For the purpose of this case study, we will be focalizing on the social media platform known as Tiktok. Specifically, we will be taking a look at the implementation of the #duet and #stitch, where users can post live reactions to other users videos. Tiktok has quickly become one of the most popular and influential apps on the market. As of 2020, Tiktok will become the app that has the most downloads of the year, globally with over 689 million monthly active users (G, Deyan). While Tiktok was introduced primarily as an entertainment platform where users can lip sync to music, and post funny videos, it has rapidly expanded into a place where counter-hegemonic communities can form that promote activism, as well as launch entrepreneurial careers through its powerful algorithms. This study will also be looking at the multiple levels of infrastructure from the cultural foundations of the app to the material energy consumption needed to store and process data. And finally, we will be looking at Tiktok’s emergence into the geopolitical landscape over concerns with privacy, as well as the governments role in regulation of content.
With all of this in mind, this case study will hopefully shed light on the sheer power #duets and # stitches have in reinforcing power dynamics, as well as sparking necessary discourse about activism in the digital age. With Tiktok’s implementation of the #duet and #stitch, users can spark discourse on topics ranging from critical race theory to debating which Marvel superhero is the most powerful. In an effort to understand digital media, #duet and #stitch pushes viewers to become active participants in the digital world and confront societal, global, and cultural power dynamics. It both reinforces the digital divide and digital connectedness through tight algorithmic enclaves. With that being said, lets dive right into Tiktok’s infrastructure.
With the emergence of the Internet and the advent of sites like Youtube and Facebook, the early 2000s were marked by the digital content creation available to the public. This created a way for people to express themselves online through a video. Vine was a short 7-second content creation app, which is very similar to Tik Tok, but was primarily used for comedy. Tik Tok was formed out of several different content creation apps. Starting with an app called Musical.ly, released in 2014. Musical.ly was a lip-sync app where users could sing along to short clips of music. Musical.ly was bought by the company, ByteDance Ltd, the parent company of Tik Tok (Liza). ByteDance also had a similar app called Douyin, available in most Asian countries. Eventually, in 2018, ByteDance took Musical.ly’s software and combined it with Douyin, and rebranded the creation as Tik Tok (Joe Tidy). All of these foundational apps such as Musical.ly that eventually became Tik Tok were created by Alex Zhu and Luyu Yang in Shanghai, China, and Douyin by Zhang Yiming.
With this in mind, looking at the physical infrastructure of Tiktok #duets and #stitches point us towards the complex relationship society has towards digital data. We often think of storage in terms of the “cloud,” but data management and system processing require an extensive amount of physical resources that are hidden from consumers (Crawford).
Tiktok uses whats called a Content Delivery Network, or CDN for short, to keep and store all of it’s users’s videos. Software engineer and Trembit CEO Stanislav Zayarsky did a study on measuring just how much data is pushed through CDN’s for Tiktok, and the results are astounding. On average, Tiktok users generate around 7041 Petabytes a month. One Petabyte is equivalent to around a million Gigabytes for reference. So that is around 7 trillion Gigbytes per month. And the lowest price for CDN storage is arond $0.001 per Gigabyte. Through Zayarsky’s calculations, Tiktok averages around $7.4 million in data delivery expenses (Zayarsky). And this is just estimated cost of hardware operations. CDN networks are some “of the most significant energy consuming sectors in the ICT area” (Andrea, 55). CDN companies pay Internet service providers to house their servers in their data centers. This requires electricity and human labor in order to power.
Lets say a college student makes a #duet to a video of someone singing along to Doja Cat’s “N****s aint S**t”, a currently trending song as of August 2021. They provide commentary on race theory, and start a discourse over white people lip syncing to the song that has the n word in it. That simple #duet that the creator made, gets sent to a CDN for storage, which then transforms the video into data which is housed at a number of facilities across the globe. The action taken by the college creator generates a carbon footprint that can be traced down to invisible manual labor. Zhang Yiming, the creator and founder of Tiktok, is worth around $44.5 billion, and made over $18 billion in 2018 alone (Rogers).
