Dazed and Confused
Essays Society Technology

Dazed and Confused

Hadar Ahiad Hazony

The Genealogy of the TikTok Sinkhole

Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.
Uncle Screwtape

TikTok has been a hot topic of conversation lately, as the House of Representatives just passed a bill essentially trying to bring the Chinese parent company, ByteDance, into the possession of an American one. If it were signed into law, then given ByteDance’s ties with the Chinese government, it must sell TikTok to an American third party within six months, or have it effectively banned from the United States. While many are pessimistic that the bill will make its way through the Senate, the legislative kerfuffle raises significant moral and political questions about the Chinese platform.

It has been rightly argued that it is unjust and foolish to let Chinese platforms dominate American commerce, especially when equivalent American companies are not permitted in most Chinese markets. Furthermore, as Matt Stoller notes, Beijing’s opposition to selling TikTok, not to mention ByteDance’s massive Congressional lobbying campaign, indicates the company likely serves a more nefarious purpose than simply making money.

Thus many have speculated over whether TikTok is an espionage tool, from its history of spying on western journalists to its highly questionable terms of service. For good reason it was banned last year on the devices of all US government employees. That charge of espionage might very well be the case, but we don’t need proof that the Chinese state is spying on our family dinners to think it wise to delete the TikTok app from kids’ phones and instate strong government oversight at the very least. At best, TikTok is a poison. At worst, it is an instrument of psychological warfare—being what has reasonably been termed “digital fentanyl.”

While its Chinese version shows educational and patriotic videos under strict time limits, TikTok’s algorithm in the United States tailors itself to particular individuals while it, as one report says, “figures out your deepest desires,” and then mines them to modify thought and behavior and thereby produce dependency. Such ill consequences range from Tiktok encouraging kids to mimic Tourette’s syndrome to frequently pushing self-harm messaging onto teenagers.

Nonetheless, the problem with TikTok is not just about the spyware or its content, but the form of this medium and its formative effects on the user’s soul. This Chinese digital technology is designed to suck the human mind into an infinite loop, keeping the subject dazed and confused, vegging out in front of a screen for hours.

When we say that TikTok is “addictive,” we mean that this form of media is capable of dragging people into a mindless wormhole, shutting off their brains for hours. A user will absentmindedly click an engaging video, intending to spend just a few minutes on the App, only to find himself hours later, staring at the screen, feeling numb and drained.

The need to watch “just one more video” pulses from the moment the app is activated and increases the more videos one watches. This itch to watch “just one more” leaves the user with the constant impression that he is about to turn off the app and go do something else, while in reality, the never-ending scroll from one piece of frivolous media to another continues endlessly, often until some external event forces the user to move his attention elsewhere.

Amusingly, “missing time” is a frequent and, for us here, illustrative trope in UFO folklore. After being abducted by aliens, a hypothetical victim wakes up from the encounter to find his watches and clocks have stopped, and though it is several hours later, he retains no memory of the intervening period. Now, a new invasion has begun, and this time it is not from the stars, but from our smartphones. The mothership isn’t floating over the southwestern desert—it sits in Beijing.

TikTok induces this zombie-like trance by employing five distinct digital technologies that originated on other platforms, the combination of which is extremely potent: The Newsfeed, the Vine, the Meme, the Insta-model, and Pornographic Novelty. I will briefly elucidate the function of each.


First, the newsfeed has its roots in several online platforms, but seems to have been popularized by Facebook and later perfected by Twitter. When we speak of the newsfeed, we are referring to an IV-drip of bite-sized information packets into the mind. Unlike a movie, an article, or even a phone call, the feed is made up of a continuous flow of easily accessible, quickly digestible, and mutually unrelated bits of data.

The Feed requires little effort to consume, is endless, and never grows tiring. It is easily consumable because all information is transmitted in small portions. Further, it is endless, because every morsel is followed by yet another new piece of media. As some sort of anti-revelation, the feed has no beginning and no end. And, it is infinitely interesting because the small bits of information are seemingly unrelated. Each is its own little world, letting one’s attention flit from one idea to the next without ever resting for too long. If one bit is dull, it is immediately replaced by another: always a morsel, always varied.

The feed differs from other forms of media because it is inherently non-committal. To watch a movie a viewer must commit to sitting and staring at a screen for an extended period of time. To leave a movie, he must be very unhappy with the show, and will almost certainly not queue up another right after. But the feed entices the subject because every bit of media takes only a moment to consume, and if it is uninteresting or unpleasant, he can immediately and effortlessly move his attention to the next.

Thus, the Feed is much like a hamster wheel that spins faster and faster to keep the subject on the merry ride. There are no off-ramps, no exits. This perpetual juggling of tiny portions demands nothing and distracts completely.

