TikTok is a fascinating phenomenon. In the world of social media, we have YouTube for videos, Instagram for photos, Facebook for connection, Twitter for argument and now, the new kid on the bloc, Tik Tok, which adds all of these together and, if it were possible, simplifies them. Tik Tok is a Chinese owned social media platform with 750 million followers – 100 million of them in the US, 10 million in the UK, and 2.5 million in Australia. In the past year the number of TikTok users in Australia more than doubled. Yours truly was one of them.
Like all media it can be used for good or ill. The printing press can be used to print Bibles or pornography; TV can be used to glorify nature, or violence; and TikTok can show the beauties of Australia or the ugliness of human behaviour. But there is another, deeper, and more sinister aspect of social media in general and TikTok especially.
Long before it was even dreamed of, Neil Postman warned of a time when we would be ‘amusing ourselves’ to death:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism.
TikTok is brilliant. Not at giving us information, balanced opinion, news, or serious thought. It is brilliant at entertaining and distracting us. Just as the genius of the TV series ‘24’ was to get you to switch on to the next episode immediately, so TikTok can quickly become an addictive drug. Time is a precious commodity given to us by the Lord. TikTok is a thief of time.
It also distorts. We’ve had the Twitterisation of politics, now we have its TikTokisation. People give their opinion in sixty seconds. There is no nuance, no context, and no awareness of the complexities of human life and behaviour. In social media in general and TikTok in particular the world is simply divided into good and evil, black and white. The trouble is that if you are after ‘likes’ the more extreme, shocking, and exploitative videos and comments get the most likes.
TikTok is destructive. It’s not just that TikTok is a narcissist’s dream – it goes beyond that. Jonathan Haidt, the American psychologist, was asked about the worst invention in the 21st century so far. His reply was immediate – ‘the like button on Facebook’. He spoke of the psychological harm it was doing, especially to teenage minds. TikTok is destructive of our cognitive abilities and our capacity to reason and think. When everything is reduced to a sixty second soundbite, then polarisation and tribalism become much more evident.
Take the recent Israel/Gaza flare up. Some people called it ‘the TIkTok intifada’, because of the number of videos being posted on either side. I was horrified to find that first of all the TikTok algorithm thought that I would be interested in pro-Palestinian, and extremist anti-Jewish videos. Then there was a change, and I was being bombarded with pro-Israeli anti Palestinian propaganda. The trouble is that it has never been so easy to film and to share violence. And violence sells almost as much as sex. The culture wars can easily affect, or even become, real wars.
There is another disturbing aspect of this. The social media giants use recommendation algorithms which reinforce the confirmation bias of the user. All this does is encourage those with entrenched views. I was recently told by someone on Twitter that ‘all the experts’ disagreed with me on one subject. The problem is that my opponent had already decided that those who disagreed with his point of view could, de facto, not be experts.
Why is all this happening? It is extremely profitable for the giant social media companies, who largely seem to have grown too powerful for any government to take on – although some are now, belatedly, trying. But this is happening because of the sinfulness of human beings. We are drawn towards evil and selfishness. Sin puts ‘I’ at the middle. So does social media.
Which is not to say that all social media is bad. And Christians should be careful not to overreact. TikTok does not mean the end of the world. It can be used for good. How could the church use TikTok? What would Presbyterian TikTok look like? Do we want videos of pastors and elders dancing? 60 second sound bite sermons? Theological debates reduced to memes and moments? For those of us who find General Assemblies at times tedious, the idea of a TikTok GA could be tempting – until you realise what it would mean!
I would suggest that there is a limited way that we can use these ‘weapons’ – simply to publicise and infiltrate the narcissistic world with the message of Christ. We should ‘spoil the Egyptians’!
However, we need to remember that, whilst Marshall McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’, may be overstated; yet there is a great deal of truth in his observation. So where can we go? How can we use TikTok? Let’s return to Postman: “The clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation.” We can use TikTok to understand the people we are trying to reach. We don’t have to accept the methodologies, but we do have to understand.
Also, “People will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.” We must learn to use technology, not to worship it. We discipline ourselves and limit our use of social media, especially when it interferes with our capacity to think. And we must be counter cultural – challenging people to think.
“I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.” Whilst we must seek to understand, we must never change Christianity to make it so light and trivial that it will appeal to the TikTok generation. We want to challenge the world – not become like it.
“The written word endures; the spoken word disappears”
All but a handful of TikTok videos will disappear into the Internet abyss within days. Those that go ‘viral’ will be forgotten next year. That is the nature of the medium. But Jesus tells us “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never disappear” (Matthew 24:35). It is our job to communicate his Word. We may use TikTok as a kind of advertisement, but it will never replace the preaching, reading and communication of the Word of God, as the primary means of communicating the good news.
Glasgow’s motto was ‘Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of the Word’ (modern Glasgow ends its motto at ‘flourish’ – missing out the means of that flourishing). Our motto for Australia must be same. The question is: “In the TikTok generation how do we get people to listen?”