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Amid crypto crash, investors struggle with trading addiction



Sabrina Byrne bought bitcoin for the first time in January and quickly became hooked. Soon the 26-year-old was canceling social plans and staying up until 5 a.m. to compulsively check her cryptocurrency apps, as often as 100 times a day. “It was stopping me from sleeping, impacting my work and taking over my whole life,” the data analyst from England said.

Mohammad Kakar didn’t actually lose any money from the roughly $6,000 investment he made in a new meme coin last fall. But he began waking up in the middle of the night for weeks anyway, drenched in sweat and plagued by regret over selling all of his woof holdings right before the token tripled in value. His appetite waned, and he began spending long stretches of time in bed. “I was really down,” said Kakar, 26, who lives in Montreal. “My mother, she knew something was wrong.”

Seven months ago, Luis Taveras quit his job as an intake receptionist at a medical clinic to invest in crypto full time. The 47-year-old from the Bronx has shoveled $50,000 — his entire savings — into the market. “It can be difficult to stop,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t take time to go see family; I stay away from friends.”

It’s like a bar without a bartender, and there’s all this new alcohol and people are pouring it themselves.

— Timothy W. Fong, co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program


Bingeing on all things cryptocurrency has been a long-running joke in the community since the release of bitcoin in 2009. Investors boast on social media about being degens — degenerates — attached to their screens 24/7 as they follow every minuscule update in the cryptosphere and rush to buy the latest coins and NFTs.

But many say they’ve begun to privately worry that their crypto habits have morphed into full-blown dependency. On Twitter, YouTube, Discord and other online platforms, investors are now using the word “addiction” in all seriousness.

“I’ve been in long-term recovery for alcohol and drug addiction, so I know when the addictive behavior takes over,” said Taveras, who spends “all night, all day, around the clock” investing, reading about investing and talking to other investors about investing. “It doesn’t have to be a substance.”


Addiction specialists say they’re increasingly hearing from people reporting problems with cryptocurrency, prompting studies into the newly emerging field and even a treatment program at a $90,000-a-week Swiss rehab clinic.

“The majority of calls that I’m getting tend to be around crypto, sports betting and NFTs,” said therapist Dan Field, clinical supervisor of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program and co-founder of Stop Betting Sports. “It’s very much on the radar of treatment providers right now.”

Many struggle with the emotional swings they feel from trading in the highly volatile market — the thrill when prices skyrocket and then the sudden despair when things go south, as they have this week: On Thursday, bitcoin plummeted to below $26,000 for the first time since December 2020 before rebounding to around $29,000 by late afternoon; it is down more than 20% over the last seven days.

Mental health and gambling addition resources

If you are struggling with a mental health crisis or gambling addiction, call or text these organizations for immediate help:


National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
The National Council on Problem Gambling Helpline: 1-800-522-4700
California Council on Problem Gambling Helpline: 1-800- 426-2537

Another major cryptocurrency, terra luna, collapsed. Moderators on a Reddit forum dedicated to the currency considered the risk of self-harm by investors real enough to repost a list of national help line numbers.

The global crypto market cap is now $1.23 trillion after erasing more than $204 billion in value over a 24-hour period that ended Thursday, according to CoinMarketCap.


The closest analog to a diagnosable behavioral health condition is gambling disorder, mental health experts say, pointing to similarities in the dopamine rush that gets triggered by a win, the gamification aspects of digital currency apps, the potential to make a lot of money instantly and the overlap between risk-taking gamblers and impulsive crypto investors.

Column One

A showcase for compelling storytelling from the Los Angeles Times.


“Since the start of the pandemic, on average I’ll get two clients a month who’ve never stepped foot into a casino and have never placed a bet but now have a full-fledged gambling disorder because of this unhealthy relationship with online money,” said Timothy W. Fong, a professor of psychiatry and co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program.

“It’s like a bar without a bartender, and there’s all this new alcohol and people are pouring it themselves.”

