Understanding the Practice of ‘Mindless’ Scrolling on TikTok in the Context of Pandemic Life and Social Acceleration
23 January 2022
My paper discuses material and findings from one and a half years of fieldwork on the popular short-video app TikTok and young adult users of it based in the United Kingdom. The overall objective of this ethnographic investigation was to understand practices of digital media consumption, more specifically scrolling, in the mediation of meaning in everyday life contexts. TikTok is not only a prominent site on which scrolling is practiced, however, also a prominent case for debates on ‘addictive design’. The idea of ‘addictive design’ refers to the ways in which apps like TikTok are designed to limit self-regulatory behaviour and keep people ‘hooked’ for as long as possible. At the heart of TikTok’s design is an algorithmically curated content feed, the so-called For You Page. On this content feed, users are presented, as long as they keep scrolling, an endless array of seemingly arbitrary video clips only seconds in length. For many critics, this renders TikTok a mere short-lived entertainment made addictive by algorithmic means, ultimately enacting amongst scrolling users moods of distraction, overstimulation, paralysis, or boredom.
Taking an audience studies point of view, I challenge such techno-determinist reasoning on ‘addictive’ design and its consequences. I approach scrolling not as a symptom of ‘addictive’ design producing forms of ‘passive’ media consumption but, rather, look at it as a situated practice with contingent outcomes. During my fieldwork, I found that what made TikTok appealing to people was, in fact, the apps ‘addictive’ quality. The young adults who I worked with never really planned on using TikTok specifically. Instead, they ended up on the app when they felt tired, stressed, bored, overwhelmed, or simply left empty by their experience of an increasingly complex and fast-paced lifeworld. As one of my participants, Sunder, explained to me: ‘It’s like you’re just opening the various social media apps that you have and almost are waiting for the right thing to appear to entertain you’ (Sunder).
TikTok had slowly emerged as a preferred destination for people in such escapist quests for entertainment, relaxation, and distraction; for instance, when they had to fill time while waiting, when they wanted to relax after work, or when they were searching for distractions from social obligations, productivity imperatives, or anxious thoughts. Especially during the early months of the pandemic, when many, although not all, of my participants first picked up using the app, getting carried away by the TikTok algorithm was something that strongly appealed to people. In short, the young adults that I worked with integrated the TikTok app – enacted in practices of ‘mindlessly’ scrolling through the For You Page – into their communicative routines as a means to open ‘restful sites’ and create moments of ‘me time’ in their daily life. As another of my participants, Bea, described to me: ‘On TikTok time is kind of paused. It’s like a true 30-minute escape that you can’t leave once you’re there’ (Bea).
This struggle that Bea mentioned – the fact that once you have started scrolling it is hard stop – is one that all participants of my study experienced. Nonetheless, all felt that using the app, overall, had a ‘positive’ impact on their life, helped them maintain a sense of ‘ontological security’ by creating ‘restful sites’ and moments of ‘me time’. Following their stories over the period of a year, people had become increasingly skilled at navigating and working the TikTok algorithm in a way that made scrolling on the app feel comfortable to them. While people desired to just ‘mindlessly’ scroll, there were many moments in which they became ‘active’ in their relation to the TikTok app and its algorithm; for example, when the algorithm had ‘stepped out of line’ in recommending something way off people’s interests or when they saw a video that reminded them of a friend or family member, making people share that video with that person.
Taking this audience studies approach, I was able to observe the complexity of ‘addictive’ design and its consequences in a much fuller way than often outlined, especially in popular discourses. Obviously, people are not totally ‘free’ in their use of the TikTok app. TikTok remains, in the end, a mechanism of control, is designed in ways that enables courses of action that fit the purpose of commercial value creation, i.e. producing more behavioural data and more sellable attention. However, TikTok still has to offer at least something that appeals to people in the first place, creating room for it to be appropriated and exploited as a resource of meaning. For people like my participants, young adults living in the UK, that appeal was turning the app into a dedicate tool to experience a moment of ‘me time’ and, so to speak, disconnect from constant social connectivity in the form of news, work emails, or messages and posts from friends and family members.
Understanding apps like TikTok as a contradictory forms, in the tradition of cultural studies, is thus crucial, I argue, for us to qualify their consequences in ways that take ‘the popular’ seriously. To focus on moments of ‘audience agency’, as I have done it in my project, is herein not to deny the structural power of apps like TikTok in shaping user behaviour. However, it is to acknowledge that such power is never exercised in a linear fashion, that it is always negotiated to at least some degree by people in the domains of everyday life. Even though such situated practices might not have transformative power in changing media on a structural level, they nonetheless alter the image of what these structures, apps like TikTok, in the end are and how they come to enable and constrain specific ways of life.
23 January 2022
Andreas Schellewald is a doctoral researcher in Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. His current project investigates the popular short-video app TikTok and how young adult users of it get meaning out of scrolling through TikTok’s endless content feed. Past projects have explored phenomena such as esports and gaming, short-video cultures like those of the platform Vine, or sites like YouTube and their recommender algorithms.
Contributed as part of Symposium: Making Sense of the High-Speed Society