The Ethics of Engagement

TikTok’s bargain with community and security

by Lucas Gelfond

Illustration by Hannah Park

published September 23, 2020

content warning: rape

My friend Natalie veers her car into the shoulder of the road. We get out and watch her demonstrate a few odd hand motions and a pose we'll do in unison. She props her phone up and hits record, queuing a pre-recorded snippet of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” We dance, she posts, the car leaves the road shoulder. This was my first TikTok.

TikTok is a new video-centric social network. It gained international popularity after merging with and essentially rebranding, a platform I only knew for its lip-syncing and dancing content and for the large swaths of time a friend’s elementary-school-aged sister reportedly spent using it.  Initially, TikTok felt more like a platform to cringe at rather than use. My ambivalence, however, quickly seemed behind the times. Friends began to send me links to videos that often made me laugh, frequently comparing the platform to Vine, my once-favorite-now-defunct video sharing network. In the depth of quarantine boredom, I downloaded the app and created an account, wholly dismissive and morbidly curious. 

The homepage of TikTok is divided into two sections, “Following” and “For You.” The former is analogous to a feed on Instagram or Twitter, only showing posts from users one follows. The few in-person acquaintances I followed posted tens or hundreds of videos of themselves imitating popular dances to nearly nonexistent audiences. They rarely garnered more than five or ten likes, much like what I’d filmed with Natalie on the shoulder of that road. 

The mythology surrounding the platform, however, revolves around the latter, a feed showing content theoretically tailored to a user’s taste over time. Upon first use, my “For You” page showed a smattering of classic viral-type videos: social experiments and pranks, jokes and skits, visually interesting science experiments and, most notably, dancing videos. Famous creators I’d heard of in passing, like Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae, dominated my screen. The concept of the viral anti-celebrity has a long history on other platforms, but TikTok took the concept to new heights; influencers often performed elaborate dance routines in their bathroom mirrors.

Everyday people could gain popularity on the app by incorporating popular music into their content. A feature of TikTok allows users to view all videos made with a certain ‘sound,’ often a snippet from a longer full song. Although the aforementioned influencers typically had the most popular videos on these sounds, I was struck by both the quantity and variety of users making them. While each user might add their own spin, they were all performing the same routines, group rituals that seemed to transcend boundaries of nationality, race, class, gender, and age. Some of the most popular videos were made by creators with small or nonexistent followings, often outside of the United States. I’d scroll through their profiles where many had one or two posts go viral amidst a sea of barely-viewed videos; these were ‘normal’ people, not celebrities. 

The posts I’d so quickly judged from friends and acquaintances began to make sense. The audience, unlike other platforms, was not composed of people they knew; TikTok users performed to the public. With enough trial and error, seemingly anyone could go viral. 




On August 6, President Trump signed an executive order banning transactions with ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, effective in 45 days for national security reasons. The order alleges that the app “automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users...including Internet and other network activity information such as location data and browsing and search histories.” Trump then states that such information could “allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information.” It is a puzzling charge to levy against TikTok specifically. Twitter can collect user location metadata even when location services are disabled, Snapchat’s internal data tool gave employees access to location information, saved Snaps, and other personal information, Google dropped its ban on personally identifiable web tracking in 2016, and Facebook’s well-documented privacy issues have included tracking people across the entire internet. If TikTok’s data collection is unpermissible or excessive, it appears to be in line with industry standards. 

    Trump’s order, of course, centers on the admittedly questionable relationship between ByteDance and the Chinese Communisty Party. Another one of ByteDance’s apps, Neihan Duanzi, was banned by Chinese censors due to vulgarity, per the Guardian. In an apology, ByteDance’s founder notes that “our product took the wrong path, and content appeared that was incommensurate with socialist core values.” Further, documents obtained by the Intercept found guidance instructing moderators to ban anything that could “endanger national security” or “national honor and interests.” 

