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Premium Articles. Subscription offers. Subscription sign in. Read latest edition. UK Edition. US Edition. By Jia Tolentino. Marcella is eighteen and lives in a Texas suburb so quiet that it sometimes seems like a ghost town.
They were strange and hilarious and reminded her of Vine, the discontinued platform that teen-agers once used for uploading anarchic six-second videos that played on a loop. She opened TikTok, and it began showing her an endless scroll of videos, most of them fifteen seconds or less. TikTok was learning what she wanted. It showed her more absurd comic sketches and supercuts of people painting murals, and fewer videos in which girls made fun of other girls for their looks.
When you watch a video on TikTok, you can tap a button on the screen to respond with your own video, scored to the same soundtrack. Another tap calls up a suite of editing tools, including a timer that makes it easy to film yourself. Videos become memes that you can imitate, or riff on, rapidly multiplying much the way the Ice Bucket Challenge proliferated on Facebook five years ago.
It worked like a punch line.
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A guy with packing tape over his nose became Voldemort. A girl smeared gold paint on her face, put on a yellow hoodie, and turned into an Oscar statue. Marcella propped her phone on her desk and set the TikTok timer. Her video took around twenty minutes to make, and is thirteen seconds long. She enters the frame in a white button-down, her hair dark and wavy. Pretty quickly, though, her video began getting hundreds of likes, thousands, tens of thousands. People started sharing it on Instagram. Marcella started to get direct messages on TikTok and Instagram, some of which called her anti-Semitic.
One accused her of promoting Nazism. She deleted the video. I was alone with my phone at my desk on a week night, and when I watched the video I screamed. It was terrifyingly funny, like a well-timed electric shock. It also made me feel very old. Arnold Schwarzenegger was on TikTok, riding a minibike and chasing a miniature pony. Most important, the self-made celebrities of Generation Z were on TikTok, a cohort of people in their teens and early twenties who have spent a decade filming themselves through a front-facing camera and meticulously honing their understanding of what their peers will respond to and what they will ignore.
I sent an e-mail to Marcella. Marcella is Jewish, and she and her brothers were homeschooled. Not long before she made her video, her family had stopped at a base to renew their military I. One of her brothers glanced at her new I.
How TikTok Holds Our Attention
In correspondence, Marcella was as earnest and thoughtful as her video had seemed flip. TikTok, like the rest of the world, was a mixed bag, she thought, with bad ideas, and cruelty, and embarrassment, but also with so much creative potential. Its ironic sensibility was perfectly suited for people her age, and so was its industrial-strength ability to turn non-famous people into famous ones—even if only temporarily, even if only in a minor way.
Marcella had accepted her brush with Internet fame as an odd thrill, and not an entirely foreign one: her generation had grown up on YouTube, she noted, watching ordinary kids become millionaires by turning on laptop cameras in their bedrooms and talking about stuff they like. TikTok has been downloaded more than a billion times since its launch, in , and reportedly has more monthly users than Twitter or Snapchat.
I downloaded TikTok in May, adding its neon-shaded music-note logo to the array of app icons on my phone. After a three-billion-dollar investment from the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, last fall, ByteDance was valued at more than seventy-five billion dollars, the highest valuation for any startup in the world. A kid sprayed shaving cream into a Croc and stepped into it so that shaving cream squirted out of the holes in the Croc. In five minutes, the app had sandblasted my cognitive matter with twenty TikToks that had the legibility and logic of a narcoleptic dream. TikTok is available in a hundred and fifty markets.
The company is reportedly focussing its growth efforts on the U.