How Should We React?

When you say the word “TikTok” today you are guaranteed to get a reaction. Likely an eye roll from older generations, who tend to look at the Chinese social media platform with skepticism at best. Maybe with some enthusiasm from people in their teens or twenties who make up the vast majority of the 1.8 billion users the platform has accrued. But what is it that makes TikTok so popular? Yes, it uses fancy algorithms to sort content and has a slick interface that can keep you scrolling indefinitely, but what is the content everyone is showing up for? One man in particular seems to have figured this out: Khaby Lame. Hailing from the country of Senegal, Khaby is currently the most popular “TikToker” in the world. By analyzing Khaby’s content we may come to understand a bit more about TikTok, its users, and what drives social media engagement today.

Personal Commentary
Like any social media platform, TikTok’s content is incredibly diverse. From salsa recipes, to suggestive dances, to sea shanties, it has a bit of everything. Interestingly, the most popular videos on the app all have one thing in common: reactions. You see, TikTok has a couple of interesting features called “Stitch” and “Duet.” Stitch allows a user to grab five seconds of another user’s video for the start of their own post and then add their own video to it. Duet is a similar idea where the user can record a new video that plays at the same time as an existing one. Stitch and Duet videos make up about 50% of the content on TikTok today, and the vast majority of them are used to provide some sort of reaction or commentary to another user’s post. Khaby is no exception here, as nearly all of his videos are stitched to another TikToker’s content before cutting to his animated but comically silent reaction.

Reaction-based content is nothing new to the internet. In the early days of YouTube, many of the most popular videos were compilations of viral content with a host reacting to them. Content like this could even be traced further back to shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos or similar pieces of television. However, influencers today typically aren’t up on stages with expensive camera crews like these older shows. Instead, TikTokers invite their viewers into their homes and then react to the videos they watch, the music they listen to, or the food they try, as if they are with close friends. We see this with Khaby, who has managed to turn casual footage from around his West African home into a community larger than most European countries. This sense of intimacy with people from all corners of the globe seems to start with people’s fundamental desire for community. TikTok expanded tremendously in the age of lockdowns, when many were feeling more isolated than they ever had in the past. This might be at least partially because the app gave many young people a digital portal to a facsimile of the closer relationships they craved.

Additionally, TikTokers do not only react to the latest dance trends, but increasingly give input on beliefs and social issues. In an age where people of all different ages and values feel deeply uncomfortable sharing their beliefs,1 this can be a welcome outlet allowing the user to feel less alone for holding strong opinions that they would never speak out loud. Consequently, today you can find just about as much content on TikTok debating issues like abortion and racism as you can reacting to cute cat videos. These reactions can also tap into another universal human tendency, which can be much more problematic than our need to connect to others.

Uniting in Anger
When watching Khaby’s videos you might notice that most of his reactions, amusing as they are, are ones of frustration or bemusement. The popularity of this content is consistent with a study finding that the most common emotions associated with viral content are negative, such as anger or shock.2 This is also a likely explanation of why many of the videos Khaby is reacting to are so ridiculous in the first place. After all, if the most famous users on the platform react to you doing something absurd, then you might get famous by association.

Much has been said both inside and outside the church on the pitfalls of social media, but this proclivity towards negativity goes far beyond TikTok or its neighboring social apps. For example, most traditional news outlets have also discovered that aggravating and shocking content drives up engagement by about thirty percent, leading to periods where nearly ninety percent of available news coverage is negative; this is not only true in the United States, but worldwide.3 Based on this data we can conclude that this bias towards images or words that inflame our emotions is not unique to younger generations, but cuts across every age group and culture alive today. This is something we should remember before castigating those younger than us for the content they are choosing to consume.

When applied in the context of TikTok, this negativity can also look like more than just someone shaking their head at a silly craft idea. As mentioned, young people are forming a sense of community on these platforms, and this often occurs through political and cultural discussion. Whether this is because younger generations are more motivated by social issues, as some studies suggest,4 or are simply seeking a sense of community (or a bit of both), when these individuals begin to unite over social issues, it is often with a great deal of hostility aimed at the perceived rivals of their viewpoints. TikTok’s reaction features can fuel these flames by allowing influencers to create videos finding the craziest versions of political opinions on the platform that they disagree with and then reacting in shock or horror to them. This sort of social media strawmanning leads to a distorted view of the very issues these young minds are debating and, more importantly, the people with whom they see themselves debating.

Cutting through the Noise
The good news is that the platform does not have to be a tool used just to divide others. The same features which allow someone to react in disgust to those they disagree with can also be used to create content asking interesting questions to the opposition, opening dialogue. Many popular Christian influencers use the app in these redemptive ways, ranging from apologetics experts like Sean McDowell to passionate young women like Tailah, who uses her background as a former New Age believer to point out the flaws of that worldview and direct her followers to Jesus instead. There are young people from every background and worldview using this app, searching for community and trying to find out what is true. This means any Christian using TikTok has the chance to influence these individuals, and if they use this opportunity responsibly, Christ can be glorified.

This principle also applies to the content users decide to put in front of our eyes and share with our friends and family. As mentioned above, humans already have an inherent bias towards more negative reactions, but God calls us to fix our attentions in a more positive direction (Philippians 4:8). With this in mind, we should be careful how much time we are spending dwelling on videos focusing on shock and anger on any platform, thinking twice before sharing content like this with those we have the ability to influence. This also might have further implications for the news articles we decide to read or the conversations we start with our loved ones. Uniting over our frustrations with others creates a negative outlook on a world filled with people we are called to love in the name of Jesus. He should be what unifies us, not the ridiculousness of this fallen earth.

In the end, TikTok may have its more troubling trends, but most of these stem from the problems of the human heart rather than some inherent malice built into the software. This puts the ball in our court when deciding how to react to the content we can scroll through every day. We could choose outrage or we could choose a higher road, even if our sinful flesh makes this challenging at times. Hopefully this is a trend young Christians can carry forward, regardless of whether or not it catches on this side of eternity.

By Keegan Brittain

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Keegan Brittain

Keegan Brittain is a full-time employee at Summit Ministries who loves engaging in the pop culture space through the lens of apologetics. He holds a B.A. in Organizational Leadership from Northern Kentucky University & is currently working on a M.A. in Applied Apologetics with an emphasis in Cultural Engagement at Colorado Christian University. Keegan lives in Colorado Springs, CO & enjoys discussing ideas, media, & how they interact on his Twitter & Letterboxd which are both under @ks_brittain.