Unlike with alcoholism or other clinically diagnosed addictions, a formal treatment infrastructure has yet to be established for people who say they are crypto trading in excess and can’t stop. “There’s no 1-800-gambler number for those apps,” Fong said. “There really isn’t any 12-step support group for people who fall into this world of digital finance addiction.”

You’ll be lying in bed at night and then your phone lights up with a notification and I’d think, “I need to see what’s going on.” There was that constant need to look, that constant need to check.

— Sabrina Byrne, 26, who began investing in crypto in January


Making matters worse, crypto is poorly understood among treatment providers and thus only a “very, very limited amount of research is available,” said Doug LaBelle, a social worker and gambling counselor in Wisconsin who has been studying the convergence of gambling and investing.

“It is not a general knowledge issue among mental health clinicians because it’s so new,” he said. “I presented to one group about what I thought were the basics of crypto and blockchain, and the most common comment I got back: ‘You gave me a headache.’”

(Jim Cooke / Los Angeles Times)


LaBelle noted that only a small percentage of crypto investors will develop behavioral problems and said that although the trend has yet to be widely accepted in his field, “I believe there’s a line that when crossed, it’s addiction. But there’s no diagnostic manual that will support that.”

Still, many of the same questions that therapists ask of gambling disorder patients can apply to determining whether someone has a troubled relationship with crypto, he said.

Among them: Are you losing larger amounts of money over time? Do you invest more when you’re stressed? Have you tried to stop and failed? Are you irritable when attempting to scale back? Are you often preoccupied with investing to the detriment of work and personal duties? Do you lie about or hide it? Are you borrowing money to fund your investing activities? Has crypto jeopardized or ended relationships, jobs or career opportunities?

For Byrne, the wake-up call came from colleagues who confronted her after noticing that she was showing up to work exhausted. By late February, a few weeks after she began investing, “people were constantly asking me if I was OK.”

She was suffering from what many investors call crypto FOMO, or the fear of missing out on the latest developments in the fast-moving and extremely speculative world of digital currency, where prices can fluctuate wildly in a single day or a surprise NFT project might launch in the middle of the night. At her lowest point, Byrne said, she was looking at her crypto apps every 10 minutes during her waking hours.


“The apps that you download constantly send you notifications. A slight price change — you’ll get a notification. I struggled with: Well, what’s happening now?” said Byrne, who lives north of London in Peterborough. “You’ll be lying in bed at night and then your phone lights up with a notification and I’d think, ‘I need to see what’s going on.’ There was that constant need to look, that constant need to check.”

It became so all-consuming that one night, she decided to leave her phone in the kitchen — what she called her “cold turkey moment.” Finally getting a restful night’s sleep made a huge difference, she said, as did the “profound realization that I don’t have to be glued to this thing constantly. The world didn’t end.”

Decentralized finance analyst the DeFi Edge — like many in the crypto world, he uses a pseudonym — was an early adopter who first bought bitcoin in 2013. During the 2017 bull market, he said, his euphoria over crypto got in the way of his day job and he began skipping the gym and neglecting his health and personal relationships.

“I just remember kind of becoming this zombie,” he said.

The dopamine hits, you see these numbers on a screen and it feels real. You start fantasizing.

— Decentralized finance analyst the DeFi Edge


The 30-something former e-commerce executive was able to disentangle himself mentally once bitcoin crashed in 2018. During that downtime, he said, he reevaluated his relationship with crypto and was able to better maintain balance once the market soared in 2020 and 2021.

“I learned more about mental health. I learned a lot more about habit formation,” he said, a process that included reading self-help books on breaking bad patterns and learning to “time block.”

“I have certain hours in the day where: OK, go into crypto all you want, no limit — it’s almost like an all-you-can-eat buffet where you can eat this much at this time, but you’re not allowed to eat for the rest of the day,” he said. “That’s really how I conquered things.”


He now gets eight hours of sleep a night, wakes up early, uses a software program that blocks his cryptocurrency apps for seven hours, prioritizes walks and working out, and adheres to a no-screens rule at night.

