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TikTok, Boom 2021

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Women Make Movies, 115 W. 29th Street, Suite 1200,New York, NY, 10001; 212-925-0606
Produced by Ross M. Dinerstein, Shalini Kantayya, and Danni Mynard
Directed by Shalini Kantayya
Streaming, 87 mins

High School - General Adult
Adolescents; China; Social Media

Date Entered: 03/01/2023

Reviewed by Brian Falato, University of South Florida Tampa Campus Library

TikTok is the most downloaded app in history, with over two billion loads. It's available in 159 countries and in 75 languages. People (especially those under 25) spend more time on TikTok than on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, or YouTube. These facts presented in TikTok, Boom are eye-opening to anyone who didn't realize the scope and popularity of TikTok. And this massive scope makes the problems presented in the documentary even more concerning.

Director Shalini Kantayya gives us numerous clips from TikTok videos and introduces us to the creators. Mostly teens, they talk about the positive aspects of being on TokTok. An Afghan American who felt isolated at school finds a community on the app. Another student, of Ecuadoran and Chinese parentage, becomes a TikTok superstar for his "beatbox" vocals and earns lucrative endorsement deals as an influencer. Another influencer finances her college education through sponsorship deals after her mother becomes debilitated with substance abuse. But she also suffers from the constant demands for new content in order to stay an influencer. And that's in addition to the sometimes vicious comments that can be posted about her videos. One commentator in the documentary says there could be major emotional and mental problems for generation Z from these pressures and the online abuse.

Director Kantayya dealt with bias from computer algorithms in a previous film, Coded Bias. TikTok algorithms also pose a problem because of the way personalized content is delivered to each user. The algorithm builds on what was previously viewed and then delivers more of the same. TikTok viewers thus never get exposed to differing viewpoints or situations, lessening opportunities to broaden their worldview. The algorithm is based on the massive amounts of data collected on each TikTok user. As mentioned in the documentary, data in the current economy is "the new oil." TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company, so that would make China "the new Saudi Arabia."

Although TikTok maintains it is operated separately from the Chinese government, topics sensitive to the government can be banned on TikTok. Feroza Aziz, the Afghan American student, found this out when she posted about Chinese government treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China. Her videos on the topic were no longer available and she was even banned from TikTok for a while. And videos about Black Lives Matters and protests over George Floyd's murder were marked as having zero views. (TikTok blamed that on a temporary glitch in the system).

Concern over Chinese influence and the possibility of China spying on Americans has made some U.S. government agencies and the military, and more recently some universities, to ban TikTok on all institutional devices. TikTok does not appear to have been greatly harmed, though. We don't know what will happen in the future, but TikTok, Boom is essential viewing for learning where we are now and is highly recommended.

Published and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. Anyone can use these reviews, so long as they comply with the terms of the license.