Let us imagine a not-so-hypothetical scenario.
A 22-year-old recent college graduate, Josh has his eyes on beginning his professional career. His degree, a Bachelor with a double major in Communications and Humanities, represents a well-rounded, well-read education. His interests are relatively broad; he’s never been a political junkie, but ever since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, he and his friends paid a bit more attention to journalism, social media, social justice, etc. Josh’s was a middle-class upbringing, American as apple pie. He played baseball for a couple years in high school, has had a few girlfriends, spent too much time on YouTube (especially in college), and likes to travel. He enjoys reading but checks his phone while he does so.
Josh’s main goal in life is to have a successful career in corporate advertising, get married, have some kids, and retire by 55. Every now and again he thinks about God and the Bible, having gone to a summer camp with a local church youth group a few times in high school. In college he hung out with some friends at a University Christian Fellowship gathering, which really helped him deal with some stress and frustrations he was going through at the time. Josh has battled depression and anxiety off and on since middle school.
Josh’s first gig out of college is a paid internship with a company near his parents’ house. He moves back home and starts the internship, hopeful that opportunities will come sooner than later. Much of the internship is busywork, data-entry tasks that Josh can perform in less than half a typical work day. For about two hours each day, Josh is on various social media platforms, mostly Instagram, Twitter, and since junior year in college, TikTok.
Josh’s experience on these apps has changed quite a bit recently. He was in high school when he registered for an Instagram account. Back then, he didn’t post very much…the account was mostly to keep up with his buddies who were sharing funny memes and sports clips. Recently, though, Josh has been spending downtime at the internship exploring other things online.
During a hard week in senior year of college—he and his girlfriend had a rough breakup during the COVID lockdowns—Josh randomly searched for “sadness” on TikTok. This was a first for him. He rarely used the app, and most of what he had seen so far had been random dances or funny skits. Struggling with the pain of breakup and the loneliness of the pandemic, Josh searched “sadness” and spent about 15 minutes watching a slew of videos about grief, heartbreak, trauma, and depression. Some of the inspirational quotes he came across helped a little bit. It was oddly comforting to hear other people talk through their emotions, and made Josh feel a little less alone.
A few days later, Josh was struggling again. The breakup, the stresses of his classes, figuring out what to do after graduation, and the insane state of the world were wearing on him. Josh launched TikTok again just looking for distraction. As the app loaded, Josh noticed that several of the videos on the front page, under “Recommended,” were about depression and mental health. While this time he was more stressed than sad, Josh watched some of these videos. A couple different creator channels did a good job of narrating feelings of aimlessness and frustration, so he perused their channels for a good while.
Later that day, he opened TikTok again, and there were more “Recommended” videos about negative emotions. Though he was feeling better by now, Josh watched these videos. They were well produced, with good background music, and vulnerable voices talking in an almost poetic way about how the darkness was so strong and the grief so unbearable. Josh felt seen, as if finally someone was able to put into the words the feelings he had been so careful not to talk about. As he watched video after video about expressing his feelings and emotional honestly, Josh could feel the depression bubbling back up, but while he watched the videos it did not bother him. He did not feel alone on TikTok. Feeling sad finally felt OK.
One of these channels in particular stood out to him as somebody who knew what they were talking about. The creator, who went by the name “The Honest Truth,” was so good at expressing what Josh had felt. More of Honest Truth’s videos ended up in Josh’s “Recommended” page. Honest Truth made lots of videos, and some of them weren’t about depression at all. Some were about politics. Honest Truth said he wasn’t part of any party, but definitely did not trust the media or organized religion. Josh watched a couple Honest Truth videos about the pandemic; apparently some people were getting very sick from the vaccines and nobody in the media was talking about it. In another video Honest Truth talked about celebrities that had known Jeffrey Epstein and had been in movies with child actors, some of whom had disappeared from the public eye. Josh wasn’t sure what to think, but the info Honest Truth presented was fascinating, and he had never heard it anywhere else.
The days went by, and things appeared to get better for Josh in school and life. He finished college strong and was talking to a new girl who lived not far from his hometown. But Josh felt distant from a lot of that. He felt his new internship was pointless, an emotion that a TikTok user called “Emotional IQ” had identified as a symptom of depression. Josh was also frustrated at what some of his friends had been posting on Instagram about the pandemic, and had unfollowed even some guys from his dorm. Josh had never been an “extrovert,” but he always had friends until now…life after college was lonely. To pass the time at the internship and at home, Josh would fire up TikTok to watch Honest Truth and Emotional IQ. He felt like he understood himself better, and was getting the real truth that other people, like his friends and even parents, just didn’t get about people like him. Every time he opened the TikTok app, new videos from those channels were right there waiting for him.
Josh had never been a porn guy. He had seen some, of course, but never got into it like some other guys. One day, though, he noticed a mental health video in his “Recommended” feed by a good-looking girl, holding up inspirational quotes on notecards. He went to her channel and watched her videos, several of which were overtly suggestive dance moves in skimpy outfits. He thought of the girl he had been talking to from his hometown, and wasn’t sure if he’d want her to see the videos he was watching, so after a few minutes he stopped.
The next time he picked up his phone, though, his “Recommended” feed featured more videos like the ones he had watched in that moment of weakness. Josh had been feeling extra down and lonely lately; things weren’t really progressing with the hometown girl. So he watched some more dance videos, but this time, one of the channels in his “Recommended” feed featured a performer who had links to other websites, including a couple porn sites. Only a couple clicks from when he launched TikTok, Josh was watching hardcore pornography until about 2AM.
The next morning Josh felt tired and sad. He chalked it up to his depression, which by now felt like an intense part of everyday life. The porn he had watched didn’t really make him feel great, but it did make him forget about feeling sad for a bit. He opens his phone, scrolls past 3 or 4 unanswered texts from the hometown girl and an unopened email from a college buddy, and opens TikTok. The first videos on his “Recommended” page are a mixture: a sexy dance, followed by an Honest Truth clip about why men are treated like crap in society, and a new Emotional IQ video on hating yourself.
These are the pieces of content that will dominate Josh’s mind for the rest of the day. Refreshing his feed periodically brings him new channels but usually of the same genre as these. For the briefest of moments, Josh realizes that just a few weeks ago he didn’t watch any of these kinds of videos. But now they get him through the pointless days and lonely nights. It’s almost as if this was exactly the kind of stuff he needed right now. And he wonders, almost as an afterthought:
How did TikTok know?