What if TikTok was good?

Scarlett Coughlan
June 30, 2023
A future is possible where globally-successful apps make lives better for users, rather than worse

Cheap thrills, addictive algorithms, and misinformation spring to mind at the mention of TikTok. But it doesn't have to be like that. Scarlett Coughlan explores how the billion-user-strong platform could be reformed for good.

‘What if TikTok was good?’ may, at first glance, sound like a stupid question to the Gen-Z or Millennial eye. TikTok is good. Where else can you find a video of a cat twerking and a lizard riding a surfboard separated by the momentary swipe of a finger? 

‘Good’, however, has many meanings. What would it look like if the billion-user-strong platform was ‘good’ for humanity? ‘Good’ for the world?

Currently, that seems an untenable feat. Most users would admit it’s making us exponentially dumber. On average, we spend an hour a day consuming its mind-numbing content, offering up our ever-diminishing IQs as a sacrifice. And what do we get in return? A shorter attention span and overwhelming sense of self-loathing.

The average user spends an hour a day scrolling TikTok.

These issues, however, pale in comparison to the bigger picture. It’s no secret that the Chinese-owned app is a layer for predators, a hub of fake news and often malicious misinformation, as well as a club which batters the self-esteem of teenagers. It’s the only place where children would partake in a Benadryl-consumption challenge, or destroy a river’s ecosystem with soap, to feel part of a community and earn their (literal) five seconds of fame.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. We’ve already seen from Douyin, China’s domestic version of the platform, how short-form video content can be a legitimate fount of education. In an interview with 60 Minutes, Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist and co-founder of the Center for Human Technology, demonstrates how Douyin pushes at-home science experiments, museum exhibits, and other educational content onto the feeds of under-14s — who also have a mandatory cut-off point at 40 minutes per day. In the West, the average for the same age-group is twice that, at 80 minutes.

Gen-Z-ers spend four or more hours on social media every day.

Yet, more significantly, there’s proof that this day-to-day culture consumption is having long-term effects on how children think. Harris cites a survey which illustrates how the most common aspiration for children in China is to become an astronaut, while the majority of their North American counterparts want to become an ‘influencer’. It’s a damning indictment of how culture, like the videos we watch, influences our lives, and by extension, our societies

Harris summarises the cognitive impact of the platform: “They make their domestic version a spinach version of TikTok, while they ship the opium version to the rest of the world.” How can we take what makes ‘Western TikTok’ great, and transform it into a Pop-Eye-worthy spinach-fest, too?

It’s worth mentioning that some of the platform’s content already holds value. Making it easier than ever before for people to become a creator, TikTok lets users experience different people, places, and cultures in a stimulating way. From offering a treasure-trove of recipes hailing from all around the world to giving content creators like Mariam Ezagui, an Orthodox Jewish midwife, a platform to smash religious stereotypes with her 1.7 million-strong audience, bona fide cultural worth is within its reach.

The most common aspiration for children in China is to become an astronaut, while the majority of their North American counterparts want to become an ‘influencer’.

TikTok does make efforts to lean into this potential. Its TikTok for Good programme exists “to inspire a new generation to have a positive impact.” In helping organisations create content, pursue campaigns, and elevate hashtags, TikTok makes it possible to raise awareness of specific causes. #EduTok, for example, encouraged users to create their own educational content, and saw over 48 billion views across almost 9 million videos. Meanwhile, the #ForClimate campaign was created in partnership with the International Red Cross. TikTokers shared knowledge about climate change, drew attention to its impacts, and created 273,000 videos which accrued 384 million views.

But these successes are small fry when set in context. The top ten most popular videos on the platform span lip-syncing clips to visual illusions to ‘adorable babies’, drawing up to 2 billion views each. The lowest, by Billie Eilish, drew as many views in a single 9-second clip as the Red Cross’ hashtag picked up across the entire campaign.

This is unsurprising given the TikToks that appear on a user’s ‘For You’ page are simply trying to find content that users are interested in. Whilst maximising user satisfaction, the drawback is that users see only a narrow breadth of content. Educational content remains invisible to those who don’t actively seek it out. Ultimately, TikTok today specialises in cheap-thrills, with 78% of users primarily using the app for entertainment. 

And entertain it does. Gen-Z-ers (aged under 24) spend four or more hours on social media every day, with TikTok increasingly the destination. Whilst missing out on more diverse content is one problem, the content that users actually watch is potentially an even bigger one. One study finds that, for girls with symptoms of depression, 68% of them felt addicted to the app or used it more than intended. Even for girls with no depressive symptoms, a full 33% felt the same way.

For an example of a platform that does not rely on abusing poor human willpower, look at Duolingo. In his yet-to-be-released TED Talk, delivered in April this year, founder Luis von Ahn explains how, rather than driving traffic to his app using an addictive algorithm, Duolingo opted for (optional) daily notifications to ask users if they wanted to come back for more.

Duolingo keeps users coming back through optional notifications.

With more people learning languages on Duolingo than in schools themselves, von Ahn has proven that wellness and success are not actually mutually exclusive. More importantly, however, the Guatemalan’s best practice raises important questions about choice. Von Ahn has chosen to build an app for good; it isn’t clear that TikTok has done the same. It is well within their power to ban videos that romanticise mental illness, or remove filters that leave teenage girls wondering why they don’t look like one of the Kardashians. TikTok could hold onto the entertaining content, while letting go of the (un)healthy dose of impending doom that often comes with it.

Another factor preventing TikTok from reaching its full potential is its propensity towards spreading false information — and not just fake adverts for awesome-looking movies that don’t actually exist (annoying!), but misinformation that can be genuinely harmful. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have found that in the early months of the pandemic, up to a third of Covid-19-related videos contained misinformation.

Wellness and success are not mutually exclusive.

In fact, NewsGuard, the journalism credibility tool, estimates that 20% of the site’s content on popular news topics, such as the Ukraine war, contained misinformation, including that stemming from national governments like Russia, as well as individuals looking to grow their platform. Of the roughly one billion videos uploaded to TikTok every month, TikTok removes tens of millions for violating its Community Guidelines, but less than 1% of removed videos are removed for “harmful misinformation.”

Based on these findings, researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School decided to find out whether TikTok could organically debunk misinformation within the platform itself, by getting users to ‘stitch’ or ‘duet’ videos with the correct information, much like Twitter’s Community Notes feature. But their study found that there was only “moderate evidence” that this worked, and that its effectiveness was “weak”.

Their conclusion illustrates how the only real solution to TikTok’s problems lies in the hands of those who operate the platform. From mind-degrading algorithms to fully intentional misinformation, TikTok’s success has come at the expense of wellness. But a future is possible where globally-successful apps make lives better for users, rather than worse. Organisations like Duolingo demonstrate how powerful that can be. It’s possible for TikTok to do the same.

A future is possible where globally-successful apps make lives better for users, rather than worse.
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Scarlett was Head of Media at Culture3 from November 2021 to August 2022. She enjoys writing about culture, fashion, and art.

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