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Notebook: Hived Mind
By Ann Kjellberg, editor
Empty frame for Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee in the Dutch Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. From “Five Frames Left Behind,” stories behind the frames left empty from the Gardner Museum’s infamous theft of March 18, 1990
TikTok, it has become almost hard to remember, began a few short years ago (2016) as an app for sharing videos of yourself lip-syncing music and dancing. The extremity of its success (it reached one billion users in September and has been the world’s most downloaded mobile app since early 2020, with nearly half of its American users occupying the coveted under-twenty-five demographic) owes something to the universal seduction of music, and quite a bit to a concert of small technical features that make it very easy and effective to use, but most of all to its famously irresistible recommendation algorithm, which measures minutely what you respond to and trawls through its vast bank of freely surrendered videos to serve up for you what you may not even be aware you like. Digital advertising has long sought you out for characteristics you inadvertently disclosed in your online life; TikTok does the work ahead of time by hiving you into ever-more-specific niches. In contrast to previous social media platforms, which were, by definition, social, encircling you with the decisions of people you had chosen to surround yourself with, TikTok opens the tiny window in your hand to the entire inexhaustible world.
TikTok bills itself as an entertainment platform, setting out to “make your day,” and when we start to fault it for not doing other things I am reminded of how, for instance, the novel was for centuries disparaged as a low (women’s) form. All the ways we communicate operate on a continuum between pleasing and substantive, and sometimes real culture comes to us in the form of fun. Currently many artistic forms previously considered pop or commercial—comic books, genres like science fiction and romance, gaming—are getting their day in the sun as ways of communicating their own unique truths, often truths of people left out of the more prestigious mediums. TikTok’s accessible reward of virality does make it a very democratic form, unlike other platforms that multiply the benefits of already being famous: Tech writer Nathan Baschez memorably called it “by and for randos.” It invites people to craft a publicly irresistible face with the promise of a waiting public, and people rocket to visibility out of nowhere.
That TikTok is addictive and fun and confined to what it is doesn’t necessarily make it “bad,” but its ubiquity demands attention, and because tech always chases the next new thing, its signature characteristics are spreading beyond its little frame. Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta, which has achieved dominance in part by copying and coopting rivals, has characteristically in the last few weeks modified its main two platforms, Facebook and Instagram, to mimic TikTok’s strengths. In Facebook’s case, there will now be internal competition for the posts of your “friends and family” (which within memory Meta devalued news in order to prioritize—in a different kind of bid to keep your attention) via posts from strangers that promise virality. Instagram is now nudging you in the direction of seeing and lingering on more viral content from strangers, a measure it cycled back somewhat this week after complaints from Instagram tycoon Kylie Jenner (who makes a lot of money from her Instagram “friends”) and others. Cal Newport in The New Yorker interestingly pointed out what the social media giants have to lose if they surrender their carefully assembled social connections assets for these agglomerations of strangers.
This more comprehensive embrace of virality marks another step in the direction social media’s existing incentives—to do whatever it takes to keep everyone’s attention in front of advertisers and to collect as much information from as many people as possible—and has made TikTok, like Instagram before it but moreso, a powerful engine specifically for selling books. Currently seven of the fifteen books on the New York Times bestseller list owe their audience to TikTok; four of these are by author Colleen Hoover, a hitherto little known TikTok phenomenon. Observers have celebrated that this surge of spontaneous book promoting gives voice to the average reader, resuscitates the “backlist” of previously published books (TikTok announced its own #BookTok book club last month, with Jane Austen’s Persuasion first up), compensates to some extent for the disappearance of book criticism, and appears to foster new readers, especially among demographics not reached by traditional book marketing. And the pandemic, of course, gave it a real-life connection vacuum into which to balloon.
It has often been observed that BookTok is effective at selling books because it rides the velocity of individual emotion, also the fundament of our connection to books, particularly fiction. (BookTok, like the early history of the novel, is a zone friendly to women.) What TikTok is not so good at is conveying complex information. A BookTok viewer sees a book’s cover and its reader’s expression, hears a few words of enthusiasm over a catchy song, and then moves on to the next thing. Analogously formerly hot book Instagram (#Bookstagram) is very much about visual style: Bookstagram viewers see a book’s cover in a beguiling setting, with a mug or a cozy throw or a spray of flowers, and a brief caption (2,200 characters max). Jordan Moblo, of the popular Bookstagram account @Jordys.Book.Club, told author Rumaan Alam on the podcast “Working,” that he will “promote” (post) a book on his feed if it looks good, but only give it a good “review” (in the caption text) if he really likes it. (He doesn’t give bad reviews.) Do his viewers follow the fine discernment here? In Bookstagram, discussion takes place in the Messaging app (one thousand character limit). Words on TikTok, like YouTube, either take the form of fleeting pasted-in visual images or, in TikTok’s case, a three-hundred-character caption.