As new crypto investors have flooded into the market with dreams of getting rich quick, the DeFi Edge has offered advice to his 156,000 Twitter followers about how to invest calmly, using poker strategy as a metaphor. He has seen plenty of people become engulfed by crypto mania, especially as the market has become closely intertwined with social media, and predicts self-control issues will worsen the next time prices surge.

“Addictions happen far more in bull cycles,” he said. “Right now, we’re kind of in a bear cycle, a dip. I haven’t checked my portfolio in days; I don’t have a desire to; I don’t care. But when we’re in a bull cycle, I’m checking it 30 times a day because the price action is going up so much, the dopamine hits, you see these numbers on a screen and it feels real. You start fantasizing. When you’re in it, it’s like a drug.”

There are other factors that addiction specialists worry could make crypto obsession more prevalent in the coming years, including the rising popularity of online casinos that allow users to gamble with digital currency. They say the unregulated nature of such casinos and crypto apps in general makes them especially dangerous for the uninitiated.

“The apps are incredibly sophisticated, they’re gamified, they draw you in and they’re not regulated the way a casino would be or the stock market would be,” said Fong, the UCLA gambling program co-director. “They have their own made-up set of rules. So I’ve seen a number of patients come in and really get in trouble because of the apps combined with a lack of financial understanding.”


Trading apps came under scrutiny two years ago when 20-year-old Alex Kearns committed suicide after thinking he’d racked up a $730,000 negative balance on Robinhood. A wrongful-death lawsuit filed in California by his family alleged that the platform uses “aggressive tactics and strategy to lure inexperienced and unsophisticated investors, including Alex, to take big risks with the lure of tantalizing profits.”

For people who aren’t able to kick the habit or maintain a healthy balance on their own, there are some gambling-disorder resources that can help, said Jonathan S., 52, co-chair of the Los Angeles chapter of Gamblers Anonymous. Options include inpatient and outpatient programs at rehab centers as well as individual therapy and group meetings, many now held over Zoom.

“More attendees are joining our meetings that are addicted to the stock market or trading — we used to see this with day trading and now we’re seeing this with cryptocurrency. People think it’s sexier to be in crypto today than the market,” he said. “The most important message is that there is help available.”

illustrated collage of brain, phone and flowers

(Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)

Taveras, the former medical clinic intake receptionist, began trading last year after seeing a tweet about cryptocurrency from Elon Musk. He now owns some bitcoin and ethereum but mainly trades in higher-risk microcap coins.


So far, it hasn’t been going as planned.

“My $50,000 became $10,000,” he said. “Then with the latest dip it became $5,000. So it’s going the opposite direction.”

Still, “I see hope in it, unlike drugs and alcohol, where it led to nothing,” he said. “This is a little different. Whatever money I invest in it, I think I’m going to have a good return. Not yet, but that’s the hope.”

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A professional artist has been wrongfully accused of using artificial intelligence




Minh An Nguyen Hoang, 30, is the lead artist at the age of three Studio Kart, based in Vietnam. Huang who makes art by name Ben MoranShe learned to draw properly in 2019, after obtaining a degree in economics.

“Drawing was just my hobby when I was a kid,” Moran said in an email conversation because they were less confident speaking English. “I started getting serious about drawing when I realized I could be really good at it. The artists who mainly inspire me are Ruan JiaAnd Huang GuangjianAnd Piotr JablonskiAll contemporary fantasy painters.

Moran is now at the center of a Reddit controversy, thanks to a piece they were commissioned to produce for $500 to cover a fantasy writer. Selkie Myth’s books. (Legend plans to use it for his upcoming 11th title, which he said will likely be named Heaven’s mandate.) “I ordered a lot of artwork [Moran]”Because they’re so good at what they do,” said Meath, who is 31 and lives in Nebraska. “It is an absolute steal of that quality and commercial use.”

In late July, Myth contacted Moran via email and asked them to produce work that would prove controversial. The final piece, chosen from four options, was produced by September 7 and modified by Moran to Myth’s specifications; The cover was designed by mid-October. “It takes a month to fix and complete,” Moran said.


