You’ve probably heard a lot of things about TikTok. About how it’s the most downloaded app on the planet, has more users than Facebook, has better monetizing abilities than YouTube, is owned by a Chinese tech company mining users’ data, censors creators’ content, was the personal punching bag of Donald Trump, and on and on and on. They’re all true, by the way, but even all of that only scratches the surface of what TikTok is and what TikTok means.
It was video essayist Charlie Shackleton who first brought TikTok to my attention. He billed it as a perpetual high school talent show. That was about three years ago, and though the platform’s power has expanded significantly since, I still think the description “perpetual high school talent show” fits the short-form platform best. The skills and creativity on display—both technological and physical—are baffling. Not to mention the speed with which creators can get their videos shot, edited, and posted. It will take me almost two hours to write, edit, read, re-read, edit again, and post this article, and it’s only 750 words and has one photo. I am humbled.
I have a feeling documentarian Shalini Kantayya was humbled, too, while making TikTok, Boom. She seems captivated by these creators and what they can do with the app. One of them, Spencer X (pictured above), recounts his origin story: When he was 15, he heard a family member beatboxing. He had never heard anyone make sounds like that with their mouth before and was blown away. From that moment on, he devoted his life to beatboxing, and TikTok made him a star. When I was 15, my parents took me to see the buskers on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, and I saw a man do things with a yo-yo I’d never dreamed possible. I went out and bought a yo-yo the very next day. I could do a pretty mean Walk the Dog, but I remember my parents being less than impressed by my career opportunities.
Spencer X’s parents weren’t thrilled when he quit school to beatbox full time, but once fame followed, they came around. I’m sure the money helped too. I wonder: If TikTok had existed back when I was learning yo-yo tricks and if one of my videos had garnered some attention, encouragement, and, eventually, money, would I be writing this or would I be making 15-second yo-yo videos for beaucoup bucks? The mind reels at all the missed opportunities.
As you can probably tell, I’m a little taken with Spencer X. I’m not alone: As of this writing, he has 54.9 million followers and 1.3 billion likes. Go check out his channel; it’ll suck you in. Besides, he has pretty great hair.
I suppose it says something that I’ve spent almost two-thirds of this review fixating on Spencer X and not TikTok, Boom. as a whole. Kantayya gathers about a dozen creators like Spencer X for her documentary, as well as about a dozen more talking head experts (reporters, professors, psychologists, tech writers, etc.) to put forth a pretty clear argument that TikTok is a terrible thing for our mental health, our personal data, even state secrets. Kantayya also explores the idea of Gen Z as the first generation to grow up fully with the internet and how new generations are already being mined. One TikTok creator refers to herself as a “digital native.” Does that mean she identifies more with her online persona than her IRL one? Or is it just a new spin on that old chestnut, “I like to think of myself as a citizen of the world.” I don’t know. What I do know is that I have no desire to join TikTok, and after seeing TikTok, Boom. hopefully others—particularly parents—will feel the same.
But if there’s no TikTok, what will Spencer X do? How will he pay the bills beatboxing? I kind of like the idea that he’s out there making fun videos, bringing happiness to those who watch. Maybe even inspiration. Can you imagine what the 15-year-old who watches his TikTok is going to do with their life? I guess that’s how all this works: We know the app is problematic for myriad reasons, but we can’t stop scrolling. We can’t stop searching for the next little nugget of happiness, even if it is encased in poison.
TikTok, Boom. (2021)
Directed by Shalini Kantayya
Produced by Ross M. Dinerstein, Shalini Kantayya, Danni Mynard
Not yet rated, Running time 90 minutes, Premiered at the virtual Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 23, 2022.