As book veterans gazed in wonder at the BookTok sales spike, another piece of news came in. A UK study reported that TikTok is the UK’s fastest growing source of news, with nearly a quarter of US adults saying they get their news from the video sharing app (though they are not sure it’s a reliable source of information). Also, Google disclosed recently that more and more young people are using TikTok in place of Maps and Search, having noticed that it does a better job of predicting for their tastes and interests. This is concerning because, given virality’s reliance on reflexive emotion and other technical features of the app, TikTok has proved a fertile ground for misinformation.
Are such mediums superficial to an ominous degree? Is an image of a book’s cover or the throb of appreciation in a reader’s voice even analogous to engagement with the complex experiences and developed arguments that we look to books to sustain? For one thing these sensations are readily bent to commercial pressures. I wrote a post last year about Bookstagram influencers who felt they should be paid by publishers for their contributions to book promotion. The marketers behind UK’s Penguin Teen imprint were interviewed for the marketing site ClickZ about the ways traditional publishers are adapting to the personal style of BookTok, cultivating influencers to produce recommendations that feel spontaneous. Oprah magazine described how publishers are contracting with influencers to try to capture their juice. How do these relationships work exactly? Those of us who grew up with a brighter line between advertising and editorial find the fact that viewers do not seem very concerned, when it comes to the profession of Influencing, with the difference between a hired opinion and an actual one pretty startling.
The other feature that image-bound Instagram and TikTok, as well as YouTube and the audio form podcasts, share is that they don’t “link out.” If you display a link on Instagram or TikTok it can’t be clicked on; the viewer has to capture it somehow and type or paste it into a browser. If a TikTok video refers to an external source, like a news article, it can only show it visually with a fleeting image. The UK report noted that among those who get their news from TikTok, fewer than a quarter get it directly from a news source: the rest comes filtered through videos of “people they follow” and “family and friends.” Tech commentator Elena Cavender refers to this as TikTok’s “lack of primary sources.”
When people use Facebook and Twitter for news, Facebook and Twitter are at least delivering to them actual, verifiable sources: You click on a link and you are at the New York Times, CNN, or another outlet that is (or is not) institutionally bound to the item’s integrity, often itself connecting outward to related, supporting information. I remember when I first began using Twitter, I described it to friends as a “real-time bibliography,” always being made for me by people I find interesting. Information on Instagram and TikTok is locked within the frame, and delivered by the person in the frame, dependent on their retelling and their viral energy. Matt Ingram wrote last week for the Columbia Journalism Review about how the TikTokification of Meta will accelerate a disinvestment from traditional news, on top of “the continued down-ranking of professional news content” by the Facebook algorithm. I have heard rumors, though never seen verified, that Twitter and Facebook were already downgrading outbound links on their algorithms to keep you on the platform.
Other sources of digital news and information that are captured in a retelling and dependent on the viral appeal of “personalities” raise similar questions. The Nieman Lab did a story recently on a popular YouTube “news” feed called Channel 5, with millions of viewers, earnings in the hundreds of thousands, and a recent movie deal, which began as a parody account and evolved into something that uneasily enacted what it mocked, travelling in a graphics-covered van with fake satellite dishes. Its founder Andrew Callaghan “doesn’t do journalism in the traditional sense,” but “believes that independent creators like him will gradually replace the traditional pillars of journalism.” Watching a “Channel 5” video you hear in an “authentic” way from the people on the street that the official-looking van attracts, but you are not connected to any vetted source of information. “I pretty much create news content for the disengaged,” Andrew Callaghan said. Similarly podcasts, which have gobbled up a huge share of the news consumer’s attention, have to refer the listener (who is probably driving or chopping vegetables) to the online notes for documentation of their sometimes casually delivered aperçus. Book Post writer Hugh Eakin wrote a couple of years ago in Harper’s about how the conversational disclosures on podcasts do not seem to be bound by traditional norms of fact-checking and verification. Bloomberg had a story this week about people paying to be on podcasts, a strict no-no in traditional news.
In a moment when ideological polarization has challenged the value that Americans ascribe to time-worn mechanisms for collecting, verifying, conveying, preserving, analyzing, and challenging information and art, it is inspiring when these new forms rise up to awaken and energize new audiences. But what we need to think about is how the few seconds that a viewer spends with an image will connect them to a larger ecosystem of verifiable truths and enduring ideas. We do book reviews at Book Post as a way of tying the world of bytes to a bigger world beyond. How can these forms’ connection to books and ideas be not just about nice tableaux and ready emotion, but also about the subtlety and complexity that books and other labored-over media anchor us to in this information-starved age. The question is how our bite-sized discourse can remain tethered to something larger than itself, can avoid becoming a free-floating engine of invention indiscriminately fixing on whatever captures attention in the fleeting moment.
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