People often say, “Maybe you should spend less time on social media,” and for good reason. But the difference between Tiktok on the one hand, and older legacy platforms like Facebook or Twitter on the other, is like the difference between cocaine and coffee. Both are addictive stimulants, but not all are equal in immediate power and crippling intensity.

It’s a truism that if a person is not the customer, he is the product. Likewise, if it’s the feed, one asks, who’s the food? After all, just one more byte couldn’t hurt.

Welcome to the Jungle

Second, we have the Vine. Perhaps a less well-known internet technology, Vine was a form of short video, popular for a brief moment back in 2013 until it was brought to an early grave by Facebook. Unlike YouTube videos that require 5, 10, or 20 minutes of concentration, Vines gave instant gratification, consisting of only 10-30 seconds. Amazingly, at least to me at the time, Vines spread like wildfire, and were all the rage among young people.

Essentially, a Vine is a video tweet without entrance or exit costs. But Vines were ten times more captivating than tweets because of the human preference for visual stimulation. Tweets require reading, a minimal amount of effort is still required. Vines, on the other hand, inject information (as the meme goes) “straight into my veins.”

The original platform to host Vines died in 2017, but the concept of short-video social media hopped to other platforms, from Snapchat and Instagram to, of course, TikTok. TikTok differs from its competitors, though, because it perfected the synthesis of the Feed and the Vine, and consequently its software leaped faster than Tarzan into the national psyche.

TikTok videos morph seamlessly from one into the other. It takes no effort to get invested in a 25 second video, and once one is no longer entertained, a viewer is transported immediately to the next broadcast. On TikTok, the Vines now form a chain of unending stimulation: the moment a subject gets bored, another novel source instantly appears.

While using TikTok, someone will occasionally tell himself, “I should go,” or “this’ll be the last one,” yet he continues watching. He stares at the screen for hours and hours because short videos are an extremely accessible source of dopamine. In other words, these tonics provide quick, easy, and powerful stimulation.

When someone endlessly dopes out on TikTok, he feels that other activities are far away and difficult. This is true on a physiological level. Real activities are difficult in comparison, because the brain is easily stimulated by these tiny videos, and the cost of consuming them is so small. Real actions, by contrast, reward us with less dopamine for greater efforts.

I have never met anyone who consciously decided to spend 3 hours on Tiktok. Users never think, “I will spend 3 hours,” rather it goes: “Just 30 more seconds.” And after 30 seconds, when the arousal begins to fade, the instinct to be productive also wanes, but queuing up another video is so easy. Thus 30 seconds becomes 60, and 60 seconds becomes 90, and ad infinitum until the user has spent 3 hours staring at the screen with a blank mind.

The longer anyone stares at the TikTok algorithm, eyes glazed-over, the more he feels he is falling down and away from all alternative routes. After a few minutes spent in this manner, the attempt to imagine doing any other activity summons the sensation of being at the bottom of a deep pit: the more he claws his way up and out of it, the farther he seems to fall. Naturally, watching another video couldn’t hurt. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.

Imitation Game

The third technology employed by TikTok is the Meme. A meme is a hieroglyph, an image, or set of words that capture an idea, situation, or feeling. Memes were perfected on 4chan, and popularized on 9gag. (9gag itself synthesizes Meme and Feed technology, and can be quite potent, although not to the extent TikTok is.)

Memes spread by their familiarity, becoming funnier with ever greater use. When an idea becomes associated with a particular image, that meme becomes an easy reference point whereby sharing a single image replaces writing an entire paragraph-long joke, insult, or complaint.

But memes get stale precisely because they are repetitive. To remain in use, a meme must be adjustable. By adding new words or altering one of the picture’s elements, a good one evolves into hundreds of variations, each applying the general idea to a particular situation.

A good meme is therefore forever both comfortably familiar and interestingly new. Little effort must be exerted to understand it, yet one derives a new experience from it. Memes evolve, adding new elements, growing like a genus, until they branch off from the original to form a new species.

Furthermore, memes allow someone to express himself, while remaining largely unoriginal. Meme Lords—those loveable trolls who create them—are clever individuals. But most people who alter memes are only mimics. Since man is the most imitative of all animals, by exploiting our animalistic ability for mimesis, memes make people feel they are unique. Which brings us to TikTok.

TikTok uses a similar mimetic social technology. Dances, pranks, challenges, and trends—all allow each individual to create a different take on an existing concept. If the outsider is struck by how stupid and simple these fads are—don’t be. The imbecility is the point! To be memeable is to be replicable, and to be universally replicable often means to appeal to the lowest talents.