In late December, Moran, a rare Reddit user, decided he wanted to do some self-promotion. So they published the final design, called Inspirational in Warzonel p / art, and a subreddit with 22 million members. They were quickly banned by the moderators of the subreddit on suspicion of using AI-generated art, which is against r/Art’s rules.

When Moran reached out to the brokers to explain that they weren’t using AI, and sent them a link to their wallet, they were blown away. “I don’t believe you,” wrote one of the depositors in a message Moran posted on Twitter. They went on to say that even if Moran drew it, “it’s clearly an AI-driven design and it doesn’t matter.” The supervisor signed the letter with, “Sorry, it’s the way of the world.” They then silenced Moran, forbidding them to proceed with their case.

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This student tool detects whether essays are written using artificial intelligence




High school English students who were hoping to use AI to write their homework have a new enemy: Edward Tian, ​​a 22-year-old at Princeton University, who built a website that can detect if a piece of writing has been created using the AI ​​tool ChatGPT. .

Meanwhile, teachers everywhere rejoice. “A lot of teachers have reached out to me,” said Tian, ​​whose recent tweet about the tool, GPTZero, went viral. From Switzerland, from France, from all over the world.

The latest version of ChatGPT, called GTP3, was released to the public in late November. The tool is capable of producing amazingly coherent writing, which has endless possibilities, starting with the cool stuff (such as allowing the The installer combines with dyslexia to connect effectively with his clients via email) to more nefarious uses.

Teachers are afraid of high school or college students may use this technology Say, for example, writing their homework summarizing the major events of the Battle of Tippecanoe. Their concerns are not misplaced: The Wall Street Journal reporter recently succeeded In using ChatGPT to help her pass the AP English test.


According to Chalkbeat, New York City public schools blocked access to it to ChatGPT on school machines and the Internet. Anxiety comes even from within the home: A high-profile conference on artificial intelligence has been banned Submission of academic papers written entirely by AI (although it will allow some tools to “polish” the writers’ work).

“AI is here to stay,” said Tian, ​​a computer science and journalism major who coded the tool over a few days over the winter break. “AI-generated writing is only going to get better and better. I’m excited about this future, but we have to do it responsibly.”

He is not opposed to using AI tools in writing, but he sees this as a risky moment. He said “I want people to use ChatGPT”. “It will only be normalized, but it must have guarantees.”

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How TikTok’s anti-aesthetic has molded popular culture




If Franz Kafka were to reconceive “The Metamorphosis” for our era, he might decide to ditch the novella in favor of a series of surreal TikToks — Gregor Samsa as eyes and mouth green-screened onto a picture of a roach jacked from the web.

Kafka is long gone. But thankfully, we have Kendria Bland, a Mississippi comedian who does a semiregular bit on TikTok about the travails of a pack of domestic roaches who like to party behind the refrigerator and sneak Popeyes when the humans aren’t around. One defiant arthropod, Roachkeishiana, refuses to scuttle when the lights come on and crafts a wig out of hair she finds in the bathtub. “You know how many times I got stepped on?” she says with a haughty hair toss. “I’m still here.”

The skits bring together a complex array of sight gags while winking at the tropes of ’hood films and sensationalist talk shows. But the production values couldn’t be more lo-fi: Bland plays every role with different wigs and uses TikTok’s editing tools to green-screen herself twerking on a kitchen table and fighting a pair of beetles. The crude special effects won’t win her an Oscar, but on TikTok, perfection takes a backseat to wit.


Bland’s comedy represents TikTok’s promise. The app, which presents short-form videos in a frantic endless scroll, is governed by (famously creepy) algorithms that deliver posts to those deemed likely to enjoy them — which is how a one-minute cockroach skit by a comedian in Vossburg, Miss., can draw 1.3 million likes and be shared almost 90,000 times, including by me. (I am here for all cucaracha content.)