Crawford and Joler’s exposé on the anatomy of an AI system exposes this marxist pyramid of labor and resources, with the few people at the top holding the majority of the power and wealth. After extensively researching Tiktok’s AI interface and algorithm, there was a lack of transparency as to who trained the AI systems. That is, there is no mention of how the algorithms became so well-trained. This lack of transparency ties into the “black box theory” of algorithmic systems. As in it is very difficult to search into given the many layers of infrastructure built into the process itself (Crawford). However, I was able to identify the creator of the AI system. Li Lei, who now teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara was one of the brains behind Tiktok’s extremely powerful AI system (Feng). While we get information from the top of the infrastructural pyramid, the lack of transparency on the very possible invisible workforce behind large companies like Tiktok serve to broaden the digital divide by giving the top people the majority of the recognition and power.
Tiktok’s sheer power and influence over the public domain was overlooked by many politicians, as it was marketed as an entertainment app. However, it was very recently thrust into the political climate after accusations from world governments claiming that the app was collecting surveillance data of its users for Chinese spying. This dystopian discourse was reinforced by our own former president, Donald J. Trump, claiming that Tiktok, “threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information” (Kelly). This followed a massive outcry of conservatives and liberals over the app, as it soon became a political pundit during the election year of 2020. Tiktok’s users were creating #duets to news videos over the ban, and the entire app was flooded with both misinformation as well as discourse on the governments role in content moderation. This came after there was a Tiktok movement to fake attendance at Trump’s June 20th Tulsa rally. Tiktokers like @maryjolaupp created #duets telling other users to reserve tickets to Trump’s Tulsa rally on Juneteenth of 2020 as a means of digital protesting. Over 800,000 people signed up, but only a meager 6,000 showed. Trump’s team was furious and republican senators took to their platforms to express their concern over the app (Rosenblatt). Following this, the Trump administration threatened to ban Tiktok unless they sold their chinese founding company, Bytedance to an American company such as Microsoft. Tiktok’s rebuttal was that they have “strived to maintain a good relationship with world governments, specifically the United States”, and that they would pursue legal action (Kelly). This is a clear example of just how powerful the company has become. Its influence has reached presidential levels, in that it can spark a political debate as well as impact campaigns through digital activism of the people.
Cybersecurity concerns within digital media platforms are not new phenomena as of 2021. We can all remember the Zuckerberg hearings over Cambridge Analytica illegaly selling user’s Facebook data to advertisers. Cyber threat intellignce agency Check Point Research claimed in early 2020, that Tiktok’s “Find Friends” feature bypassed privacy protection, making it easier for hackers to access personal data and information (Lovelace). These allegations, plus the former Trump administrations concerns, placed Tiktok in a similar position to Zuckerberg and Facebook. Although the lawsuit never took place, and the Biden administration seems to have dropped the ban, the concerns raised have shed a new light on Tiktok as an application for the people. Security concerns stem from the fear that the AI system and algorithm have access to our personal data and can therefore use it for nefarious purposes.
This takes us into our third and final part of this case study. Starting with the criticisms the app has faced, we can look to the history of nefarious use of data and information. Safiya Noble’s book on “A Society Searching” delves into discriminatory algorithms and how the commercialization of the Black identity is used to reinforce power dyanmics of oppression. Part of what makes Tik Tok so popular and addictive is it’s incredibly powerful algorithm. Algorithms, argued by Safiya Noble, “often reflect our lowest and most demeaning beliefs, because these ideas circulate so freely and so often that they are normalized and extremely profitable” (Noble, 37). While most “for you pages” display funny, comedic videos, there is an ongoing discussion on the app over racial discrimination and misogynism. As author Kiddest Sinke explains, the forgive and forget mentality of Tik Tok creates an atmosphere of “passive consumption” and a “passive concept of racial justice” (Sinke). For example, the issue regarding dance challenges and credits tie directly into racial discourse. The Renegade dance challenge was created by Jalaiah Harmon, a 14-year-old Black girl from Atlanta. However, Charli D’amelio is the face of the challenge, as this is what shot her to fame. Many people were upset over D’amelio’s lack of credit to Harmon as the creator of the challenge. Creators made #duets and #stitches, responding to D’amelio’s lack of credit to the original creator. This small discourse points to a larger issue, that white content creators are reaping the benefits of things created by black content creators. D’amelio eventually addressed the issue by posting the dance with Jalaiah and acknowledging her, which was a step in the right direction. This ties into Safiya Noble’s argument about algorithms favoring white culture over black culture. While the issue surrounding race and oppression through digital culture on an app like Tiktok is ever-continuing, there is a counter-discourse. Without the advent for Jalaiah’s credit through Tiktok features like #duets and #stitches, she would have never gotten the credit in the first place. As much as digital racism may be prevalent on Tiktok, there is also an incredibly large amount of digital activism. And, #duets and #stiches allow for necessary discourse that provokes change and progression. In essence, #duets and #stiches gave a voice to people in challenging the power dynamics that researchers like Noble argue, favor white culture over black.
