TikTok as a Portal Into Different Worlds

Cyberbits #5: A housemaid in Kuwait, incarcerated inmates, and other unlikely creators

Welcome to another weekly edition of Cyberbits!

Cyberbits is a weekly curated newsletter of fascinating finds on the internet, from random Reddit threads to weird webpages. I’ll also include interesting bytes I come across while working on longer Cybernaut essays. I send this out every Friday!

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In this week’s edition: the TikTok universe—its extraordinary ability to let us glimpse into lives unlived, unique vernacular and trends, plus its black-box algorithm. 

TikTok as a Portal Into Different Worlds

Scrolling through TikTok often gives you a glimpse into someone else’s highlight reel: perfectly imperfect choreography to Doja Cat songs, vast open floor plan apartments with that $10,0000 Restoration Hardware cloud couch, and mindful morning routines that start with the 5-Minute Journal. My feed largely consists of the aspirational: Los Angeles infinity pools and Manhattan skyline.

But every so often, TikTok acts as a portal into unexplored worlds. The ones that fall outside the purview of Gen Z influencers on private jets and millennial mommy vloggers preparing macronutrient balanced lunches for their toddlers. These alternate worlds feel real and unvarnished. They are an alternative to the immaculate; a portal to the imperfect. 

Scroll down and the algorithm might land in the world of reallife_with_linda, a live-in Ghanian housemaid who’s resided in Kuwait for eight years and lived in the Middle East for twenty. She’s extremely TikTok savvy, using snippets of popular songs like Jojo’s Leave (Get Out) to describe stealing food from her employer to survive or 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P. to roleplay her response to the possibility of her TikTok account being discovered by the matriarch of her host family, who she refers to as “Madam.”

She’s half-joking and half-serious, making mention of her passport being held by the family rendering her unable to leave in one video, bragging about the invaluable nature of her work in the household to a Snoop Dog sound bite in the next, and expressing gratitude for the newfound air conditioning in her bedroom in another. In the comments, watchers express concern and sadness about her situation and will her strength—horror stories of foreign domestic workers in the Middle East are easy to come by. 

Make another vertical swipe on TikTok’s For You feed and you might see a quick video showcasing the unglamorous side of living in New York City. In a realistic “day in the life” style mini vlog, one woman shows herself waking up to the view of a brick wall and taking the subway to work a twelve hour day at a Chinese restaurant. It’s a side of the city that’s rarely represented in clips from influencers emulating Carrie Bradshaw’s Sex in the City lifestyle with apartment views of Central Park or the Empire State Building in the distance

Keep scrolling and you might find yourself on #PrisonTok. Inmates aren’t allowed to have cell phones, but that doesn’t stop some from sharing life from inside the prison industrial complex. The horrors of prison, commonly tucked out of view or exposed to us through filtered depictions in TV and movies, are on full unedited display for the world to see including close inhospitable quarters. Despite the dire situations many inmates face, some of these TikToks from behind bars are filmed with an ironic sense of humor, like one from cuzfrom87:

“If you are looking for a one bedroom, one bath, free room, free apartment, three meals a day, with phone access, you keep your cell phone, unlimited access to drugs. Zero dollars a month. This is prison. All you have to do is commit a crime.”

More than once, I’ve watched food delivery drivers on TikTok tearfully relay that the math of their job doesn't add up: without tips, they’re losing money doing their jobs and on financial thin ice or fully immersed in the water struggling to stay afloat. More commonly, I’ve scrolled to find blue-collar work that’s commonly considered “strangely satisfying” to watch: dirty driveways power-washed clean and apartment walls tinged yellow from chain smoking, stripped back to white.

TikTok provides a glimpse into the world that people like me, The Newsletter Class™, don’t spend much time thinking about. In between videos of pristine pantries and glute exercises, these short raw snippets tell us a little more about the world than we would otherwise know, underscoring the utility of social media that often gets lost in conversation. With a cellphone and an internet connection, everyone can be a creator documenting their own version of life and earning an audience without the need to airbrush. Many are providing an immersive experience into worlds that feel distant yet close enough to touch. 