Illustration for TikTok story

Despite — or rather because of — its ubiquity, TikTok finds itself in the crosshairs. The app has long raised concerns for the ways its parent company, the Chinese tech firm ByteDance, may employ the mountains of data it harvests from its users. Just before Christmas, a report unearthed evidence that ByteDance employees — already criticized for suppressing content such as Black Lives Matter posts — had taken an even more Orwellian turn, using location data to track journalists. Some university campuses in the U.S. have banned the app from their networks and numerous states prohibit it on government devices. And a newly signed federal law has extended the ban to all government devices.

The alarm over security hasn’t put a damper on the app. TikTok couldn’t be more popular — especially among teenagers. It has had more than 3 billion downloads globally and its engagement rates outdo Facebook and Instagram. It is relentlessly sticky — addictive, one might say. And whatever its fate, it has already transformed culture: reshaping language, turning dance moves into social currency and making video into something we watch vertically rather than horizontally. When Noodle, a TikTok-famous pug died last month, obituaries proliferated across news media. The last pop concert you went to? Its set may have been inspired by the aesthetics of TikTok.

What are those aesthetics? An app as acutely atomized as TikTok can make those a challenge to articulate. So I have borrowed the format of “Notes on Camp,” in which the ultimate high-low interpreter, Susan Sontag, attempts to pin down the elusive sensibility that is camp. “Many things in the world have not been named,” she writes in the opener, “and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described.”

So with apologies to Sontag, here are my notes on TikTok:

1. The TikTok aesthetic is an anti-aesthetic.

Instagram, with its historically square frame and vaguely cursive font (formally known as Instagram Sans), is the “Live Laugh Love” pillow of the social media apps — evoking high gloss and photogenic meals. Facebook’s dull-blue interface feels so bureaucratic that critic Joanne McNeil once wrote that it looked “as if a government body were running it.”


TikTok’s design, by contrast, is almost no design. On a phone, practically the entire window is handed over to video, with controls discreetly laid out around the right and bottom edges. There are no brightly colored frames. TikTok’s logo rarely even comes into view — usually only appearing when a video is shared.

This design reduces the presence of any one person or brand. Handles and avatars of content creators are so minimal they almost elude legibility. I am a fan of numerous creators on TikTok. I’d be hard-pressed to name more than a few of them.

If Instagram is the airbrushed influencer, TikTok is the friend you talk trash with at the end of the day. TikTokkers face the camera in bathrobes and hair bonnets while sitting in their cars or standing before their bathroom mirror. A common convention is for people to film themselves while tucked into bed.

I follow Shabaz Ali (@shabazsays) for his biting duets (these allow TikTok users to place their own video side by side with another). In his bits, Ali offers running commentary on videos that feature ostentatious displays of wealth — such as a poolside doghouse or a heated driveway. In each post he is lying down, wrapped in a fuzzy fleece blanket. If you happen to be sprawled on a couch while scrolling TikTok (which I overwhelmingly am), the sensation is of being on a video call together, sharing an eye roll over the worst rich people habits.

Except that you’re not.


3. On TikTok, you don’t follow people, you follow an algorithm. Or, rather, the algorithm follows you.

Unlike other apps, TikTok doesn’t require you to follow anybody in order to view videos. In fact, the app undermines the practice, shooting videos straight to the For You Page (a.k.a. the FYP), which greets you every time you log on. That feed is driven not by your careful selections but by algorithms.

In 2020, TikTok offered a cursory explainer on this recommendation system, which is drawn from your device’s settings as well as your habits. “A strong indicator of interest, such as whether a user finishes watching a longer video from beginning to end,” the post explains, “would receive greater weight than a weak indicator, such as whether the video’s viewer and creator are both in the same country.”

Alex Zhu, the Chinese tech entrepreneur who devised TikTok’s progenitor, the lip-syncing app, has likened these algorithms to a set of “invisible hands.” But the New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino has a better metaphor: “Some social algorithms are like bossy waiters: they solicit your preferences and then recommend a menu. TikTok orders you dinner by watching you look at food.”

When you first land on TikTok, it is a fire hose of random content. But once the algorithm plugs its feelers into your brain, it starts feeding you videos suited to your sensibilities. I currently sit at a confluence of various socially useless Toks — among them, Latin American Meme-Tok, Awkward Christianity-Tok and Rudy Valencia-Tok (the unfolding story of an everyday cuate who appears to have been busted on the app for cheating on both his wife and his mistress, inspiring telenovela levels of plot deconstruction).


