The Network Society Paradigm & Why is TikTok so Successful?

TikTok: the little icon on your phone that’s likely chewing up an embarrassingly large chunk of your screen time. It started out as musically – a lightly cringey video-sharing platform used mainly by zoomers who never experienced the prestige superiority of vine (R.I.P). Today, it hosts over 1.1 billion users and has grown into the unchallenged dominator of social media platforms. So what makes TikTok so successful in our society, and how does it affect us?

The Origin Story of the Network Society

The invention of the telegraph in the 1840’s dramatically altered the course of reality and reality perception. For the first time, we could communicate information free from the constraints of time and space. (Teodor Mitew, 2020)

As with the development of any technology, of course, moral panics are unsued. It was demonised in the New York Times 1858 for being ‘too fast for the truth‘. As the development of the internet followed suit, we’ve observed the rise of rampant misinformation in the modern age spread through social media platforms.

The effects of this annihilation of time and space as a barrier of information spread has been particularly evident during the pandemic. The lockdowns have seen our reliance on information technology grow from a convenience to a necessity.

How does the netWORK?

The web operates as a decentralised network, where users consume, interact with, and create content, which facilitates more participation and keeps the network thriving (Teodor Mitew, 2020). Described as “more ecosystem than machine, cyberspace is a bioelectronic environment” (Dyson, Gilder, Keyworth, Foggler, 1994) where all nodes communicate and interact with eachother.

Post Content Network Types Diagram
Image: Network Structure Diagrams

Social media apps are built in such a way to encourage this participation. Features such as comment sections, hashtags, live streams, likes, shares, and on TikTok, stitches and duets enable users to build and sustain an information network.

The success of TikTok can be seen in the way that other platforms have attempted to incorporate video-based content, for example, Reels on Instagram. However, what makes TikTok so addictive is its algorithm in combination with the short-video content. The content on TikTok follows a fairly consistent format, with slightly different variations of the same trend on a particular ‘sound’. It’s easily accessible, free and has low costs of failure.

How does Tiktok influence us?

In 1984, William Gibson, the father of cyberpunk, described cyberspace as “a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators. Light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters of constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.” (Neuromancer, 1984)

The rise of the cyberpunk/cyberliberty movement in the ’80s stood to criticise virtual control and surveillance while attempting to conceptualise the blending of physical and digital reality. This blending of realities results in the prevalence of liquid labour and presence bleed. (Teodor Mitew, 2020). That is- the way that we are constantly in some way holding space for our online life. And, in turn, the way that our online life influences our ‘real life.

Tiktok consistently holds influence on our real lives. Most notably, its effect on the Black Lives Matter movement last year placed Tiktok as a platform effective for virtual activism. It also has influence over seemingly mundane parts of our lives, such as vernacular trends based on Tiktok trends and jokes. We feel a sense of belonging when a friend references a trend that we know about, influencing our personal relationships. This has been increasingly evident while Lockdown has isolated us each, forcing us to rely more heavily on our online presence to maintain connection and an informed sense of reality. “Some experts believe the pandemic may permanently normalise the comprehensive societal use of digital technologies.” (Doyle & Conboy, 2020)

The concept of liquid labour and information work can be seen interestingly in the rise of mircocelebritiies, influencers, and more specifically, ‘Tiktokers‘. People like Addison Rae and Charlie D’Amelio find fame on Tiktok, and from that, wind up making enormous amounts of money, essentially for documenting their lives.

The attention economy and the long tail effect

“Life today has become analogous with work…permanent flux, constant change, and structural inditerminance” (Mark Deuze, 2006). The online space needs to experience constant iteration to survive. So, to create continuous change, social media platforms need to incite their user’s constant attention.

The TikTok algorithm is an obvious example of the working of the attention economy. The algorithm is so highly personalised that it notoriously warrants concerns around privacy and data collection. The app is structured to feed you small bursts of content that you’re likely to find interesting and entertaining. Psychologically the platform creates a highly addictive system of dopamine hits.

Online content largely falls within the long tail effect, where “as the Internet makes distribution easier — and uses state-of-the-art recommendation systems that allow consumers to become aware of more obscure products” (Wharton, 2009).

Post Content The Long Tail Effect
Image: The Long Tail Effect

This means the ultimately, the sales or viewership of the ‘mainstream’ products available levels out to the amalgamation of sales and viewership of ‘niche’ content. The existence of ‘alt Tiktok‘ is representative of niche content in a long tail effect model.

The Dark Side of Tiktok

TikTok has faced criticism from users for facilitating inequality. The algorithm allegedly disadvantages black creators and unfairly targets female users, banning accounts or ‘shadowbanning‘ creators for making certain kinds of content. Moreover, the platform has faced constant scrutiny for the alarmingly accurate algorithm that creates the For You page, with personal and private data collection concerns. The information we source from Tiktok day-to-day influences our daily lives, so in turn, the content we are shown has the potential to interfere with our free will.

As we advance, I suspect that social media platforms will move toward more algorithmic control and data collection, and our society will become more accepting of it. The network society, particularly the ‘internet of things’, prove that the permanent and ever-inseparable blending of our online reality to our’ real life’ will only increase as time goes on.