Notes on Blocks
On Making Sense of TikTok
This piece came out of one of our “Are.na Walkthroughs,” during which four people to take us through a particular channel, the blocks and ideas held within, and the ways those ideas may have evolved as the channel has grown and accumulated. Our latest one was on October 22 over Zoom, and it featured Leslie Liu, Maya Man, Maria Gerdyman, and Agnes Cameron. Here, Maya shares some of what she talked about while walking us through her “Making Sense of TikTok” channel.
By the summer of 2020, TikTok felt impossible to avoid. I spent many minutes (hours) scrolling while staying at home, in awe of the way the platform expertly engineered the impossibility of looking away. I started this channel around that time, hoping it might help me process my own questions and feelings around the app. 
This channel collages (mostly) news articles, thought pieces, and Substack hot takes from people publishing on the topic of TikTok and the culture it has spawned. There are like 100000000 layers to unpack around the content in this collection, but for my channel walkthrough I focused on the ways that the app parallels a kind of religious experience. I’m thinking here about how the act of scrolling easily becomes this other worldly, divine practice of devotion…
The very first step toward making sense of TikTok should be spending some time scrolling! You need at least three solid sessions before ~ the algorithm ~ starts making its guesses about what content to feed to your “for you page” that will best keep you on the app. It’s an enchanting experience. The second step, which I think is just as crucial, is to try making some videos. You don’t have to post them (though that’s also a useful experience I recommend), but at least try out the editing features, the filters, the sounds, etc. Beyond the mess of the social aspect, it’s a really powerful video creation tool.
This piece embodies the voyeuristic early energy of TikTok coverage back in 2019. The tone is like “woooaaaah what is this strange, foreign world?!” You get five different perspectives, which include descriptions of the app as a “reduction of people to human GIFs” and “bite-size, low-tech TV.” Even though each critic approaches the platform from a different angle, they all make a point of distancing themselves from their perceived lowbrowness of the app... Wesley Morris concludes he’s outside of the app’s target demographic because he’s “not a 10th grader unhappy in social studies.” When I started this channel, I felt frustrated by this attitude and felt like the unhappy 10th grader in social studies should get to say what they felt about the app too...
Written by one of my favorite writers on the self/social media/identity formation, Rob Horning’s piece here in Real Life emphasizes the algorithm’s role in producing the desires of the content consumer (rather than it being the other way around). I read this as a heavy reference to the algorithm’s god-like capabilities… “Algorithms don’t reflect existing needs or wants; they are a system for instilling new ones.” Spooky!
Barron Swanson's perspective here makes me laugh and also freak out about the extremely dystopian situation he encounters at the LA TikTok content house. I remember feeling excited to see this published, because rather than overstressing how lucky these kids were to be plucked from obscurity and catapulted into the TikTok spotlight, it focuses on the fragility of their newfound internet fame. Plus, it includes the quote that best encapsulates everything in this channel: “All of us bow unfailingly at the altar of the algorithm.”
Almost every time my mind is stuck on the strangeness of an emerging TikTok trend, Embedded (it’s a substack) appears in my inbox covering it. The trend cycle on TikTok moves extremely fast, so most larger publications don’t end up covering the smaller cultural moments that pass through. Embedded somehow manages to stay on top of a lot of the short-lived For You Page trends. It consistently highlights up-and-coming TikTok creators and the niche cultural movements they create. Like how “hot girl summer” went from being Megan Thee Stallion’s philosophy about living an unapologetic life to a trend that encouraged waking up early, drinking lots of water, and basically making hyper productivity your life goal… which sounds like stressed girl summer to me… Really, I just find it comforting to know that someone else is out there overthinking all of this stuff too.
Maya Man is an artist, programmer, and dancer. She considers the computer screen a space for intimacy and performance, focusing on the phenomenon of translating our offline selves into on-screen content.
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