The Year TikTok Made the Multiverse Real (And Murdered the Newsfeed in the Process)

Foretelling the death of monoculture is a pastime as old as pop culture itself: Following the death of Elvis in 1977, the Village Voice obituary from rock writer Lester Bangs famously declared, “I can guarantee you one thing: We will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying goodbye to his corpse. I will say goodbye to you.” 

It’s always the end of some kind of era, and now the bell has tolled for the most recent stage of the internet, where advertiser-driven economies of scale have dictated the rules of play for the better part of the last two decades. That’s led to endless Kardashian coverage, personality quizzes, a lifetime’s supply of heartwarming animal videos, and article after article about tertiary Housewives. One day, when we look back on this era, we may well find it shocking how a handful of dominant tech and media players shaped such a relatively shared experience. When you saw The Dress, I saw The Dress. 

But it might not work like this for much longer.

Over the past year, one platform in particular has morphed from a savvy contender for online attention into a fearsome force rewiring the rules of the internet itself. In our search for the next feed, TikTok has now come unnervingly close to delivering the product that the original Web 2.0 visionaries only dreamed of: unlimited, fully customized content tailored to passive consumption, without the bothersome searching or following or liking or hearting or profile dressing. 

And it’s changing everything. TikTok is coming for YouTube’s lunch, but also the Google search engine’s, and also Amazon’s. It has upended the music industry, publishing, fashion, and Hollywood, wherein your next hit show may or may not be predicated on the presence of TikTok-worthy choreography. It’s changing language. It’s possibly a threat to national security. Lawmakers in Congress proposed a bill this week that would “block and prohibit” TikTok’s transactions in the US. Reportedly, TikTok is on track to make nearly $10 billion in ad revenue in 2022 (more than twice as much as last year); at the very least, it appears to be the only big name in Silicon Valley that’s still hiring. 

TikTok’s crucial point of difference is its much-vaunted tailoring. The lightest batting-away of videos you don’t like in favor of ones you do goes on to influence the algorithm’s future range of offerings in a way seemingly more sophisticated than the rudimentary logic of, say, YouTube rabbit holes. This has delivered a decisive blow to the centralized feeds of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al.—not that any of those platforms have been helping themselves of late—or, in other words, what was left of the monoculture. The future TikTok promises, and has been busy delivering, is instead one of inexhaustible niches. So automatically can one be whisked off into AnythingTok and WhateverCore. If everything is trending somewhere, how can any trend be real? 

This explosive concept of consuming niche content, provided automatically, apparently randomly, often at an enormous scale of distribution—without the context of a strong friends-and-mutuals network—was never more obvious than during the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard case that dominated the internet this past spring. You could not have engineered a more potent outlet for that unique kind of mania that drives conspiracy theorists, true-crime obsessives, and anyone who’s ever had a parasocial relationship with a celebrity. Was it just your feed? No. Did you actively seek it out? Probably not. Was the vilification of Heard representative of the average American’s opinion of the actor prior to the case? Very likely not. Did the force of that digital furor leave you feeling mightily alone, like you couldn’t trust anything you were seeing—or what other people were looking at? Speaking personally, yes. 

That competitors are falling over themselves to imitate TikTok means that the internet will only continue to fracture in pursuit of a more perfect FYP. The days of manually choosing whom to follow and what Netflix genres you’re interested in will be rendered quaint; soon we’ll simply be escorted down the internet burrow supposedly of our choice, and quite happily so. The rapid deterioration of Twitter under Elon Musk’s ownership signals the incoming death of at least one centralized feed, particularly when no one can agree on a worthy alternative. Instagram remains hell-bent on a strategy of giving you everything except the content you actually want from your friends; its own death knell has been pronounced. Facebook—well. 

There’s a part of us that senses all of this and is seeking a less fleeting connection elsewhere. We reach for one another in Discord servers, shady Close Friends allusions, invite-only newsletters, and meme accounts, perhaps out of not so much a sense of affiliation but an urge toward verification: Did you see this too? The fantasy of opting out of an algorithmic herding beckons so urgently that apps like BeReal appear as benevolent saviors here to rescue us from our mindless feeding, to return us back to where everyone else is. Except, okay, I’ll be the first to admit it: I don’t really know what’s going on there because I haven’t posted in a while. What can I say? It got kind of laborious. 

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