TikTok (Yes, TikTok) Is the Future

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I had mostly avoided TikTok; it made me feel old. But for me and many of you, TikTok has become a needed dose of silliness during the pandemic — and more recently, a unique home for grieving and activism.

Alongside short videos of a hamster jamming on the piano and an incredible watermelon carving, there are scenes of the protests against the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and a history lesson on the 1921 massacre of residents of a black neighborhood in Tulsa.

What’s unusual about TikTok is that it’s not another place to see what’s happening. It’s a distilled expression of how people are feeling. At its best, a TikTok video gives me a sense of someone’s essence — and taken together, of our collective essence.

TikTok feels familiar, but its soul is unlike that of other social media that came before it. It can be mindless fun, but it’s also a force to pay attention to. TikTok is the first entertainment powerhouse born in and built for the smartphone age — and it might change everything.

It’s also the first time that Americans have had to consider that U.S. companies might not always rule the internet. There’s a lot of importance wrapped in a (mostly) goofy app.

Last month, a reader named Richard wrote us asking, “Can you explain why TikTok is all the rage?”

Well, the magic is TikTok makes it easy to be creative and to watch others’ best work. A 60-second limit on videos means users don’t need to create much filler, and there’s often a common thread with many videos set to the same song or riffing on a “challenge” like cleaning mirrors.

TikTok makes it easy to watch by pushing you videos that its computers predict you will like. You don’t need to search or know whom to watch. (But that is also why TikTok can operate like a bubble. I might see Black Lives Matter videos, while you might see only celebrities dancing.)

TikTok doesn’t necessarily show you the reality of the world. It’s about expression, but it’s not like anything we’re used to.

Netflix, YouTube and most other internet video services grafted existing business behaviors onto new distribution models. TikTok blew up all of that. It wasn’t made for cord cutters. It’s for people who never watched TV at all.

If you’re on TikTok to talk politics, you’ll find irreverent political in-jokes and none of the usual TV-like conventions. Hollywood productions are absent. Whether fun or solemn, everything is tailored to TikTok’s id.

TikTok does have many of the familiar internet problems like overreach of data collection, stalking and harmful misinformation.

The biggest questions stem from TikTok’s ownership by the Chinese internet conglomerate ByteDance. Some American politicians worry that TikTok is a conduit for China to siphon Americans’ data. (TikTok says it doesn’t do this.)

TikTok faced questions last year on whether it was hiding videos from Hong Kong’s protests to appease the Chinese government. The company said it didn’t.

I don’t know whether those fears are valid. But TikTok is definitely a mind bender. It’s one of the first Chinese internet services that is globally popular. That’s a challenge for Americans who are used to U.S. internet companies dominating much of the world.

TikTok might be rewiring entertainment, giving the next generation of activists new ways to tell stories and challenging the global internet order.

Hey, you are someone who appreciates smart conversations about technology. Join my DealBook colleague Andrew Ross Sorkin and the veteran technology journalist Kara Swisher for a discussion about how the tech giants are dealing with free speech, the risks and opportunities created by the pandemic and more. R.S.V.P. here for the call, which will be on Thursday at 11 a.m. Eastern.

Brian X. Chen, a consumer technology writer at the The New York Times, suggests some apps and products to help you create your own online videos and photos.

It’s hard to become famous on social media. (I have firsthand experience failing to make my dog, Max, an Instagram celebrity.) But if you want to give it a shot, you don’t have to splurge on fancy cameras and lights to make videos and photos look better. You can just use your smartphone camera and a few tools.

Here are some low-cost hacks I’ve used over the years:

  • A phone tripod. My wife occasionally posts cooking videos to demonstrate her recipes, and this tiny $20 phone tripod fits nicely on the kitchen counter while holding the smartphone stable at different angles. That beats spending $300 to $400 on a GoPro camera.

  • A work light. Professional photographers spend hundreds of dollars on light kits. You know what else works great? A $20 work light from the hardware store. These powerful lights were designed for outdoor construction, but they do a miraculous job at lighting for indoor photography.

    The light is very harsh, though. To diffuse it, I tape a piece of parchment paper over the light’s metal grill.

  • A good photo-editing app. There are plenty of cheap photo and video editing apps to do touch-ups before posting your selfies. VSCO charges for special filters and editing tools, but the free basic features will get you one small step closer to internet stardom.

  • Tough questions for the Facebook boss: Mark Zuckerberg told Facebook employees on Tuesday that he stood by the company’s hands-off approach to recent inflammatory posts by President Trump, despite dissent from some employees and outsiders, my colleagues reported. Facing fury at times during a virtual meeting with employees, Zuckerberg said it was “a tough decision,” but that he made a thoroughly considered call based on the company’s policies.

  • There are no magic bullets for our city transportation hellscape but… Brian, our consumer tech writer, tried and loved electric bikes, and he said they’re an effective and fun transportation option for commuters looking to reduce the risk of the coronavirus and avoid nightmare traffic. (I was converted long ago to the joys of biking for transportation, so yea!) Check out Brian’s recommendations on what to consider if you’re e-bike curious.

  • If you were confused about the black squares on Instagram: My colleagues debate whether people sharing images on Instagram of black boxes on Tuesday was an effective symbol of solidarity for people abused by police, or a way for people to avoid doing something meaningful about racism.

Sticking with today’s TikTok theme: Here is a mewing kitten in the couch cushions.

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