This hyperspecialization makes TikTok incredibly sticky. Imagine a TV channel geared to your most peculiar tastes. (There is, indeed, a whole corner of TikTok devoted to lampooning TikTok’s habit-forming qualities.)

But it can also suck you into an algorithmic hole. Vox’s Sara Morrison recently wrote about how TikTok’s algorithm had pummeled her with videos related to trauma and death. “What I am getting is a glimpse at just how aggressive TikTok is when it comes to deciding what content it thinks users want to see and pushing it on them.”

4. TikTok’s megastars get the spotlight, but it’s the randos who feed the addiction.

The big TikTok influencers with tens of millions of followers — such as Charli D’Amelio and Khaby Lame — are the ones who land media profiles and sponsorship deals. But ultimately TikTok’s appeal rests on that endless scroll of content being shoveled into your lizard brain. That means lots of little posts from people whose content you’ve never seen before and are liable never to see again.

A good night on TikTok — my TikTok, at least — is a thoughtful armchair analysis of Netflix’s “Harry & Meghan,” a Korean grandma transforming leftover Costco chicken into a sumptuous kalguksu and an old man riding a cow along a major thoroughfare in the Central Valley. On their own, these videos would never rise to the level of must-see anything. But in the aggregate, it becomes entertaining — like chatting with a group of witty (algorithmically selected) friends at a party: “You won’t believe it, but on the way over here, I saw a guy riding a cow.”

Naturally, this raises questions about the ways in which we all labor for free to generate content for social media companies. (That’s a story for another time.) But it’s also indicative of how a virtual nobody can become TikTok famous overnight. Put up a compelling post — say, a toddler dancing on a table at a mountaintop rave — and it will be dueted, parodied, imitated and shared ad infinitum, including by Ukrainian soldiers on the front line.


5. TikTok prizes performance.

Kylie Jenner’s posing might work as a still image on Instagram, but it feels like dead air on TikTok. The short-form video format favors action, which is why spoofs about the Kardashians are far more engaging to watch than the Kardashians themselves. (I’m a devotee of Yuri Lamasbella (@yurilamasbella), who, armed with a few wigs and a ring light, perfectly skewers their expressionless affect.)

Commentary, comedy, music, movement, dance, clever cuts, found footage, catchy audio and animals doing funny things are all grist. Sometimes it’s a truly bizarre combination of all of the above, such as a surreal nine-second collage of tigers and a motorcycle racing through a cornfield with footage of Turkish TikTok influencer Yasin Cengiz — known for making his belly bounce when he dances — superimposed on top.

The manic nature of these short films — which began as 15-second videos when TikTok launched in 2016 and can now run to 10 minutes in length — feel like a return to the roots of cinema. Thomas Edison’s early Kinetoscope films from the late 19th century, short looped films seen via a viewing cabinet, come to mind. These mini-movies featured boxing, acrobats and a body builder flexing his muscles — films full of frenzied physical activity to convey the radical nature of the new motion pictures.

Naturally, fragments of old Kinetscope films have made their way onto TikTok.

6. TikTok prizes repetition.

Manic performance reads well on an app on which you have about six seconds to grab someone’s attention. So does repetition. If a concept or visual gag gains traction, repeating it can extend the moment.


A man dancing in a public square in Asia set to Boney M.’s “Ma Rainey” becomes popular, so the account holder posts endless variations. Fijian TikTokker Shaheel Prasad (@shermont22) goes viral for his spoofs of runway models, strutting barefoot while bearing pieces of hardware as if they were haute couture, so he produces dozens of similar posts. “This is a trend that will be bound to end,” he told the New York Times’ Guy Trebay. “But meanwhile I will try to keep doing it as long as I can.”

