TikTok, Boom. unravels the political chicanery behind the world’s most popular app

The Polygon team is reporting in from the all-virtual grounds of the 2022 Sundance International Film Festival, with a look at the next wave of upcoming independent releases in sci-fi, horror, and documentary film.

In the early going of the new documentary TikTok, Boom., director Shalini Kantayya seems to be setting herself up for a hand-holding walkthrough for the olds who are at best marginally aware that kids are into some new social app. The setup is pure TikTok 101, walking the audience through some startling statistics about the app’s meteoric growth and its boasts of a billion active users, complete with a corny montage of news footage and stock footage. (Slow-mo footage of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg looking wide-eyed and nervous, backed by a voiceover quote about TikTok challenging the dominance of Silicon Valley, is a particularly cheesy touch.)

But over the course of this efficient rundown on the history, impact, and future of TikTok (which could easily be mistaken for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2021 directorial debut) Kantayya offers a condensed look at the corporate and political chicanery around the app, and delivers some insight into the ways its most successful users are turning it into a career. Once her doc gets going, it’s accessible enough for tech-agnostic people who still don’t own smartphones, but mines insight and intel that even the most habitual TikTok viewers and creators might find useful. The doc addresses widespread ideas and experiences around the app, mostly with a helpful journalistic remove that avoids either scolding or gushing. As a primer, it’s effective and absorbing.

Kantayya spends a little time laying out where TikTok came from, how it was developed in China under the name Douyin, released in 2016, and eventually rebranded internationally as Tiktok after absorbing the American lip-synching app Musical.ly. She avoids editorializing herself, but gets framing quotes from authors and journalists who talk intently about the app’s reach, design, and place in a crowded market competing for the attention of young people in particular.

But she gets more mileage out of her interviews with a few prominent YouTube creators who’ve gone viral in different areas and different ways, like beatboxer Spencer X, who parlayed his musical videos into a million-dollar career, or activist Deja Foxx, who went viral in 2017 at age 16 after confronting then-senator Jeff Flake over Planned Parenthood at a town-hall meeting. Each of the interviewees speaks to different aspects of the app and how it puts popular users under an intense spotlight, giving them an international reach they can use for anything from pushing political and social causes to linking up with superstars for joint projects.

Tiktok user Feroza Aziz pauses to check her phone in front of a bank of school lockers in the documentary Tiktok, Boom. Photo: Sundance Institute

Inevitably, there are cautionary tales, though Kantayya keeps them brief and focused. Foxx talks about the harassment and bullying that comes from public exposure. While Afghan-American teenager Feroza Aziz found a community and an escape from real-life racist bullying through sharing her culture and life on TikTok, her videos were censored and her account banned after she posted videos raising awareness of China’s genocidal repression of the Uyghur people.

For regular TikTok users, that’s where most of the value of TikTok, Boom. will come in — not in putting numbers on the popularity of the popular app they use, but in laying out exactly what they’re exposing themselves to in terms of data-mining, privacy concerns, and control over what they’re allowed to say. One interview reveals that Douyin has much more stringent limits, including censoring people with tattoos, piercings, or “unnatural hair colors,” while memos reveal how the parent company, ByteDance conspired to have its apps shadowban videos for a vast number of reasons, from featuring people of color to discussing queer issues to featuring overweight or disabled people — all supposedly in the name of protecting those people from bullying.

As Kantayya raises these issues, she never seems like she’s trying to push people off the app, or lecture them about its use. But the clear evidence that their cute dance videos and sight gags are being monitored for state sedition is startling, and so is the darker side of an algorithm designed to analyze and record everything about users’ personal tastes, and weaponize it to sell them products and keep them on the site for hours.

The film mostly plays the TikTok story straight, but Kantayya does allow herself some hints of humor when addressing the politics around TikTok. The film takes on a wryer tone when addressing a viral stunt that humiliated Donald Trump and seemingly sent him on the warpath against the app, while he simultaneously demanded a finder’s fee if his administration regulated the app in a way that forced it to sell its U.S. operations to Microsoft. And the story gets downright salty in looking at Zuckerberg’s clumsy attempts to control or destroy TikTok’s parent company on behalf of Facebook.

There aren’t really any new ideas in TikTok, Boom., no blinding insights or revelations, no drastic warnings or threats. Its approach often feels scattershot and surfacey, never digging past a few quotes or a news piece on any one topic. But that makes it more of a discussion piece than a hardcore dive into any given specific issue. It’s a brisk, capable, entertaining act of synthesis, seemingly designed to get its viewers on the same level of understanding of TikTok, no matter what level they start at. It almost feels like a public service as much as a documentary — a way to catch up on the world’s most downloaded app, and to be a little more conscious of the inner workings behind the app’s endless diversions and distractions.

TikTok, Boom. is currently seeking distribution.