TikTok – a force for good?

If TikTok were a person, they would almost certainly be the individual who spent too much time in the headmaster’s office being reprimanded.

The ads, the underage users, the content, the privacy breaches, the cyber cruelty and the possible Chinese spying… it’s fair to say that the ByteDance-owned app has (and continues to have) its fair share of problems.

But much like all phenomenon’s, there is a raft of nuances which mean it is impossible to label TikTok ‘all bad’ or ‘all good’.

A recent article I read by Helen Lewis for The Atlantic was a brilliant, thought-provoking read – examining the surprising number of TikTok creators who use the platform to talk about their physical anomalies, cognitive impairments, or medical conditions. Starting off by talking about the Tourette’s community, the article then delves deeper into ‘disability TikTok’ and the number of creators using the platform to shed light on their conditions.

I would urge you to read the full article, but I’ve dropped some salient sections from the piece below:

“There’s Chloe Bean, an American woman who lost all her hair to alopecia; Struan Kerr-Liddell, a Scottish man paralysed in a sporting accident, who shares an account with his wife, Nicole; the Australian Stephanie Browitt, who suffered burns on 70 percent of her body after being caught in a volcano eruption, and is slowly rebuilding her skin through a series of grafts; and a woman who goes by @princxssglitterhead, who shares with 1.5 million people the experience of having all your teeth fall out as a rare complication of pregnancy.

Their videos, and others like them, illuminate the everyday lives of people with disabilities and provide insights often missing from journalism and popular culture: how to navigate medical bureaucracy when you have a rare or chronic condition, how to adapt your home or work environment to offset an impairment, how to deal with the intrusive questions of strangers.

When the camera treats people with disabilities as objects rather than subjects… the line between joker and punch line is messier. How should viewers feel about the videos of the comedian Ross Smith, for example, who recently filmed a race between two other TikTok stars: the athlete Zion Clark, who has no lower body and walks on his hands, and John Ferguson, who has a form of dwarfism? On TikTok, the race felt like a friendly contest, settling a matter of genuine curiosity, but the video soon appeared elsewhere on the web, shorn of the comradely atmosphere.

Inevitably, talking about your life online has an unpleasant side. While TikTok sometimes removes his videos because of his swearing, the moderation of insulting comments directed against him (Cooney – a Tourettes TikToker) is patchy. How TikTok’s developers feel about the disability influencers flourishing on their platform is an open question. Internal documents that The Intercept obtained from the company’s Chinese developer, ByteDance, revealed that it has previously directed its moderators to limit the reach of videos made by users with “abnormal body shape” or “ugly facial looks,” alongside those with poor-quality housing and those who criticize the Chinese state.

Virality distorts everything, amplifying both the good and bad.

TikTok’s disability influencers must negotiate having their videos remixed and stripped of context by outsiders with bad intentions, and fend off the drive-by cruelty of the internet. They have to draw their own boundary between exploitation and empowerment. And they must reckon with the unintended consequences of higher visibility. Nonetheless, all the influencers I spoke with see demystifying their condition as a big reason to be on TikTok. They want difference to be accepted as a part of life, rather than a reason for fear or revulsion. Cooney, Atkinson, and the rest have used social media to take control of their own stories. Instead of being the internet’s punch line, the disability influencers are now the ones making the jokes.”

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If you have something on your mind, a challenge you’re wrestling with or just want an alternative point of view, I’d be very happy to lend an ear and maybe help you start to unpick the issues.