Repetition moves across accounts too. A popular tune — say, a remix of Busta Rhyme’s “Touch It” or Armani White’s “Billie Eilish” — can become a staple for videos featuring smash-cut wardrobe changes. Songs, settings, movements, dances and concepts are relentlessly rehashed, wringing a measure of soothing predictability from TikTok’s general anarchy. It also creates a low barrier for entry: Users don’t have to be original to achieve prominence; all they need is a clever spin on a trending hashtag.

Ultimately, the endless repetition can feel like a trap. I’ve seen some creators repeat concepts to the point of exhaustion. It brings to mind an early episode of “Black Mirror” in which Daniel Kaluuya plays a man in a technological dystopia: Suffering a break over the exploitative practices of a nameless entertainment state, he threatens to kill himself with a shard of glass during a live broadcast. This reckless act of candid expression proves so popular that he is condemned to repeat the act every night.

7. TikTok is an ouroboros of looking.

On Instagram, if you feel passionately about a post, you can leave a comment. On Twitter, you can retweet and add a comment. But TikTok is unique in its duet function, which has spawned a near-infinite array of reaction videos commenting alongside other posts — like a hall of mirrors, or that Greek snake of antiquity eating its own tail.

A staggering number of duets involve one person commenting on the kitchen prep of another. (TikTokker @chefreactions is a master in this category, a professional chef known for verbally dismembering hack recipes: “That looks as if E.T. ended in a tragic house fire.”) And, of course, there’s the duet train, in which one user pairs her video with another who pairs it with another and another — like a digital exquisite corpse. The format was employed to terrific effect on the sea shanty “Soon May the Wellerman Come,” which went viral last year, allowing performers to add successive layers to the original song.


The duet is one of the most intriguing aspects of the app: a form of looking that is far more active than clicking “like.” Even more intriguing: Many duets are very simple in nature, featuring one person quietly observing rather than offering a judgmental reaction. These calm expressions of looking rarely go viral. But there is something affirming about them.

It recalls a point once made by critic John Berger. “Soon after we can see, we are aware that we can also be seen,” he wrote. “The eye of the other combines with our own eye to make it fully credible that we are part of the visible world.”

8. TikTok is real life.

If all of this seems irrelevant because you aren’t on TikTok, well, TikTok has found its way to you regardless.

The TikTok effect has sent Big Tech back to the drawing board on long-established apps. In July, a Google exec revealed at a conference that, according to internal studies, 40% of young people turn to TikTok or Instagram when looking for a basic service like lunch — not a search engine like Google. Since then, Google has made user reviews much more prominent on its maps and now delivers many more images, graphic text boxes and social media feeds in its results.

Illustration for TikTok story

And the influence extends beyond the internet. TikTok has inserted new slang into the language and generated new works of theater. (Remember the fans of Pixar’s “Ratatouille” who essentially crowdsourced a musical that wound up on a New York stage?) And the app is a juggernaut in the music industry, where new songs and old ones alike can become hits — like Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” which became a cultural touchstone after being resuscitated by an Idaho skateboarder with a taste for cranberry juice in 2020. Now performers such as Megan Thee Stallion collaborate with TikTok to test the waters on singles releases.

But the TikTok effect goes beyond basic virality; its aesthetics manifest within the literal architecture of art.


Rosalía‘s Motomami tour featured a stripped-down set with three vertical screens that projected live images of the singer and her dancers. Green-screen effects were employed, showing the singer playing piano, for example, against a backdrop of rolling green hills. (Very TikTok.) The climax was the moment Rosalía launched into the hit “Bizcochito.” The choreography begins with a familiar viral gesture of the singer standing with her hand on one hip, pretending to chew gum while looking annoyed.

When I attended her concert in October, this pantomime had been all over TikTok for weeks. When the sequence began, the crowd roared in response. Cellphones went up. And the young woman seated in front of me recorded the sequence and uploaded it to TikTok. TikTok came to life, then promptly became more content for TikTok.

To TikTok, we submit our gaze. And through the filter of the algorithm we find it projected back at us — broken down and commodified into bite-size morsels that might feel like the intimate dispatches of a thousand individuals but, in the end, are simply the output of an opaque, all-knowing machine.

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