural patterns. If memory is selective, so too is the algorithm that pairs viewer with video in great swathes of information that the app collects and spits out in chains of data. As every night the human brain sorts through every memory for keeps and throw-aways, an algorithm sorts videos #ForYou based on similar liking or commenting patterns, linking your preferences with those of other viewers who share similar taste. If a viewer from a different echo chamber ‘interacts’ with your TikTok by way of liking, commenting or sharing, you can be suddenly ejected from your curated gallery of videos and into theirs—the audience’s identity becomes confused with the creator’s. I’ve often stumbled on a queer activist pleading for ‘interaction’ from LGBTQ TikTokers, after a slew of unwanted attention from trolls has skewed the algorithm through the ‘interactions’ towards videos that align with the trolls’ own preferences. The way I think about it is like being a pinball bounced from tunnel to tunnel of videoreels. Depending on whose audience is liking and commenting on your videos, you can be suddenly launched into a foreign territory where everyone votes conservative. This is one of the aberrations in a program designed to make it easy for marketers to pinpoint their target.
But the further problem, which can only be seen outside of the gameplay, is the harvest of these memories—the siphoning and herding of data to be backed up for advertising revenues, funnelling consumers into behavioural pathways.
Many critics say TikTok is a data collection service thinly disguised as a social media platform.
According to Bloomberg, TikTok’s parent company ByteDance generated more than $3 billion of net profit on over $17 billion in revenue last year. To put this in perspective, YouTube recorded $15.1 billion in advertising revenue in 2019. Many critics say TikTok is a data collection service thinly disguised as a social media platform. The app tracks users’ phone hardware including identification, memory usage, disk space, and apps you have installed. Everything network-related, such as IP addresses and WiFi access points are also monitored, with some variants of the app having GPS pinging enabled, meaning the app was sending the users live location to HQ every 30 seconds. The app also sets up a local proxy server on devices for ‘transcoding media’ which basically means that voice recordings and videos can be transcribed for user information to be converted into data and sold on to advertisers. In some recorded cases the app has even leaked users’ real names and birthdays used as security devices, as well as sharing their email and recovery address to third parties.
With so much personal information on show, the real question is whose memories these TikToks now belong to. Is it the users? The viewers? A room of marketers behind a one-way glass screen? Or perhaps a string of bots, algorithms churning through centuries worth of memories siphoned through a viral app.
The TikTok hashtag #memory has 7.2 billion views—almost the same amount as the world’s population. As time passes, I think about billions of people looking in at each other and remaining unseen. I wonder if this is real life being relived, or a one-way transaction of memory serving a higher purpose—an offering to the gods of capital?
One day at a work meeting, we’re told that surveillance cameras are going up at the farm to monitor our shifts, for ‘productivity’. I am not sure whether I’ll sign the waiver or kick up a fuss—whether I can realistically afford to do the latter.
But within a few hours of the cameras being installed, I forget they are there. After my shift I mentally rewind through the hours, cringing as I remember untucking a wedgie, spraying a hose at my partner across the other side of the shed, getting explosively shat on by a cow, and watching a Tiktok on my phone. There’s an irony to the fact that while I’m being watched, I am also watching someone else through a screen; what we don’t see is how much of ourselves is being siphoned into an information superhighway of memories, into warehouses full of manufactured data, into marketing analytics, into signals zooming through cables buried somewhere beneath our feet.