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#HotDocs22 Review: TikTok, Boom.

May 8, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2022 Hot Docs Film Festival runs from April 28th to May 8th in Toronto, more information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

Filmmaker Shalini Kantayya previously explored the racial biases of algorithms in her documentary Coded Bias. Now she returns with TikTok, Boom., which explores similar terrain but more specifically looks at the wildly popular video-sharing app TikTok, and how it amasses incredible amounts of data on its mostly young users,

The film first takes us through the history of the app, which was created by Zhang Yimin, founder of the Chinese tech company ByteDance. TikTok was born out of Yimin’s highly censorious Chinese social media platform Douyin when his company purchased the lip syncing app Musacal.ly in 2017, and merged the two to create TikTok, which has quickly overtaken American companies like Facebook as the fastest growing social media platform. TikTok subsequently exploded in popularity, with younger kids in particular being drawn in by its constant stream of short-form vertical videos.

But the app, which is designed to offer a curated selection of content based on each individual user’s preferences, basically serves to feed an artificial intelligence database, operating around an algorithm that collects valuable user data, seen as “the new oil” in the online economy. In one of the film’s most discouraging sequences, Kantayya shows how the algorithm discriminates based on looks, essentially blocking anyone who isn’t deemed young or pretty enough, including those with facial differences, from showing up in the “for you” feeds.

Kantayya also introduces us to some of the “influencers” who have found ways to make money on the app or are using it to raise awareness of political issues. In the former camp is hugely popular beatboxer Spencer X, who has used it to monetize his party trick talent. The latter camp includes Afghan-American teenager Feroza Aziz, who found a community through TikTok but has faced shadowbans for trying to raise awareness of the Uyghur Muslim genocide being carried out by China’s communist government in Xinjiang. Political activist Deja Foxx has merged the two, using the app to speak out on abortion rights before being hired to work as a social media advisor on the Kamala Harris campaign.

TikTok gained notoriety around that time when President Trump tried to ban the app citing valid security and privacy concerns around the Chinese company, though experts argue that these failed efforts only made the app more popular. While a lot of viewers will likely already know much of this information, TikTok, Boom. presents it in an engaging and concise way. The film offers a fast-paced overview of the app’s history, including the very real concerns surrounding it, but also the ways that its legions of young users have, for better and for worse, made it a force to be reckoned with.

Screenings:

Monday, May 2nd – 6:30 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Thursday, May 5th – 11:30 AM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Saturday, May 7th – 8:15 PM at Varsity 8

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