Internet Rabbit Hole

Your Guide To The Latest Buzzwords, Trends, Creators And Memes — Kelsey Weekman, a fantastic writer at In The Know and expert on all things TikTok, youth culture, and influencers, compiled an A to Z glossary on the who's who and what's what of popular culture in our online age, from the Chlorophyll drink TikTok trend to the Sway House. If you’re suddenly seeing a bunch of online videos you don’t quite understand, chances are it’s been demystified here. 

These are two of my current favorite TikTok trends, explored exhaustively: 

  • The ‘Adult Swim’ Trend — If you’re on TikTok, in the last week or two you’ve likely seen creative nostalgic videos with the song “Time Moves Slow (Vano 3000 Remix)” by BADBADBADNOTGOOD featuring Sam Herring and “[AS]” revealed in an unlikely spot—a Starbucks drink, spelled out using golf balls, or on the concrete next to a pool. Apparently there are now “over 112,000 videos on TikTok using the remix” and “the #as hashtag currently has 1.2 billion views.”
  • “I remember when I lost my mind” TikTok trend An older format on TikTok, where people confess “very dark but hilarious secrets,” this trend was both fascinating and stupefying to observe. Most commonly, people now wiser, reflect on their brief bouts of relationship insanity—from faking pregnancies to fabricating love interests in order to stay in toxic pairings or impress someone new.

Check This Out

The emptiness of “couple goals” TikToks — PR relationships, common fare in Hollywood, have become just as popular with YouTube and TikTok influencers. “Couple goals” and “relationship shipping” bring interest, eyeballs, and impressions. While many of these influencers play the part, posing for swoon-worthy photos and doing couple Q&As, Rebecca Jennings deftly describes the emptiness that’s apparent in many of these online pairings that inevitably come to a dramatic end, fuelling speculation that only serve to drive more views. 

TikTok and the Algorithmic Promise of Virality — Ed Zitron argues that the TikTok algorithm is “built to inject chaos into the network,” creating viral stars out of nobodies and making innocuous moments the trending topic of the day. Small accounts can have their content surfaced to a massive audience at random, creating the feeling that anyone can go viral. 

TikTok changed the shape of some people’s faces without asking — TikTokers raised the issue that the platform was adding an automatic beauty filter. While some creators found it disturbing, I’m unsurprised. In 2020, the platform admitted to suppressing videos from “vulnerable” users in an attempt to curb cyberbullying. 

Dive In

Fresh Content

Tiktok, Emergent Creativity, The Limits of Social Graph In a nearly 90-minute conversation between Eugene Wei and Kevin Kwok, they discuss the transformation of Musical.ly into TikTok, ByteDance’s exhaustive paid acquisition strategy, and whether TikTok will find a path to professionalizing the platform:

“Communities have path dependence. You know that the first people into a community set the direction for who comes in, who feels welcome, [and] who feels like this is a space for them. That type of thing really matters. I think TikTok, what they've done is they've achieved a certain breadth and diversity of content which now allows them to potentially tap into different markets.”

Internet Article Archive

How TikTok Became The Music Industry's New Fame Machine (2019) If I look through the Billboard Hot 100 songs for this week, I can visualize the TikTok choreography or meme for most of the songs as I scroll through the list—from Olivia Rodrigo’s “Good 4 U at #2 (before and after make-up transformation) to Silk Sonic’s “Leave the Door Open” at #4 (husbands leaving cupboards, toilet seats, and fridges ajar to purposefully irritate their wives.) Artists like The Kid LAROI and Masked Wolf have had their songs climb the charts after being popularized on TikTok. In Rolling Stone, Elias Leight describes how TikTok is minting the next wave of popular music: 

“The app has multiple ways of bringing more eyes and ears to a reactive song-video combination beyond just placing it on the customized, easily browse-able “For You” page. TikTok can add the song to their internal playlists, which present an easy library of sounds for users to pick to accompany their clips. TikTok can do banner ads, much like Spotify does for new albums, linked to either a video concept or a song. And the platform can launch a hashtag campaign, signalling that a new trend is a bandwagon worth jumping on.”

Have a lovely weekend!


P.S. I would love your feedback on Friday Cyberbits—what you love, what you hate, and whatever makes you feel entirely indifferent! At the bottom of the email hit “Amazing”, “Good”, “Meh”, or “Bad” to share your thoughts. :)

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