The App That Exposes Teens to Catcalls and Harassment
Engineers and product designers amplify content that meets their business goals. Their choices have unintended consequences.
At first glance, the app TikTok looks like something I’ve seen before. With its short, vertical videos that play on an endless loop, TikTok is reminiscent of Vine, the defunct short-form video-sharing platform. Options to view my profile or search the app are pinned to a bar on the bottom. Share, comment, and “heart” options are stacked on the right. To create a video, I’m prompted to click the large plus sign centered on the bottom.
Before filming anything, I swipe through TikTok’s “for you” feed. It’s a vertical string of featured video clips that I can only assume were recommended because they’re performing well among the app’s teen user base.
In one of the first videos I come across, a 16-year-old girl in braces dances in her bedroom. The video is tinted pink (TikTok’s answer to the Instagram filter) and Chris Brown’s verse on O.T. Genasis’ “CoCo” plays on loop. You picture perfect let me centerfold you, alright, alright. The bottom of the user’s shirt is folded up, baring her stomach. A few seconds into the clip, she begins to rub her crotch while lip-syncing the lyrics: All my bitches got asses.
The video plays on repeat. In the comment section, the app encourages users to “say something nice.” A few viewers have responded with sexually suggestive comments, variations on a theme (“rub that thing baby,” “let me rub it,” etc.). Within a few hours of uploading the video, the user has disabled comments and made her account private.
Since the early web blogging days of Xanga, teens have sought new ways to express and embarrass themselves online. TikTok accomplishes both those things and then some.
Until last month, TikTok was best known in the United States as the Chinese equivalent of Musical.ly, a lip-syncing app that burst onto the tween smartphone scene in 2014. Developed in Shanghai by two Chinese entrepreneurs, TikTok is one of the first Chinese-owned social media startups to build a significant user base outside China. Along the way, it has grown into…