The Back Road: Is there and upside to TikTok?

The Back Road: Is there and upside to TikTok?

By Andrew Malekoff

For the uninitiated, TikTok is a social media app that allows users to produce, view, and share brief videos from mobile devices or webcams. Worldwide, there are one billion monthly active users, according to SEARCH Statistics.

Following is a summary of some of the critics’ concerns about TikTok use, and then some notes on my positive experiences on the app.

There has been much said pointing to the downside of TikTok, which was created and launched in China in 2016.

For example, I just found two articles published in March 2023 entitled, “What the hell is wrong with TikTok?” and “The Dark Side of TikTok: Concerns over its Impact on Mental Health, Privacy, and Society.”

Most notably, there are concerns with the addictive qualities and mental health fallout (anxiety and depression) generated by excessive TikTok use, especially on image-conscious young people who may be struggling with self-esteem.

Inconsistent content moderation is major concern. While the app has established policies to prevent hate speech, misinformation, disinformation, and other harmful content, it is questionable as to whether this is routinely and uniformly enforced.

Additional red flags point to the Chinese government using the platform to disseminate propaganda and increase its power worldwide. User data could also be vulnerable to hacking and surveillance.

I knew little about TikTok, so I thought I would sign up, log in, and see what all the fuss was about.

What I found was an entertaining compellation of short video clips. They are creative, provocative, humorous, informative, outrageous, gross, and moving. I could easily scroll through the content for 30 minutes without breaking a sweat.

The content is either professionally produced or homemade. Over time, the brief videos went where I had not anticipated. For example, there are myriad clips of people having excessive wax and other obstructions removed from their ears.

There is no shortage of videos of people of all ages engaged in combat on the street, in the schoolyard, or in a restaurant, with food and chairs flying and tables being flipped over.

There are many quick news bits – breaking news, current events, politics, sports updates, and celebrity gossip. Recent video clips of singer-songwriter Taylor Swift and football star Travis Kelcey’s flirtation were pervasive and continued to be posted for weeks. Fact-checking is always a good idea.

Is there an upside to TikTok?

I think so if it is not used obsessively or destructively. Beyond the passive act of viewing TikTok, for some young people, it provides a creative outlet to experiment and share their stories and talents by adding content or expressing their point of view on any number of matters.

As for me, what is the upside? For starters, I do get a good laugh from time to time.

For example, Anatole poses as a janitor in a weightlifting gym. He has a thick dark beard and is wearing blue overalls and a cap. He appears to be of average height and build. As he sweeps the floor huge, muscular guys wearing tank tops are deadlifting many hundreds of pounds of weight from the floor.

When one of the brawny guys finishes, Anatole approaches the same barbell, indicating it must be moved so he can sweep. Rather than ask for help, he casually lifts the still-full barbell and moves it so he can continue to sweep. When he finishes, he picks up the barbell and replaces it.

The weight lifters are incredulous, mouths agape, no doubt wondering, “How did he do that?” This “act” is repeated over and over.

Obviously, Anatole is a ringer. I could watch this all day long, well maybe not all day, but it does trigger the addictive quality of the app.

What I like most, though, are the videos that unexpectedly move me.

Devon Rodriquez, is a “street artist” whose videos appear on TikTok and elsewhere. He draws or paints portraits of strangers, often while riding the New York City subway.

When he finishes each portrait, he hands it over to his “model” and says, “Here, I drew you.” The unsuspecting model is at first hesitant to take the paper Rodriguez is handing them.

When they finally relent and cautiously accept the portrait, their face transforms with gratitude, for the unexpected gift.

If for even for a few precious moments, the stresses, worries and anxieties of the day seem to melt from their faces, giving rise to a feeling of being valued and celebrated by a talented and generous stranger.

It never fails to bring a tear to my eye.

And, then there is the guy wearing a concierge uniform who literally rolls out a red carpet on the city sidewalk, inviting walkers to step up onto the makeshift runway for a moment in the sun.

In the “red carpet” videos, Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” is playing in the background.

Some walkers are hesitant, but are persuaded to step up. Others embrace the offer and play along by strutting their stuff. Many complete the walk with a smile on their faces as if they just walked the runway to the Academy Awards ceremony.

I love the clips of military reunions; a military service member returns home and surprises their spouse, children, mom, or dad either in an airport, classroom, or at the front door of their childhood home. Of course, the reunion is orchestrated, but always emotional.

In another set of videos, young children are presented with gift boxes for their birthday or Christmas.

When they open the box, they discover a puppy or kitten inside wrapped in a decorative ribbon. After the initial shock and surprise, the trembling child asks if they can hold it.

They pick it up and with tears streaming down their cheeks they ask, “Can I keep it?”

That one gets me every time.

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