Socially speaking

First came Facebook. Then YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat — the list of social media platforms that changed the way many of us consume information and entertainment grows by the year.

As everything moves so quickly online, there is already a generation that has left those platforms, let alone mainstream television and newspapers, behind.

TikTok is the new thing. Ask your children or grandchildren. You may not immediately grasp its appeal, but you might want to understand more about it and be wary of how it is consumed by the young people you know.

It is, essentially, a feed of short videos, tailored to a person’s interests by the mysterious forces of artificial intelligence that determine what it thinks you should be watching, often of random other young people lip-syncing or performing comedic routines. And memes, lots of memes.

Those youngsters down the street swiping away merrily on their smartphones? Odds are they are semi-mindlessly scrolling through what is trending on TikTok.

In the New York Times, John Herrman wrote that the new craze’s pool of content was enormous: "Most of it is meaningless. Some of it becomes popular, and some is great, and some gets to be both."

Meaningless, maybe. But the scale of the platform’s economics, and the impact it can have on young minds, means it cannot be assumed to be just another fad.

TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, which started in China as an artificial intelligence company, has been valued at $NZ114billion. One of its biggest stars, a 16-year-old American dancer called Charli D’Amelio, has 83million followers, and last month Forbes magazine estimated her annual earnings at $NZ6million.

Like all social media platforms, TikTok carries a significant risk.

The company boldly proclaims its "mission" to be to "capture and present the world’s creativity, knowledge, and precious life moments". A worthy sentiment, obviously. But what happens when those life moments are not so precious?

It has been a bad week for TikTok’s image as video clips have been circulating that appear to show a man taking his own life. As fast as the same app systems that push recommended videos to users have taken down distressing videos, replacement copies have been uploaded, raising a serious risk of young people stumbling across them.

Like Facebook, no stranger to offensive content, TikTok has been saying all the right things about deleting the videos and banning users uploading them, but there are serious questions over its ability to monitor the platform in real time.

Parents and caregivers need to heed the words of Mental Heath Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson, who urged them this week to monitor their children’s use of social media more than ever.

There is no point taking away the phone. Better to limit the time spent on it, and keep the lines of communication open, and provide support if young eyes see things that any human would find extremely distressing.

Parents might also like to educate their children about the value of traditional media. Most of it isn’t meaningless.

Comments

Hayek thought that the word social, in its modern context, had become a euphemism for anti-social. When you see the word social, swap it for anti-social and you will understand the actual modern application.

Anti social media. Anomie and nihilism. Very angry. Very angry indeed. Heed Salma.

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