Other Chinese technology companies, like gaming giants Tencent and NetEase, have found themselves subject to similar government intervention, restricting their ability to monetize online games. Tencent in particular “has been at the center of government criticisms on games deemed harmful and addictive, and the firm has subsequently introduced so-called ‘utility games’ in 2018 designed to promote traditional Chinese culture, science and technology,” according to TechCrunch. American companies are often applauded for their independence from the government. Many praised Apple when, in 2016, it refused the FBI’s request to unlock the iPhone of a suspect in the 2015 San Bernardino shooting. Chinese companies do not have the same liberties; “The Chinese government has no problem telling [its companies] where they should come down in political debates,” Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and former Facebook chief security officer, told the Washington Post




Many American social media platforms only show content from users that one follows. Because of this, the recommendation algorithms for traditional platforms are limited to choosing the order in which this content appears. TikTok’s “For You” page, in contrast, is not limited to followed users, vastly expanding the potential number of videos in one’s feed. Instead, TikTok uses the videos one likes and shares, the comments one posts, and a variety of other factors to personalize one’s feed to their preferences. While this distinction of possible content seems subtle, it makes the experience of using TikTok fundamentally different from every social network that precedes it; the more I use it, the more it changes, morphing to my preferences. The aforementioned bathroom dancing content was quickly replaced by videos like an electric keyboard cover of Grimes’ “Oblivion” or with recommendations for “Cute French Films to Watch.” 

The app’s tone, initially, was refreshing; signing up for the app still felt modestly ridiculous, and the younger demographic of the app made for videos that felt almost impossibly authentic. This stood in stark contrast to the intense pretension of internet music and film forums on Reddit and Facebook, some of which are worth joining just for their absurd titles, like “Patrician Music Chartposting,” “High Art Musicposting,” and “Patrician Filmposting: You wish you were this buff.” Too often these groups descend into echo chambers of praise around a collection of films or albums that are universally acclaimed and beloved by the group. Recognizing an artist becomes more about signaling belonging rather than appreciation for the music itself. TikTok avoids such pompous hierarchies, instead featuring videos of teenagers passionately recommending music they seem to truly enjoy. There were often attempts embedded in the videos to appeal to a wide audience, precluding any sense of gatekeeping. Examples include videos with captions like, “If You Like Moonlight, You Might Like” or “Movies That Show the Adventures of Being Alone.”

While I found the sheer specificity of these recommendations unsettlingly precise at first, the personalization quickly proved itself key to the enjoyment of the app. Shortly after downloading the app, a video from user @jeffreyepsteinstan pops into my feed. He states, “I’m not one of those poser indie kids who listens to Tame Impala or Mac Demarco. I am better than them, because I listen to Car Seat Headrest and Neutral Milk Hotel. This Jeff Mangum guy…” Self-critical, niche humor like this only made sense in the context of the aforementioned groups, where preferring one artist over another engenders ridicule. Before TikTok, I spent years seeking out and slowly accumulating groups and accounts referencing this specific form of satire. TikTok gave me this content in a matter of hours, ridiculing this method of gatekeeping before the original elitism which bred this satire could reach my page.

Ironically, when left without clear delineations of communities, users tend to self-label the “sides” of TikTok, loosely defined as groups of users who get content of a certain topic. Creators can make videos targeted at a very specific group of users. For example, a video captioned, “You’ve reached sf skater tik tok” invites the viewer to join their side of the platform. Because that very group of users tends to respond favorably to videos that identify them, they will be shown more of the same. While this self-labeling certainly takes place on other platforms, like self-identified ‘tech Twitter’ or ‘stan Twitter,’ TikTok drastically reduces the amount of effort one must exert to find these in-groups, including some a user may not have attempted to seek out beforehand.  

