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What going viral on TikTok taught me about social media consumption

My first encounter with mediocre Internet fame was set to the soundtrack of Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage.” 

In the flurry of college admissions season, I had created a series of TikToks that I was sure would garner the attention of the video platform’s nosiest teens: “Letting TikTok Choose What College I Go To.” “Like whichever one you see first,” I captioned the now-archived videos. At over 28,000 likes was my UCLA video; trailing dramatically behind — at 850 likes — was Duke University.

To put it bluntly: I did not listen to TikTok. My original intention was never to let TikTok choose what college I went to, but rather to snag a chance at Internet virality.

A few weeks ago, I made a satirical TikTok hinting at a made-up love story between me and my gay roommate. Anyone that remotely knew me could discern that it was satire— it didn’t help that I was wearing a Paw Patrol shirt in the video. In the span of a week, the video garnered over one million views, two hundred thousand likes, and seven hundred comments. 

Being thrust back into the fleeting spotlight of mediocre Internet fame felt phenomenal. For influencers and plebeians alike, we derive a certain adrenaline rush from sudden bursts of Internet virality. I know firsthand that crafting fanatic, shocking narratives on TikTok — whether it’s me and my roommate’s love story, or the idea that I would let a social media platform determine the trajectory of the next four years of my life — fits right into the algorithm.

It’s comical at first, but our pattern of social media consumption also speaks to a larger, darker truth about social media algorithms and their ability to affect our belief systems: in an age where social media algorithms prioritize reactionary, radical content, social media is evolving into a potent tool to facilitate socio political polarization.

Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell write in The Atlantic that social media converts communication into “a public performance”: essentially, we are all handed megaphones, and whoever says the most controversial or surprising things are the people that we listen to. Online networks prioritize those voices, because they generate the most likes— thus throwing us down ideological rabbit holes.

Case in point: social media was essential in facilitating the rise of QAnon, also known as the Internet’s first crowdsourced cult. From the start, the right-wing extremist group harnessed social media to recruit new members, spread disinformation, and plan the January 6, 2021 Capitol attack. In September 2020, almost 60% of Republicans believed in QAnon, which spread radical theories about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Pizzagate and the idea that the world is run by Satan-worshiping pedophiles.

Despite pedaling such outlandish conspiracy theories, QAnon was able to establish a cultural stronghold on so many simply because of social media: for several years, thousands, if not millions, took to mainstream social media platforms like Facebook, Reddit, Youtube, and Twitter dive deeper and deeper into QAnon conspiracy theories. By permitting — and prioritizing — radical content from QAnon, these social media platforms amplified the deep ideological divisions in the US, bringing about events like the January 6 siege. 

In a broader sense, the cultural wonder of social media has corrupted our ideas of democracy by simply showing us what we want to see: engaging, radical content that fits comfortably within our distorted worldviews. By incentivizing users to create controversial content, social media platforms like TikTok are doing far more than just maximizing engagement: they’re changing our belief systems and our political systems.

I, for one, am complicit in this. Every like, every comment on my TikTok brings forth instant validation. As I am writing this, I’m also brainstorming new ideas to extend my fifteen minutes of fame: should me and my roommate “break up”, or should we keep on playing the game? We’ll let the algorithm decide.

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