Editorial: Tiktok: A Psychosocial Analysis into its Impacts on Culture
Updated: Dec 16, 2022
Editorial by Ruoshan Zhang
Originating from the Chinese company, Bytedance, Tiktok had gained rising popularity worldwide after merging with a dance-based platform Music.ly. Centered around video sharing, the app contains fundamentally different designs compared to other social media platforms that results in unique impacts on the receiving audience. Bhandari and Bimo proposed that the interaction seen on Tiktok is not between users and their social network, but rather between users and what is known as a “self -algorithmic version of the self”. Opening the app leads users to a personalized stream of videos. Because of this innovative algorithm, the attention that Tiktok has received is unprecedented. Statistics  revealed that it was the most downloaded app in 2021 and reached one billion users by the end of the year, outbeating historically popular media apps such as instagram and snapchat. Further records showed that an average person from Generation Z opens the app at least 19 times per day, and that each spends on average 90 minutes. Because of the immeasurable extent to which Tiktok is integrated throughout every corner of people’s lives, its impacts on cognitive and sociocultural behavior should be carefully considered. This article provides a psychosocial analysis into the impacts that Tiktok has on the wide scope of culture, including examinations on its positive impacts on the perpetuation of culture, and negative impacts on cultural lag and sociocultural issues such as appropriation.
Proponents of the argument posit  that Tiktok allows for the perpetuation of a culture by serving itself as an accessible platform that enables the micro strengthening of enculturation to macro level of culture consolidation. Enculturation is the process by which one comes to attain norms of a culture through observational learning and interactions with gatekeepers. Because enculturation requires exposure to all aspects of a culture, an individual is engaged in shaping schematic processes throughout childhood and extends into adulthood. However, tiktok may effectively accelerate enculturation by proliferation of the multidimensional aspects within a culture. Taking music as an example, one way that tiktok has inherently emphasized its growth is through the background music feature. A report suggested that 63.8% of the popular songs found on Spotify charts are due to the “organic posting by the artist and other users on Tiktok rather than influencer campaigns or paid aids.” Data from the MRC research  further suggested that “75% of TikTok users say they discover new artists through TikTok.” The easy accessibility and high permeability of the platform allows emerging artists or small business owners to leave a major impact simply by associating the appropriate music with a specific brand or skit.
A greater impact on culture is Tiktok’s effective socio-technological contribution on cultural activism. Cervin and Marín-LIadó (2022) defined a new form of activism particularly associated with Tiktok known as “playful activism”. Their multimodal analysis on a sample of widely viewed #freepalestine TikTok suggested that Young Palestinians used this network to construct their opinions on politics through playful performance. More importantly, this type of social activism has allowed them to spread political messages among the youth audience much more than original advertisement campaigns. As a result, those who were previously uninterested or had no previous knowledge were actively engaging and participating, creating a humanitarian and solidarity network for the betterment of palestinian culture.
In the scope of future orientation, Tiktok serves as a contributing factor in increasing cultural lag. Cultural lag is a theoretical phenomenon describing when advancements in material culture progresses faster than non-material culture. Because of the entertaining focus, users on tiktok tend to utilize the app as a tool to gain relaxation and stress-relieve. A study  revealed that entertainment gratification and affect was the primary driver behind all passive, participatory and contributory consumption behaviors on Tiktok. Specifically, data reported that the second most viewed content category is “Dance” with 150.3 billion hashtag views, with approximately 60% of its viewers being teenagers and young adults. It appears that for individual content variation, the majority of users focus on surface level elements (dance, TV show recommendations, make up etc.) for the purpose of entertainment. As much as this has a mediating effect on stress and mental health issues in general, it drives attention away from societal issues or historically-inherited beliefs. In simple language, more cognitive importance is placed on the breadth of surface culture than the depth of deep culture. Another study supported this relationship by suggesting that those who choose to quit Douyin (Chinese Tiktok) are mostly motivated by the fear of addiction and the perception of deemed low-quality content, providing evidence for the idea that tiktok content exposes users to surface level elements.