In this way, TikTok facilitates a sort of digital natural selection; users create billions of videos, many on the same topics, and those which resonate with the most people emerge at the front of the pack. For some topics, the ‘best’ video may be several videos, the ‘true best’ entirely dependent on the user. In an idealistic sense, this feels like an incredibly efficient, powerful, and truly global form of discourse that judges merely based on content’s resonance with users. The decentralized decision-making about what videos are ‘good’ leads to a truly representative sample of great videos. 

However, it is unclear whether this community—defined solely by the interests of a user—would make the platform inherently more ‘fair’ or egalitarian. A recent trend on the app involves students posting highlights from their AP Studio Art courses, many linking corresponding Instagram accounts featuring and even selling this art. This seemed genius; TikTok could theoretically lower the barrier to entry for young creatives significantly, allowing users to gain prominence based on a large variety of voices rather than a small group of discerning critics. On second glance, however, many of the portfolios that trended seemed to be those whose introductions were the most compelling, with users that might be considered more physically attractive, much like how songs that trended were often those that seemed the best suited to TikTok dances. The app shows us exactly what we want to see, which may not actually be truly meritocratic. While it makes for engaging content, it also is liable to perpetuate our implicit biases and reduce the diversity of perspectives we see on the platform. In using the app initially, I felt like many of the hierarchies I’d experienced elsewhere dissolved; perhaps the new hierarchies the app creates by reflecting our preferences continue or worsen issues of discrimination, fairness, and diversity within the art community. 

Whatever biases might limit the scope of content displayed on a “For You” page are compounded by deliberate acts of suppression from the app itself. Documents obtained by the Intercept found an old set of guidelines which encouraged moderators to lower videos from users with “abnormal body shape,” “ugly facial looks,” or even videos where “‘the shooting environment is shabby and dilapidated,’ because ‘this kind of environment is not that suitable for new users for being less fancy and appealing.’” The Guardian also found that the app would often remove content seen as “positive to gay people or gay rights...even in countries where homosexuality has never been illegal.” In a set of anti-bullying guidelines, TikTok now claims to be out of date, as leaked to German newspaper Netzpolitik, moderators were instructed to lessen the reach of presumably disabled users to prevent their accounts from being harassed. 

According to documents obtained by the Guardian, TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance could mark objectionable videos as “visible to self,” manipulating their reach in the algorithm without deleting them outright. As such, users could see their videos inexplicably fail to gain traction, completely unaware that they were in violation of community policies, allowing ByteDance to silently influence which videos go viral. With this now known, the idea of a TikTok as a ‘democratic’ platform—in that it finds the videos most people want—is flawed from the start because of interventions from the moderators. This may partially owe itself to the loss of formalized communities, which generally select moderators from the communities themselves. 

The frustration of fans on Reddit’s /r/FrankOcean, for example, came to a fever pitch in 2016 after a graphic on his website alluding to a July album release proved false, compounded by a New York Times article that reported an incorrect release date. Fans shared in frustration, sharing memes and outlandish, absurdly well-researched conspiracy theories until the album, 2016’s Blonde, finally released. A post by community moderator /u/OBJesus, reads, “Did Frank’s album really just drop? I’m literally in the middle of a date pls tell me if this is real,” followed by hundreds of comments expressing that this, in fact, “AINT A DRILL.” A few minutes later, the moderator replied, “I'm bout to break into tears man fuck I can't enjoy this with you guys right now I'm so sorry I'll be back later tonight.” 

TikTok’s ‘community’ merely consists of the group of creators who make the videos the algorithm chooses for each user. Communities on more traditional platforms, on the other hand, are largely static and unpersonalized; while users join and leave, the core group stays largely intact over time. As such, groups will often have notable characters, in-jokes, or a general atmosphere. They resemble the physical clubs and groups to which we are accustomed. This, of course, has its drawbacks; some posts often feel like pure mimicry of what has come before them to gain approval, likes, or upvotes. It also means that the group becomes a sort of all-or-nothing. Users cannot pick and choose what they like about the group, only whether or not to remain in it. As such, the warm users who encourage and welcome new fans are mixed with gatekeeping and snobbery. Accepting the more elitist elements of these groups may be a necessary evil in finding a sense of real online community. 

