I’m 43 years old, and I have a TikTok account. I started it several months ago in advance of the publication of my first book (“Baseball: The Movie,” available now for preorder). I had seen other authors use TikTok to build an audience, posting about their book’s topic and sharing their author’s journey in short videos.
It was an experiment that became an education. As a childless man in his 40s, I don’t have a lot of experience with the generation that has been raised on TikTok, but now I understand all the hand-wringing about it. That algorithm gets its hooks into you and doesn’t let you go. It finds what you like and gives you an endless amount of it. And if you change what you like, it notices, and gives you that instead. Without discipline, you could spend hours scrolling through these visual endorphin hits and never even look up.
The biggest change I’ve noticed since I started using TikTok is a reduction in my own attention span, and as a cinephile, that concerns me. I’ve recently found myself struggling to get through two-hour films at home, especially when my phone is within reach. I’ve had to resort to putting it in another room while watching a movie, which helps, but also reveals the depth of my quickly formed addiction.
But what of those who got attached to TikTok when their viewing habits were still forming? How could the slow rewards of cinema ever compete? The short answer is they may not, but I’ve found reason for hope in my few months on the social media platform. There is real filmmaking going on there, even if it’s not the traditional kind.
The clearest example is in the horror genre. TikTok has become a venue for some of the most terrifying and creative videos on the web, many of them designed to appear real at first glance. Like a found-footage horror film, these short videos claim to show home invasions, proof of supernatural activity, or in some cases, horrifying creatures popularized by TikTok itself (do a deep dive into the “skinwalker,” and you’ll see what I mean). These videos all owe a little something to “The Blair Witch Project,” the first horror film to use found footage and truly blend the line between fiction and reality.
The only real difference is that TikToks are shorter. Much shorter. But short films are still films — even the Oscars have a category for them — and the horror films on TikTok are built with the same craft and care as their longer counterparts. They know how to burrow deep into the terror of the human heart and build a sense of tension through sound artistry. They do have one trick up their sleeves: appearing alongside other real-life non-horror videos on the platform adds to their eeriness. Just like with “Blair Watch,” it takes some initial effort to determine whether they are real or fictional.
Fun fact: You can also watch clips from your favorite movies there. Users have, for some reason, uploaded entire films onto TikTok, albeit in one-minute clips (or occasionally longer, as the app has increased its maximum length). Watch one clip in its entirety, and you can bet they’ll show you more soon. I’ve probably re-watched most of 2011’s “Moneyball” and 2015’s “Spotlight” in 60-second bursts over the past few months, and while that’s far from the ideal way to view a film, it does allow you to linger on things you might miss while being immersed in a broader narrative: the subtleties of a performance, the construction of a scene as its own entity, and a screenwriter’s elegance with exposition.
Last year, a major movie studio even jumped on the bandwagon. Paramount re-released 2004’s “Mean Girls” on TikTok, where it could be watched in 23 clips on October 3rd, a date that’s particularly important in “Mean Girls” lore. It was a transparent effort to re-engage fans in time for the musical remake in theaters now, and make new fans among a generation too young to remember the original film. Did it work? The musical is currently crushing it at the box office, so it certainly didn’t fail.
The merits of TikTok on the whole remain up for debate. The addictive nature of the app and the attention spans it shortens are causes for real concern. But those who think it will bring on the death of cinema simply aren’t paying attention. Cinema doesn’t die. It just gets influenced by new forms of distribution. It happened with television and VHS. Now it’s TikTok’s turn.