Have you ever caught yourself mindlessly scrolling through social media? Or bragging about how your “feed” is perfectly curated to your likes? As entertaining as that may be, unfortunately, it does come with a few costs.
Documentary filmmaker Shalini Kantayya dived into the social platform TikTok in her latest movie, TikTok Boom, which premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival as part of the Festival’s U.S. Documentary competition. Kantayya doesn’t let things stay at the surface when it comes to one of the world’s most popular apps, and instead, she introduces hard-to-swallow topics of geopolitics, mental health, and discriminatory algorithms, shattering the app’s glamorous illusion.
Filmed in five cities over 22 days, Kantayya seamlessly intertwines these themes by interviewing a series of culture and tech experts, as well as three Gen-Z influencers: Deja Fox, Founder of the GenZ Girl Gang, Feroza Aziz, a Muslim activist whose viral videos about the Uyghur crisis in China were taken down by TikTok, and Spencer X, one of the highest-paid influencers on the app.
Monsters & Critics had the opportunity to chat with Shalini Kantayya during the Festival about her influences, the collectiveness of the TikTok Boom’s themes, and her own personal relationship with social media.
Monsters & Critics: There is a line that stood out to me during this documentary. One of the Gen Z influencers mentioned that they were the first generation to grow up on camera. And, for me, I had the instant millennial thought, like, ‘we had YouTube and MySpace, and all of these online forums’ but there is the fact that Generation Z is the first to truly monetize it and be exposed to it at an early age. Can you talk to me about the difference between how older generations and this new generation approaches online atmospheres?
Shalini Kantayya: Yeah, and thank you for that. For me, through the making of this film and by talking to so many Gen Z influencers, I realized that it is really different. When I spoke to Deja Fox in the film, she’d be like, ‘I don’t really think about privacy. I grew up on this app, my whole childhood, it can be documented on these apps, privacy is a thing of the past.’ I think that is unique. The other thing I want to say, and maybe every generation feels like this, but I feel like Gen Z is super savvy towards video.
M&C: TikTok found rapid growth during the pandemic, over the last few years. What drew you to the platform as your documentary subject?
Kantayya: I think it is a unicorn. It is something of a wonder in terms of how the algorithm works and why it’s so sticky that 2 billion people have downloaded it globally.
M&C: This documentary discusses a variety of topics like discriminatory algorithms, geopolitics and mental health — which I thought was really great — what made you see the collectiveness of these topics? Why did you choose a movie format rather than a series?
Kantayya: It’s so funny, many have said this could easily be a series. And I actually have said the same thing because it’s just such a sprawling story. It was so hard for me to leave certain things out. I feel like so many things were so important and groundbreaking, and I’m proud that the film features the reporting of the many brave whistleblowers who shared stories in the film. To me, the film is very much an exploration for people who may or may not know very much about TikTok.
M&C: While on the topic of the format of the documentary, are you able to kind of share any information about the future distribution of this film?
Kantayya: I don’t even think the film has a website at this time. The best thing is to follow me or Coded Bias, and we will get more information out about how people can see the film.
M&C: What would you like your audience to take away from this documentary? What do we do next?
Kantayya: Well, I wouldn’t underestimate the power of being more literate about how these technologies work. I hope if you watch TikTok Boom, you’ll be more literate about how these apps work. And I think that that gives us more power to govern them and to challenge systems because there’s some level of transparency when we can understand how they work.
I would say that I hope that people would come away from the film caring to understand the technologies that we interact with every day and thinking about the impact of tech on young people. We haven’t really done these studies about how this impacts young people and their brains are still forming, for instance. I hope people will consider more carefully the impact of these apps on kids, and think about how they’re governed.
M&C: It seems as though the people using TikTok aren’t as concerned about data privacy as those on the outside looking in. Do you see the narrative surrounding that changing or do you think the narrative moving forward is going to be that it’s not a big deal?
Kantayya: Part of the reason I made the film is that the story is bizarre, like Trump as a president going after a social media company just because it had Chinese origins, in the middle of a global pandemic, the whole story is insane. I feel like we really need to have some long-term oversight to try to figure out some governance and that needs to happen regardless of the nationality of tech companies.
M&C: What’s your personal relationship with social media?
Kantayya: I have to say that every film I make gives me an education and changes me in some way. With this film, and my prior films, and the more I’ve been reading about social media and big tech, the more I understand how the economic system works, with our data being bought and sold, and how I’m willingly sharing this information about myself. I tend to be really careful about what I share online, and I often just use it for public-facing films and those things. I’m less on social media than I used to be. Even in the making of this film, I was just reminded of the impacts of social media on mental health. When I remind myself, ‘Oh, being on these platforms doesn’t make me happier,’ it’s a reminder that counts.
M&C: Final question. How long did you spend on TikTok when making the documentary?
Kantayya: I don’t have it on my phone right now. But I did have it on my phone and it really knew me and I was very engaged. Hours would go by easily on TikTok. So it’s a highly effective algorithm.
Interested in more 2022 Sundance Film Festival coverage? Check out our interview with ‘blood’ director Bradley Rust Gray and lead actor Carla Juri.
TikTok Boom will screen at SXSW 2022 in March.