Those who use Tiktok to stay updated to current social affairs may claim the concept of cultural lag as untrue. However, its relevance in cultural lag is highlighted in the fact that cultural progress involves understanding the core of cultural values, beliefs and future establishments rather than merely understanding what they consist of. Tiktok, being a 15-30 seconds video sharing app, allows the audience to understand WHAT is important, but not WHY. Examples include the #ice bucket challenge and #BlacklivesMatter challenge. The former involved the platform raising enough awareness on what the challenge involves, but insufficient knowledge on why challengers were pouring freezing cold water. The latter proliferated up-to-date clips about the context, but exerted media availability heuristics due to the short nature of its 15 second videos. Availability heuristics effectis when people form immediate evaluations based on what information is available in front of them. In both cases, The lack of in-depth understanding of the social and historical contexts of the affairs may lead to slacktivism whereby people access the information via clicking on a hashtag that takes the user to the categorized feed of content. Slacktivism places a greater emphasis on the participation in raising awareness and voicing out than concrete attempts to establish policies or solutions to these societal problems, potentially hindering the functionality to organizational change.
A more notable consequence of Tiktok with regard to cultural lag is that it has created a material - dominating culture that has led to sociocultural issues. Whilst the tiktok algorithm effectively promotes surface culture in the form of music, food, fashion and cosmetics, its contribution to the heightened incentives of influencer culture potentially introduces cultural appropriation. A national analysis identified the existence of an “influencer culture” whereby individual users exert commercial or non-commercial influence across the internet community. Bhandari, A., & Bimo, S. (2022)  further explained the formation of influencer culture using the “self-representation” theory in relevance to Tiktok. Originally, anyone’s social representation is created based on diverse cultural elements ranging from food to the sharing of experience and emotions. Whereas the tiktok self-algorithm redefines self- representation based on predetermined categorical schema for the purpose of data gathering. Hearn (2010) theorized that this far-reaching form of control leads Tiktok users to be exploited for the ever-evolving forms of profit within a wider capitalist- driven economy infrastructure. Within this scope, users must follow a “datalogical turn” wherein the production of content must fit the capitalistic and societal desires to be on the collection and vast amounts of consumer data.
The focus on exploiting marketing opportunities potentially leads to the oversight of sensitivity and lack of appreciation for community diversity. This was reflected in a cultural appropriation incident in 2020. Carli D’Amelio, known as the CEO of the Renegade dance, has paved her wealth and fame upon sponsorships and media opportunities derived from the unprecedented attention on the dance. By the age of 15, she became arguably the most influential Tiktok user. Nevertheless, at the heart of the issue is the unrevealed fact that the dance was originally created by a dark-skinned dancer named Jalaiah Harmon. The dance was initially uploaded on Funimate before it was moved onto Tiktok where D’Amelio discovered and made the dance her own. To receive the credit she deserved, Harmon raised her voice regarding the ownership of the choreography but was ignored and even humiliated by the mass media. With this incident being one example amongst many, the algorithm has been backlashed as “whitewashed” with its tendency to promote white creator idiosyncracies to achieve marketing success. Arguably, it heightens the incentives to separate power division between cultures, with white users more likely to exploit cultural elements of the ethnic minorities.
In conclusion, tiktok has a positive impact on culture to the extent that they foster multidimensional aspects of surface culture, strengthening cultural growth within respective areas of music, branding, style and food. This collectively translates into macro levels of cultural engagement as a gateway to the betterment of deep culture. In the sociocultural scope, tiktok inspired the formation of a new, efficient and influencing form of playful activism, using surface culture elements to raise awareness on societal issues. This combined type of advertisement has reportedly raised important awareness among the youth generation, who are the future stakeholders of culture. However, whilst the self-algorithm has its benefits on both the evolution of surface and deep culture, it also draws a problem of a cultural lag in the way that surface culture (branding, dance, music) is currently progressing faster than that of the deep culture (religion, societal and family values etc.) due to the exploitative nature of the self-generating algorithm, providing marketing opportunities for the capitalist-driven infrastructure. The oversight of deep culture further fuels underlying issues with regard to ownership and equity as long-existing concepts of cultural appropriation. Although, regardless of the positive and negative impacts, the algorithm generating network has definitely led the generation to an era of self-exploratory and identifiable virtual world.