TikTok, Boom | Sundance Film Festival 2022


TikTok seemed to erupt from nowhere. It can elevate its users' popularity to new heights overnight, and the same can be said about this app's introduction to the mainstream. Shalini Kantayya's latest is a look behind the fairytale of booming success and into TikTok's humble beginnings, as well as acting as a criticism for its secrecy and toxic algorithm that seeks to silence content that doesn't align with its brand. 

Somewhat aware of its context, TikTok, Boom opens with the juxtaposition of teens talking about the app's cultural impact under a slew of nonsensical videos that can be found on one's for you page. It places a generational divide from the beginning, with Gen X reporters despairing on news reports while Gen Z and younger Millenials grind away at creating their content and reaping serious rewards for doing so. Feroza Aziz, Spencer X and Deja Foxx are perhaps not household names but should be familiar to frequent users who have come to see their success in different pockets of the app. By anchoring the story with them, we spend the first third of the film behind the curtain of influencer culture, reaping little new information for audiences of similar age to the doc's subjects. 

The omnipresent threat of data collection becomes the film's next chapter, and although explored a little under a year ago in Jeff Orlowski's The Social Dilemma, Kantayya seems to provide a generational context through Dylan Drury, a content creator whose attorney father actively works against the type of data collection apps like TikTok reap from its users. 

Where the film strengthens itself is in the final "act", so to say, where it talks about the app's desire to "shadow ban" and silence creators that do not align with TikTok's view of what its average user should be. Harmful ableism, racism and classism are embedded in the app's terms and conditions, reinforcing this idea that algorithms are designed to uphold social disparities. Content creator, Emily Barbour, speaks of her own experience being shadow-banned, and we revisit earlier protagonist Feroza Aziz whose story went viral after a video of her speaking out on genocide got deleted and her account suspended. 

Something the film scrapes the surface of but does not delve deep enough into is the real-world harm that this political content can have on actual human lives. Social media activism has done a lot of good while simultaneously doing multiple ills, where false information spreads like wildfire while real-life urgencies are left by the wayside. It calls back to the previous point of who gets to have a voice, and by making this the choice of an algorithm, we place tremendous power on our devices to maintain and deepen our political viewpoint.

Though the line between the aching groan of adults lecturing a generation on social media does not often cross into the territory of seeing the good, Kantayya's doc toes the line finely but ultimately does not pay off. Its stance is not radical enough. Therefore, what's left is a very mild condemnation and a confusing tone that contradicts the film's central polemic. It doesn't leave its audience with any action items, leaving a sour taste when we've spent the final act seeing how the app actively discriminates and are left with a quasi-inspirational pep talk from a teen who got lucky. 

Influencer culture is yet to see a documentary that dissects both its positivity and its toxicity, and while it may not be the filmmaker's intention to unstitch this, it scratches it enough that the audience gets the itch to know more. Perhaps honing in on one of its three angles would've been a more satisfying way to deliver this documentary, but Kantayya opens a pandora's box that leaves a lot of questions, perhaps a follow up should be in the works. 

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