My first thought was “I am too old for this”. When I joined TikTok a few months ago my main objective was to try and get a glimpse of the virtual world my 14 year old sister inhabits. My curiosity was driven by how simple and fun it seemed to navigate for my sister, and how confusing and novel it felt to me. At first, I thought it was the immersiveness and intensity of the stimuli that comes with video content. Simply put, a video is a lot more intense than a short text post, even with a picture. A video with effects set to a catchy, rhythmic tune? Even more intense. The realisation that “growing up online” now encompasses something quite different from my childhood social media experience, was a hard one to wrap my head around. Yes, it’s faster, more saturated with meaning (and nonsense ), more personal. But what does this difference mean?Two related questions, with love and worry for the young people of the world: How will they turn out? And, of course how did we turn out? I was far from alone in projecting my anxieties about youth, technology, security, modernity and everything in between onto the newly popular platform. India banned it, Egypt imprisoned young women for it, and I was coming across its recognisable contact format on other social media platforms with increasing frequency. After coming across an article that referred to TikTok as “digital fentanyl”, preparing “our kids for the coming Chinese imperium” as revenge for “the century of humiliation starting with Opium Wars”, I finally knew – I had to try it.
After a few hours of continuous scrolling through the app’s infinite and repopulated “for you” page hiding the screen time display, I was starting to figure it out. What at first appeared to me as “incomprehensible”, “too much fun for me to have on the internet”, uncomfortable, too much too fast was a tightly woven intertextuality that I was new too. The broken 4th wall in videos of people, complete with their faces and voices being very comfortable on the internet was slightly eerie. As I was figuring out the machine, the machine was figuring out me and with the personalisation algorithm working its opaque magic, I quickly realised that I will not find myself in an area of this virtual universe anywhere near my younger sister. Watching the “For You” page actually becoming for me, over the course of a few days, my curiosity only grew. If it sees me, how would it show me? For whose pages am I and my “content”? What would I even make? My forays into video have been limited to the most basic and passable Instagram stories. Another concern was the definitive role of geography in the algorithm stacked the odds against me as in Egypt where I am living, TikTok trends are dominated by dancing to Egyptian pop and I am not much of a dancer. I made a pretty aesthetically pleasing video of me in my appartment with views plants and cats, in the style of Instagram visual parlance I am well versed in. It did not do the trick. Views and interaction were slow. What else about myself and my life could I broadcast, edited and packaged for the gaze of a yet undefined and therefore unlimited audience, that would catch its short attention span and stir emotions? I took the clue from the many videos I was suggested by the same algorithm – controversial politics.
I tried to perform in this genre before, when I broadcasted my views on rape culture in Russia in a very distinctly twitter way – a snarky, mean, generalising statement, meant to stir anger and disgust at the silent and loud condonation of this pervasive issue. It worked, and it reached an audience so wide I received death and rape treats together with antisemitic hate across a few of my Russian language social media accounts. It was unpleasant. I didn’t believe I was in any real danger, but my nervous system was of another opinion. Suddenly I felt very acutely that our brains are not exactly very well suited for these kinds of interactions. After a couple of days of not being able to handle people perceiving me on the Internet, I blocked over 20 000 Twitter users and my experience on the platform become much more enjoyable since.
So, of course, with that experience in mind I was about to broadcast perhaps my most deeply held and most controversial political opinion with my voice and face attached. Unsurprisingly given the design of the app full of prompts encouraging people t make content with video responses. An opportunity presented itself – a well-followed account of an Arab American creator called for Jewish creators to “duet” with answers to a list of questions: one or two-state solution, are our parents just as strict, and whether we consider Arabs cousins. The problem to some, the lack of thereof for many, is that I am Jewish, I hold an Israeli passport, and I am an anti-zionist. It took a couple attempts until I was satisfied with my image and voice to record the answer that started with “One: Palestine”.
Then I put my phone down and waited. As expected, engagement started pouring in, but to my surprise it was extremely positive. I understand that my video was first shown to users in the MENA region, because that is where I also am, who were more than happy to hear a voice they usually don’t. I was “stanned”, called a queen, with emoji crowns bestowed upon me and invited to the Palestinian cook out. The algorithm showed me to people who it though would like me first. For a day or so, this held, and I was completely distracted from my day to day tasks, glued to my newfound source of dopamine. It felt great. Then, if I had to warrant a guess, as TikTok figured out who likes me, it simultaneously figured out who does not. Both sentiments drive engagement, and the former perhaps more so. Slowly as my video was reaching a wider audience, my notifications brought in the resident supporters of Zionism, some comments in Hebrew, a handful of people calling me names and one creator who was so agitated by me saying Palestine once that she responded with a video of her own, starting with how I, as a non-Israeli Jew, have no right to speak on this matter. I gloated and laughed, imagining filming a response video featuring me, my Israeli passport and myself last year at the polls in Tel Aviv voting for the aJoint List. My heartbeat rose at the thought of the prospect. Unfortunately the option to reply was turned off.
All in all, it was an emotional rollercoaster, and the lows felt much steeper than the highs. The video rests at over 50 000 views as the most viewed response to the original. Coming back to it while writing this blogpost felt agitating, going through the comments I couldn’t help but pick imaginary arguments with my opponents, thinking about how much more engagement I would get. Having delved in, I find the opioid comparison wanting – after all, its a depressant.