I’m an unlikely convert to TikTok. Now I can’t imagine giving up.
When I first downloaded the app in the middle of the pandemic, I looked through #BookTok accounts to see which titles people recommended. So I got lost in makeup tutorials for women over 60—just in time for all those new Zoom business calls. I learned to contour my face to make it look better, but I never mastered the smoky eye.
I had a mild flirtation with #GRWMs, “get ready with me” posts showing young women getting ready for their days. And I loved watching videos about apartments for rent in New York.
My participation was an anomaly. Most TikTok obsessives are between the ages of 18 and 24. Only 1.7% of users are my age – over 55.
I was a lurker, not a creator, and it never occurred to me to try to profit from the site. Instead, what I gained in the midst of lockdown was a feeling of connection. The one- to three-minute videos, set to catchy music, were so enticing that I wanted to know more about the creators.
Within a few months, my relationship with TikTok deepened, a development that surprised most of my friends. TikTok’s algorithm started sending me videos that revealed lives very strange to mine. @TheKathyProject showed me a family dealing with a sister who is dying of early Alzheimer’s. I watched her adjust to her new life in a nursing home. @Roseinchina1 showed the life of a Ugandan woman married to a Chinese man in a rural village in East China’s Zhejiang Province. The food Rose cooks looks extraordinary. @StuartandFrancis, a gay couple from the UK, have a son, Rio, born via surrogate. Another child is on the way.
It was those videos that hooked me — and showed me how TikTok, often dismissed as just a place for teens to post dance videos, can also be an engine for building empathy.
One of the most meaningful “connections” I formed was with @DylanMulvaney, a gay actor who transitioned to female in March 2022. Mulvaney created a series, “Days of Girlhood,” in which she shared her journey as a woman with all its successes and tribulations. Viewers saw his delight in wearing women’s clothing and his frustration at not being able to shave after a laser hair removal procedure.
Mulvaney transitioned during an unprecedented period of anti-trans activism. At the end of March, the Movement Advancement Project think tank counted 650 anti-LGBTQ bills passing through various legislatures. Although I know some trans people, I don’t know them well. So normally this would be a subject I followed with concern, but with a feeling of detachment. But watching Mulvaney, I realized that the fight for trans rights is everyone’s fight. The loss of one civil right can lead to the loss of further civil rights.
Others sympathize with Mulvaney’s journey as well. Last year, his account went from 1 million to 10 million followers. She has become a powerful influencer. President Biden invited her to the White House. She was a guest on “The Drew Barrymore Show”. Her special at the Rainbow Room in New York to mark the one-year anniversary of her transition was so popular that the live stream crashed. Naturally, those who oppose LGBTQ rights have attacked and criticized her.
Accounts like Mulvaney’s are why threats to ban TikTok concern me. This would isolate myself and other users from different points of view. Members of Congress are concerned that China-based ByteDance, which owns TikTok, could be pressured by the Chinese government to hand over the private data of TikTok’s 150 million active U.S. users. And it could feed them misinformation. It’s a valid concern.
But how do TikTok’s risks compare to the risks posed by Meta, Google and other social media sites? These apps track my movements, know what I browse, and sell that data to personalize the ads I receive. In 2014, Cambridge Analytica, a British political consultancy, illegally collected data from 50 million Facebook accounts and used it to try to manipulate US and UK elections.
And Elon Musk’s Twitter removed the site’s protections, leaving users exposed to constant abuse, racial slurs and misinformation. Now the blue check that indicated verified users, including me, is gone.
Congress needs to examine the pitfalls of all social media platforms and establish safeguards that protect users from abuse on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram — not just TikTok.
At its best, TikTok can create empathy. And in our fractured and politically divided world, we need all the understanding we can get.
Let’s fix it, not banish it.
Frances Dinkelspiel is an author, journalist, and co-founder of the nonprofit news organization Cityside, based in Berkeley and Oakland.