TikTok, following memes, consists of a stream of concurrently novel and familiar content. This merry-go-round invites us to participate, creating the same-but-different material to hook others. The subject is induced into a jelly-like state, making no effort to understand what he sees.

Notably, this is the reason why political TikToks are always depressingly shallow. They are performed as spectacles for militant fans just as well as rage-watchers in such a manner that would not even convince the choir of any side. Indeed, lib TikTokers love to be featured on @libsoftiktok. Political TikTok is a circus sideshow where being a spectacle is the name of the game.

Fully Instantiated

Fourth, Tiktok also borrowed some concepts from Instagram. Instagram is a way for women (and some men) to curate images of themselves for publication, making them models. The purpose of Instagram is to gain a following of leering men (and jealous women), while a tracking number indicates how successful one is in the hierarchy of desire. Of course, Instagram has been used for other things as well, yet the dominant usage remains the semi-pornographic beauty competition.

TikTok synthesizes meme and Instagram technology. Whereas memes are anonymously made by fat trolls, and never depict their creators; TikToks, on the other hand, are performed by their creators, depicting him or her in a dance, rant, prank, or any other silly thing. In contrast with 9gag, then, TikTok also involves a competition over sexual attractiveness among content creators.

Ironically, the combination of these two functions means that the proliferation of TikTok memery is far more hierarchical than the original equivalent. No one knew where 4chan memes came from, they sprouted like mushrooms and spread like wildfire only if they were funny, not if made by someone noteworthy.

TikTok memes, on the other hand, are created mainly by the trendsetters with millions of followers, not the ones beneath their not-so-apparent pyramid scheme. Followers look up to trendsetters as celebrities and want to milk that celebrity to strengthen their own following and strengthen their clout. TikTok, then, employs a kind of psycho-social drive for status that powerfully pulls in content creators, who infamously draw in little ad-revenue sharing.

Arguably most kids these days want to become social media influencers as adults, rather than doctors or firemen or astronauts. So, besides being the fastest growing news source for young Americans, TikTok is the highest career aspiration as well. (“O brave new world, that has such people in’t!”)


Fifth, and finally, there is no doubt that TikTok is pornographic: many trends and dances are overtly sexual in nature. Concerningly, many of the girls engaging in these dances are not but children, and I worry that we may be habituating a kind of society-wide pedophilic attraction.

Although, I am not here directly concerned with the pornographic stimuli in the videos, having written about the addictive nature of pornography elsewhere. Rather, I am referring to their total garbage quality. It is astonishing to see that most of these videos aren’t even good. To reiterate: the dances are simple and unaesthetic, the pranks don’t even attempt to look real, while the political arguments are brain-dead “hot takes” that convince nobody.

Similarly, pornography is infamously cringey in its complete lack of quality. Yet porn still draws viewership, because art isn’t the purpose of the medium, titillation is. Likewise, TikTok holds no aesthetic value: poor choreography to bad music, fake pranks and shallow takes. And, like porn, TikTok remains popular despite its trashiness—if not because of it. TikTok is addictive precisely because it assaults the lowest common denominator. In truth, any medium that employs small pieces of information tends to exhibit shallow content.

Because TikTok is meant to be addictive, any attempt to make “quality” content would be a waste of energy. Like Reality TV, or porn, when the content leans into being trash, reveling in its own shallowness, it seems to become even more of a spectacle. And spectacle, not art, addiction makes.

A Timebomb

In conclusion: TikTok is a sophisticated technology, building on the past 20 years of internet innovation, producing the most potent and addictive digital mechanism humans have so far imagined. The content is garbage by design and must always be.

There’s no purpose to using TikTok, nor any other short-video newsfeeds. You shouldn’t use it, and you most certainly should not permit your children to use it. Not TikTok, nor YouTube shorts, nor Snapchat shorts, nor any other iteration of the medium. It is a mind killer.

The technology decimates personal motivation, leaving users broken and drained. Overexposure to TikTok induces a feeling of self-revulsion, just as many addictions do. The result is a hopeless sense of enervation that drives the user back to the app, while concurrently real world interactions seem insurmountable in comparison to the sickly sweet miasma of revolving videos. As cigarettes and seed oils clog the arteries, so TikTok clogs our neural pathways, turning the brain dormant by gumming up the synapses.

A foreign import weaponized on American youth, this technology requires extraordinary measures to address the crisis it spurs. Yet even geopolitics aside, for our national wellbeing, the clock is ticking.

Hadar Ahiad Hazony is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, where he studies nineteenth-century German philosophy. A former Krauthammer Fellow with the Tikvah Fund, as well as a former Weaver Fellow with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, he has written for First Things and Newsweek. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.

Featured image: La Casa de Locos painting (1808/1812) by Francisco de Goya via Wikimedia Commons.