In addition, on platforms like Reddit and Facebook, group moderators tend to be community members themselves, often nominated and decided by popular vote. As such, content decisions tend to be in line with the desires of the community and based on a set of agreed upon rules. Without defined communities, there can be no community moderators. To flag and remove problematic and illegal content, ByteDance employs an army of professionals. Outside of a traditional group structure, these moderators are foreign to the groups they oversee, making content decisions based on opaque guidelines that may run counter to the interests of the community. 


A day before President Trump’s executive order, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the “Clean Network” initiative, the “Trump Administration’s comprehensive approach to guarding our citizen’s privacy and our companies’ most sensitive information.” The announcement details plans to prevent Chinese telecommunications carriers from serving American customers, remove “untrusted applications” from U.S. app stores, prevent “PRC smartphone manufacturers'' from pre-installing said apps on their devices, remove sensitive information from Chinese-based cloud providers, and “ensure the undersea cables connecting our country to the global internet are not subverted for intelligence gathering by the PRC at hyper scale.”

In an article in the Intercept, titled, “The Filthy Hypocrisy of America’s ‘Clean’ China-Free Internet,” reporter Sam Biddle notes that, concerning Pompeo’s new initiative, “without exception, the United States engages in every single one of these practices,” and that the document “ensur[es] that China won’t be able to do a litany of subversive and violative things with technology that the U.S. and its allies have engaged in for years.” 

Certainly, continued American dominance of international affairs—which traces its roots back to the World War II—has allowed this double standard. However, this power has arguably been in decline, in part due to China’s increased prominence. According to data from the World Bank, the Chinese economy’s annual GDP growth rate has been more than double that of the United States every year since 2000. The non-partisan Economic Policy Institute found that the US trade deficit with China has cost 3.2 million American jobs between 2001 and 2013, three-fourths of which were in manufacturing. In a campaign predicated on American revitalization, the Trump administration has been quick to blame China for perceived American decline. On the campaign trail, Trump noted, “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing.” American cultural hegemony, however, has perhaps even stronger roots; all 50 of Rotten Tomatoes highest-grossing movies of all time, worldwide, are American. If social media and the internet are the most important cultural products of the information age, they are also both largely American exports. The early ARPANET (essentially an early prototype of the Internet) was a Department of Defense project, and Facebook, Twitter, and Snap all were founded in the United States. American technology, however, also has accelerated globalization and allowed for the more diverse national origins in the content we view. Per Time Magazine, 50 percent of YouTube’s most viewed videos of all time are South Korean pop videos. Even if they play a part in globalization, they maintain American influence. They are largely owned by Americans, regulated by American laws, and mainly operated in line with American cultural values. 

The Wall Street Journal called TikTok “among [China’s] first apps that is a global smash hit.” Trump’s executive order cites that TikTok has been downloaded “over 175 million times in the United States and over one billion times globally.” Data from mobile market analytics firm Sensor Tower found that on both the App Store and Google Play store, TikTok was the most downloaded non-game app of July 2020, outpacing Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger. Even if many American users on TikTok get American content—because it is what they demonstrate preference for—the company is ultimately Chinese-owned. Even while headquartered in the United States, the Washington Post found that many moderation decisions were overridden by Chinese bosses

Beyond concerns of national security, TikTok represents one of the most recent significant cultural products exported by China; from a country the administration has already largely scapegoated for declining economic prosperity, TikTok ultimately threatens American cultural hegemony. TikTok is unique in the way that it holds our attention and learns from us, dramatically reducing the effort required to participate in internet subcultures, most of which transcend nationality. TikTok’s enormous success may ultimately herald dramatic changes in how we construct digital communities and individualize every person’s experience on the internet.

LUCAS GELFOND B’23 is embarrassed by how much ‘pre-research’ went into this piece.