There has been criticism of #duets however, as the BBC pointed out last year that Tiktok may be facilitating child grooming by not safeguarding certain features for Tiktok users under 18. In response to this accusation, users under 18 have a default setting to #duets and #stitches. You can only duet videos if you are a friend of the minor. This can be disabled, but it is now a default setting after facing the grooming backlash. The app also disabled direct messaging and live video feautres on minor accounts to prevent further predation (Sulleyman). This brings about an important discussion as part of the nefarious side of power dynamics experienced through digital landscape. Dueting a video invites viewers to post side-by-side reactionary videos, creating a dialogue or critical response. Psychiatrist Dr. Enid Gruber explains that adolescents are far more at risk to being vulnerable to sexualization and the adverse affects it has on cognitive development. Dr. Gruber’s study concluded that, “adolescents of both sexes who watch and listen to a lot of media are more likely to accept stereotypes of sex roles on television as realistic than are less frequent viewers” (Gruber, 26). Using Dr. Gruber’s findings on adolescent vulnerability to sexualization through the Internet, we can draw an important conclusion to Tiktok’s rules on #duets and #stiches for minors. By allowing anyone to duet a minor’s video, regardless of the content, this puts them more at risk to be sexualized by anyone on the app. With child grooming, a power dynamic is formed in that the victim’s inhibitions are lowered by the groomer’s status and or emotional connection to the victim. In terms of Tiktok, child grooming is a very important facet of digital oppression and power through the sexualization of minors that needs to be addressed.
Duets and stitches open the doorway to public opinion. Whether it be advocating for Black culture, or protesting a Presidential candidate, duetting a video in a sense invokes the democratic practice of participation. The amplification of voices to advocate for a cause has become a powerful facet of social apps like Tiktok. This does however have its consequences, as with any democratic practice, there will be misinformation, as well as oppression. It is always going to be a constant battle for justice, and online cyberculture is another extension of the geopolitical landscape. Which is why it is so important to ask questions, and dig into the infrastructure that makes up tech companies and their products. Because what may seem like a golden egg, may just be a gilded egg. It was incredibly surprising to me how much data an app like Tiktok generates. And I was shocked to find out the estimated energy consumption levels of the company. I say estimated because there is very little transparency on Tiktok’s part in revealing their carbon footprint. This lack of transparency transfers over into the political concerns as well over data security and privacy. We may never know for sure just how much data is being mined from our digital footprints. This can be used against us to further the digital divide and allow advertisers to manipulate us for their financial benefit. But I won’t go full tin-foil hat in this case study, it is just something to ponder.
Tiktok presents itself to be a light-hearted app primarily for entertainment. I beg to differ. In this case study I have come to the conclusion that Tiktok is in fact, the man behind the curtain. While yes, on the surface it may be just for fun. There are a number of questionable circumstances that have revealed it’s sheer power. It’s AI algorithm knows you better than you may know yourself, and can almost effortlessly market products to you based off of a few minutes on the app. That being said, if used correctly, Tiktok can be an instrument of justice. By #dueting a video and engaging in dicosurse about important topics such as racism or misogyny, the app is being used for democratic practices which are in and of itself very powerful as we can see through the Tulsa rally prank.
Tiktok has shown that it can influence the geopolitical landscape and challenge power dynamics through counter-hegemonic groups using stitches or duets to rally online through activism. I actually experienced this myself when one of my videos went semi-viral recently. I was acting out a scene from Star Wars, and the video reached half a million views. I started to see #duets and #stitches talking about how women that are into Star Wars only do it for male validation. As well as women defending female star wars fans and challenging the power dynamic. From this small instance, I realized the true power of an app like Tiktok. While it can do so much damage and destruction, it has the power to change beliefs and progress society.
by Alex Newe
BA Media and Film Studies
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