Sundance: ‘TikTok, Boom’ Bites off More Than It Can Chew


Spencer X in a Still from “TikTok, Boom.” (Courtesy Sundance Institute)

By Hannah Keating, Arts Editor


In “TikTok, Boom.” director Shalini Kantayya attempts to explore the massive impact Chinese social media app TikTok has had on the “the zeitgeist of the U.S.” and beyond in its rapid advance to the most downloaded app in history. The documentary follows so many pieces left in TikTok’s era of “move fast and break things” that it’s hard to make sense of.

“What Side of TikTok Are You On?”

At first glance, “TikTok, Boom.” is a look into the life of a social media influencer.  According to the film, this is a career that is now listed 4th among the aspirations of elementary school kids and is still largely uncharted with Gen Z content creators, like Deja Foxx, skyrocketing to fame overnight. We see the video that caused her virality — a high-school aged Foxx refuting an Arizona senator’s stance on Planned Parenthood at a town hall.

Foxx, along with fellow “digital native” pundits Feroza Aziz and Spencer X, play powerful roles in explaining how TikTok’s monetization features have given them creative opportunities that wouldn’t have existed, but have in turn exposed them to harassment, hate and mental health concerns.

From here, “TikTok, Boom.” shifts to an exploration of TikTok’s unique and highly specific algorithm. Tech expert Eugene Wei  calls it a “sorting hat” of content — the app’s algorithm sorts you by your “For You” page until your recommendations are highly tailored. Before going too deep down that rabbit hole, the film calls attention to TikTok’s role as a home for independent artists and musicians, a space for community conversation and a method of promoting social justice, even if you have to navigate Community Guidelines.

And, the documentary shifts once again to the sort of “tech cold war” that TikTok’s presence has fueled between the U.S. and China. Kantayya revisits news from Trump’s presidency — how TikTok users purchased thousands of tickets to a rally in Tulsa with no plans of attending, creating empty seats as an act of defiance and Trump’s attempt to ban the app following the fear of surveillance and national security.

“A Kids App Wrapped up in a Geopolitical Storm”

“TikTok, Boom.” is an all-encapsulating look at how the app has transformed our online spaces in less than five years. It addresses the “gold rush” to fame and how likely a third of U.S. TikTok users are under 14 years old, causing safety concerns. The doc also unpacks shadow banning, social disparities and covert censorship policies outlined in TikTok’s terms. It calls attention to whistleblowers from ByteDance who may have had information about COVID-19 in China, and attempts to spark conversation around the prevalence of anti-Asian hate, the Black Lives Matter movement, the campaigns of the 2020 Presidential election and the attempts of Silicone Valley to buy and then destroy the app.

In all of this, “TikTok, Boom.” spreads itself much too thin. If the documentary were just an exposé on the lifestyle of a social media influencer, or a deep dive into algorithm design, or a study of the emotional effects on digital natives — even just a historical account of the legal action and government tension that surrounded the app — it would have been much more successful in making a point.

Instead, “TikTok, Boom.” carries a sort of cognitive dissonance, jumping frantically from pundit to pundit trying to make sense of how the app altered our lives. There is just so much information to cover that even the parts of the documentary that should terrify me leave me numb. And this documentary should have scared me! The dystopian, tech anxiety and political unrest that have occurred on and around this app worries people in generations above me, but, as someone so comfortable with TikTok, the message of “TikTok, Boom.” is easy to ignore. I’m so deeply entrenched in it that I don’t even bat an eye.


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