Monday 25 January 2021

Social media for artists: TikTok and experimentation

In this post I gather some thoughts about TikTok and the commodification of experimental video art.

We are now a new age of social media because our lives are so intensely mediated by COVID-19 and screen based socialising. TikTok (the most downloaded social media of last year) is a super social media, in that it has accelerated the regular pattern of social media use to an absurd degree (the feedback loop of making, uploading, watching, liking). It is easier to gain a following on TikTok than it has ever been on a platform before, which has made the success of the app. It is the American Dream of social media - anyone can become a TikTok star with the right tricks. And certainly, unlike celebrities, a TikTok persona's mundanity can be what makes their profile go viral. Charli D'amelio (107.1 million followers) is a dancer but perhaps not an especially charismatic or successful one offline. In TikTok, however, her videos are the most watched. They are approachable, accessible and imply that you can learn something about dancing from her, easily and quickly.

However, I have been thinking about the accounts on TikTok that succeed off a kind of strangeness or absurdity - accounts like @mooptopia, @chan_squared or my current favourite @adam..the..loser. These accounts blend a kind of abstract arty-tumblr internet aesthetics with comedy or performance art. There have been propositions that TikTok-ing is *the* new artform. This (what was once called 'alt') content produced is for the most part actually a trickle down of video art into mainstream media rather than a new age of video art. There are the same clichés of surveilling and documenting the absurd or banal, (like livestreaming yourself sleeping, pastiching music videos, squeezing lemons into your eyes). But now they are distilled into bite-size 9 second clips, easily digestable and in no way really disturbing or effecting to a viewer who will inevitably scroll on after watching some loops. As viewers who grew up in web 1.0, us adults / millenials are also too comfortable in seeing *weird things from the internet*. The only audience left to shock or bewilder are kids on the app - which is a puzzling motivation to pursue as an adult artist anyway.

Sometimes alt content can be well made, but, honestly, the economics of TikTok is way too present in the architecture of the application for a creator to have any autononomy over TikTokking as a medium. Perhaps the most interesting TikToks are the most boring, the simple repetitiveness of Charli D'amelio's dancing videos are pretty hypnotising. The design influence like the For You Page's endlesss scroll, slot-machine refresh algorithm and time limit of 30 seconds make the boundaries of play very limited here. The algorithm and user interface of TikTok have more power and speed over the content made in it than a video camera could ever have had over a work of video art. And though, of course, early video artists were given cameras to experiment with by the companies making them (to advertise *+*a new radical technology*+*), the chain from artist to commodity was more spacious and artists had freedom in the formal control of their content. Advertising executives were not breathing down the necks of artists while they were making their content like TikTok's UI does. Nor did artists police themselves for any kind of audience. In fact, there wasn't really an audience anyway because signing up to be an artist in the 1970s was signing up to be a loser.

There is a difference between early video art's era of genuine experimentation and TikTok's aestheticising of that experimentation into a product or advert. You cannot use form to critique TikTok in a TikTok because if it is successful, it will just become a trend for 1 day before it is forgotten. The limited creative boundaries are so limited and trends proliferate so quickly that all of TikTok is tangled as one hyper-mesh. In return, TikTokker's try harder and harder to be uniquer, weirder, quicker, slower, more colourful, more dull, more *_*creative*_* - again cycling into a kind of general feed that the user will always scroll on from. Content creators can see immediately what holds a user's attention to the app, and what doesn't and so now a job that was previously done by PR teams and sales execs, (analysing sales, drive, attention, replay) is done by the creator's themselves in a production-line panopticon. The system is automated and, I am hinting here at a cliché saying here that, 'if you can't see what the product is, most likely you are the product yourself'.