Every day I log onto Twitter dot com (or X, as it’s now called) and am overcome with the urge to smash my head through a window. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (or 2019, as it’s otherwise known), Twitter was a useful place to be. It was and still is the only social media app that hasn’t tried to turn itself into a Lidl knockoff of TikTok, it was the place to be to for real-time updates of breaking news and international events. Its verified journalist and public figure accounts were a reliable source of information, and its structure allowed for communication without the same level of hierarchy and one-way information flow of most social media apps.
As you may have gathered from the fact that I still write blogs in 2023, the written word is my preferred form of media. When you strip away the catchy soundtracks and the glamourised visuals of viral TikToks, what’s left of the message you’re trying to convey? The written word doesn’t sparkle and flourish, but it’s raw and earnest and interesting.
Twitter feels like one of the last vestiges of an era where the written word held value, and Elon Musk is doing everything in his power to destroy it. Twitter used to be a place for discussion and now it is overrun by bots and TERFs and the alt right. And amongst the non-bot, non-TERF, non-alt-right users, there is this absurdity of language that has migrated over from TikTok. TikTok enforces strict censorship of anything pertaining to sex, violence, swearing, etc. To get around this, TikTok users write words phonetically, or use emojis that rhyme with the word (such as corn cob emoji to talk about porn), or they will say “unalive” instead of “kill”. Twitter does not have the same censorship policies, yet this language creeps over, and is used for otherwise serious conversations. A prime example of this is a conversation I saw recently where one person used “SA” to mean South Africa, and another thought it meant sexual assault, because that is what the abbreviation “SA” is used to refer to on TikTok. Similar confusion comes from use of “ED” to refer to both erectile dysfunction and eating disorders. When everything is a euphemism or abbreviation, people leave themselves open to all kinds of misunderstandings. It is a reverse-Wittgenstein warping of language, where both meaning and symbol become obsolete.
I have not had a TikTok account for 2.5 years, because it caused so much damage to my attention span. In the depths of lockdown, I found myself watching hours of TikToks before bed until my eyes were sore and my brain was wired. Now I only watch TikToks through Instagram reels, so I essentially get the dregs of TikTok with an inferior algorithm. I may be a little biased against TikTok, because I don’t use it properly. But this is not a blog about nice social media experiences, this is a blog about social media sites making me want to smash my head through a window, so bear with me.
I have a theory about why TikTok is so popular, and it’s not the catchy viral sounds or the illusions influencers are selling you. TikTok is popular because there is a loneliness epidemic. TikTok transitioned from largely dance-based content during the early days of the covid pandemic. Now it is filled with “Story time” and “What I eat in a day” and “POV” videos made by people who do not understand what POV actually means. (Is part of my dislike of TikTok due to me being pedantic about grammar? Quite possibly). TikTok provides snapshots into strangers’ (carefully curated) daily lives, and it provides companionship to its users in an increasingly-isolating world. This is evident from the amount of TikToks where the subject is filming themselves talking whilst eating or making coffee. The faux-intimacy of stories told through mouthfuls of cereal dulls the viewer’s loneliness in a way that print media can’t compete with.
TikTok has a reach unseen by previous social media apps, and the cycle of virality burns bright and fast. This, combined with a significant demographic of young users who are yet to learn media literacy, means that misinformation flourishes. A concerning trend on TikTok recently is the targeting of young women through the wellness to alt right pipeline. What starts with yoga and natural remedies soon becomes quitting your job to be a “house girlfriend” (without the legal protections you would at least have as a housewife), living “off the grid” whilst filming every waking moment of your life. There are aspects of wellness and spirituality that I am drawn to, but I have watched in real time how these communities have been co-opted by the alt right to convince women that the world is poisoning them and that they should give up all their freedoms. It’s not a coincidence that this is happening at the same time as TikTok is filled with “why should I have to work? I’m just a girl” and the dumbing down of women and equating that to liberation. There is a fine line, and trends like “girl dinner” etc might just be a joke, but it’s the same cycle over and over again. “Girl math” and “girl dinner” is to gen Z what “I’m baby” was to millennials: a joke to cope with the fact that the milestones of adulthood creep further and further out of reach. What starts as a joke becomes self-infantilisation, because the world is telling you you’re not an adult until you do XYZ, therefore you must not be an adult.
TikTok, or at least what I see of it on Instagram, rewards mediocrity and lack of originality. I mostly watch cooking videos on there, and they are all the same. Every additional ingredient “elevates” the dish, every combination is “elite”, every fried food is “crispy on the outside, gooey on the inside”. Every video is a word-for-word copy of its inspiration.
This same groupthink is visible on Twitter, where people ask questions like “Are we still listening to R. Kelly?” because who needs a moral compass to decide not to listen to a rapist, when you can base your decision on the internet hive mind? Social media has never been the pinnacle of intellectual debate – human nature is human nature, after all. But it has become a place where everyone is copying each other and every opinion must be validated by the groupmind, and every statement and opinion must be simultaneously universally applicable and tailored to you personally. Immanuel Kant would have a field day!
One of the reasons I used to love twitter was that it was filled with academics and journalists and people who had something interesting to say. It was a place to learn about the world, to read people’s first-hand experiences of the events that define our times. Now it is a cesspit of the most stupid opinions you will ever read.
So why do I still use that godforsaken app? Because there is no alternative. I want the social aspect of social media. I want to read people’s experiences and opinions. I want to broaden my understanding of the world. And I don’t want it fed to me in 30-second videos looping into each other ad infinitum, or photo captions worded in order to get the most engagement. I miss when people used twitter like online diaries and postcards sent to the world at large. I miss the earnestness. I miss tweeting my actual thoughts rather than rethinking each word ten times and then not bothering hitting send.
I want to connect with people. I want to talk, even about the mundane things. Not every thought has to be profound, it just has to be your own. There is a lot to be said about the lack of media literacy and critical thinking skills that are prevalent right now. And it’s not just boomers on Facebook and gen Z on TikTok, it’s everywhere. And as much as I criticise it, I’m not immune to it. I have had many a stupid and unoriginal opinion in my time. I’m 25, it’s par for the course. But I want more than that. I don’t want to live in a world of remakes, for every “new” thing to be a regurgitation of what came before.
I have grown up with the internet, and watched both social media and Google sacrifice themselves to the algorithmic gods until they are barely usable. I scroll through Twitter and feel my brain rotting, but I can’t look away. It’s a habit, it has been for years. We’re all seeking connection, and instead we get Pavlov-ed into feeling valued every time we get a notification. Social media isn’t going anywhere, but it often feels like its value is already gone, and we’re clinging on to its decaying corpse.
I want to go back to a time when people read blogs, where Twitter wasn’t a hellscape, where Google provided information instead of AI-sourced SEO bait. I wish social media was actually social instead of another thing that has been drained of its lifeforce for profit.
Social media allows us to scream into the void, and have the void scream back, echoing the voices we aren’t brave enough to use in analogue. It built one generation and raised another. What is on the other side of that? Where do we go when social media becomes just another crumbling piece of infrastructure in our derelict world? If TikTok has taught me anything, it’s that trends come back around a lot quicker than we expect. Hopefully next time a useable internet is born, it will be here to stay.