Since its invention, the internet has been a battlefield for intense political and philosophical discourse. Online platforms separate us from the other side of the debate, making it easier to have impersonal, one-sided arguments where we’re fighting with a screen and not face to face. Online discourse is oftentimes completely unproductive, with each side trying harder to prove that they’re in the right rather than learning a new perspective. Twitter users have coined the term “doomscrolling” to describe the excessive amount of time that most people spend scrolling through negative content and watching people argue and speculate about intense issues. It’s difficult to have a presence on the internet without feeling like you need to have an opinion on everything.
It’s easy to understand where this trend comes from. The internet brought along “The Information Age,” and for the first time in history, nearly anything you’d need to know about everything is available in your pocket and at your fingertips. Now, more than ever, people can conduct their own research and come to their own reasonable conclusions about anything from geopolitical conflict to gender theory. It sounds like an environment that would foster well-informed debate, but with platforms full of misinformation and reductive buzzwords, it’s easy for conversations to quickly stray away from the truth.
Such conversations are most rapid on TikTok, the sensational short-video platform that has gained steam over the past few years, especially over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. On the surface, the app seems harmless — full of dancing videos and people sharing handy, homemade craft tips — but beneath this innocuous veil is a sea of TikTok videos that only seem to function as rage fuel, layering a catchy song with a few words about a political or social issue while stripping it of any nuance. TikTok’s “for you” page carefully curates content that it thinks its viewer would like and share, meaning that many of these discourse-inducing videos fall into an echo chamber of people with shared beliefs. The views go up and the argument usually goes nowhere.
Twitter used to be the kingpin of internet discourse and still is in many ways, but it is undoubtedly affected by its limited character system. Twitter only allows for tweets to contain 280 characters — doubled from 140 in 2017 — but makes up for this with a somewhat organized thread system, where new additions to a post can be supplied directly under it. This allows room for complicated conversations, while still keeping tweets short and snappy for situations that need it, like advertising or entertainment. TikTok has learned nothing from its predecessor, however, and limits video captions to 300 characters, with comments at a shockingly limiting 150. There is also very little thread system in place, meaning comment replies are often placed out of order, making conversations incredibly hard to follow. This leads to commenters having to greatly reduce their points to fit in the text box or lose their own arguments to the confusing jumble of the TikTok comment section.
For many of TikTok’s communities, this limitation on character use is not a problem. TikTok even added a feature that allows for videos to be up to three minutes long, so if someone really needs to take their time explaining their viewpoint, they can. Still, the vast majority of TikTok content relies on short, 15-second videos and a couple of sentences in the comment section, and the platform encourages it.
Views don’t lie, and videos that spread controversy are usually the ones that are watched, commented on and shared the most, which tells TikTok’s algorithm to push the video out to more viewers. Some users even engage in a trend every year called “No Nuance November,” where they are encouraged to share reductive views on complex issues with very little explanation or context. It was allegedly started by a 23-year-old college student named Tomás, known by their handle @abolish_ice on TikTok, who explained their idea saying, “Every day I’m gonna post a hot take, and I’m gonna limit myself to one sentence. No walls of text, I’m gonna put zero nuance in it. And I’m gonna refuse to comment in the comments, y’all can discuss amongst yourselves … I just wanna be inflammatory.”
For simple topics, like self-care or television shows, this isn’t a serious problem, but within the politically charged context that it’s usually used in, it causes more problems than it solves. Many can use it for so-called “performative activism,” sharing buzzwords that make them sound well-informed without putting in any of the work to form a full opinion. “No Nuance November” rarely ends, either, leaking into the rest of the year as content creators continue to share reductive takes to an audience that will only bicker and fan the flames even higher.
Discussing controversial topics on the internet has its place, of course. The internet can be a great place to effectively disseminate knowledge about concepts that most people wouldn’t consider otherwise. A few quick words about the casual discrimination that someone experienced could drive someone else toward reconsidering how they think about their relationship to the topic. On the flip side, the platform can also encourage close-minded ignorance about topics that need thorough consideration. During the pandemic, TikTok and other internet platforms had to add disclaimers to nearly every piece of content that mentioned the virus in order to slow down the spread of misinformation. In this situation, contrarian opinions could have rippling effects on public health.
TikTok discourse can also serve to delegitimize the discussions being held. When someone watches a video about race relations in America, followed directly by a fun joke that uses the same audio, it can make those serious topics sound like jokes. TikTok continues to blur the line between meme culture and political activism.
Though sometimes well-intentioned, internet discourse doesn’t solve anything. We all want validation from our peers, and that is especially true for the younger users that make up much of TikTok’s demographic. Sharing a snappy opinion with an audience that is likely to agree with you is a quick way to feed your ego or make you feel like you fit in. However, what many of these social issues need is nuanced discussion and tangible action, something that arguments with strangers can’t provide. In the future, perhaps TikTok can strike a balance between fostering a platform that maintains its light-hearted, rapid-fire content while leaving some space for complex conversations.