Embedded is your essential guide to what’s good on the internet, from Kate Lindsay and Nick Catucci.
FYI, I wrote an article for The Atlantic over the weekend expanding on the Millennial pause concept I wrote about last week. You can read it here. —Kate
TikTok’s influence is so massive that it is now, as I’ve written, the internet's town square. The app has gobbled up the best parts of Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube to create an almost universal ecosystem of culture. It has also, unavoidably, gobbled up the worst parts, too.
One of the most quintessential negative Twitter experiences involves tweeting out a feeling or statement applicable only to you, and inevitably fielding at least one user who’s irate that the tweet didn’t speak to what someone totally different might feel or believe. As in, recommending a pizza place you just tried only to have a gluten-free vegan who is allergic to tomatoes in your replies, scolding you for not accounting for the sum of human experiences.
These gotchas and actuallies and bad faith readings aren't always personal. They can be reflexive, from a Debbie Downer to someone who pokes holes in things because they’re rewarded for it with engagement. Others willfully misread and misrepresent a benign statement under the guise of social justice (for this, Twitter has Tumblr culture to thank).
But now, this behavior has migrated to comments on TikToks, previously one of the funnier and purer parts of the app, and it’s particularly jarring to witness.
I first noticed this happening on videos of pets. You don’t have to scroll too far in the comments to find someone accusing the owner of harming, misunderstanding, or otherwise neglecting the pet, all because the cat was, like, allowed on the kitchen counter. But the phenomenon has ballooned significantly, and now one in every ten or so videos has some kind of contrarian comment that sometimes spirals into discourse. You think you’re watching one kind of basic TikTok video, and then open the comments to find out an almost entirely unrelated argument is unfolding.
A telltale sign that a TikTok video has been Twittered is when the creator has pinned a statement to address whatever is happening below in the comments. It’s become a private game for me to reckon the gulf between the actual content of the video and what the creator feels forced to address. The widest one yet was an animal video with the pinned comment “transphobia will NOT be tolerated in the comments.” Good, but what on earth had to go down for us to get there?
I’m surprised this didn’t happen sooner, to be honest. The same way it does on the For You page, TikTok ranks comments by how much engagement they're getting, and so argumentative statements get noticed and gain traction. On the FYP, this algorithmic prioritization is an asset. In the comments, not so much. In fact, it’s an early sign of what Garbage Day’s Ryan Broderick calls “message board rot,” a symptom of which includes “a culture of indirect communication, where users no longer directly say what they’re actually trying to say” due to “public harassment and inter-community elitism.” Message board rot is why Twitter is a dying website.
TikTok is, of course, not a dying website, and it would take way more than some annoying people in the comment sections to make it so. But still, it's a little less fun using the app knowing that every day it gets more likely that you'll be bodied by a bad-faith harasser under a video of your dog. The upside? TikTok users tend to mobilize around self-policing their communities. With any luck, starting Twitter discourse in the TikTok comments will be just another TikTok trend that eventually falls out of favor.
Amen — It's one of the "purer" parts of the app and particularly delightful and refreshing. I hope that the blend of self-policing, in-app cultural norms can drown it out. I wonder how the product teams are observing, discussing, and thinking of ways to support the better parts of this culture.