Sundance 2022: “TikTok, Boom.” Interrogates the Rewards, Risks and Politics of One of the World’s Most Popular Apps

This is one in a series of film reviews from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, focused on films by women, trans or nonbinary directors that tell compelling stories about the lives of women and girls. You can find all the reviews together here.

Feroza Aziz appears in TikTok, Boom. by Shalini Kantayya. (Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

As someone who was fascinated by the 2020 documentary Coded Bias (in fact, I’ll be teaching it this year in one of my classes), I was excited to see that its director, Shalini Kantayya, had a new film out at Sundance, another documentary about the people and hidden politics behind the technology we use every day: TikTok, Boom.

Diving into the world of one of the hottest social media platforms of the last couple years—TikTok has over 1 billion worldwide monthly users as of a few months ago—Kantayya’s film considers the popularity of this video sharing app alongside its dangers and challenges. Privately owned by Chinese company ByteDance, TikTok is a video-sharing app catering to viral short form video and allowing users to post, comment, repost and gain followers at stunningly fast rates.

The film utilizes interviews with technology experts, news reports and conversations with TikTok celebrities (mostly teens and twentysomethings whose posts have gone viral and, in some cases, who make a living from the app and associated sponsorships). In doing so, the documentary mines the political potential, cultural influence and global ramifications of this worldwide phenomenon. It also interrogates the geopolitical corporate battle between TikTok and American companies like Facebook, both of which are seeking to control and exploit the social media market.

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A still from TikTok, Boom. by Shalini Kantayya. (Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

TikTok’s algorithm is designed to deliver personalized content to its users—as you watch videos on the platform, it tailors your viewing experience by providing more content similar to what you’ve already enjoyed. Kantayya’s documentary persuasively argues that TikTok’s curation results in viewers finding themselves in narrower and narrower silos, where they only see videos that confirm their biases and undergird their beliefs, with little regard for fact, accuracy or diverse perspectives.

On the other hand, the app has a potential democratizing effect; one interviewee explains that TikTok has “taken away the gate,” since virtually anyone can make and post videos with access to a smartphone and the internet. The documentary is strongest during its interview segments with various users and influencers, who variously discuss both the ways the app has changed their lives for the better (by providing a livelihood and a platform) and the ways they have found themselves censored or abused through their TikTok personas.

So, while professional beat-boxer Spencer X has built a career from his TikTok videos, some of the young women Kantayya interviews express more hesitation about the risks and rewards of the app. Deja Foxx, an Arizona political activist, went viral when she recorded herself confronting Senator Jeff Flake about defunding Planned Parenthood. Even though she appreciates the platform she’s gained, Foxx expresses some concerns about the expectations particular to women and girls on social media and the ways in which TikTok and platforms like it can feel all-consuming and abusive.

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Spencer X appears in TikTok, Boom. by Shalini Kantayya. (Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

Interviewee Feroza Aziz also tells her story: She found herself censored by the app after sharing information about China’s imprisonment of Uighur Muslims. After this, she learned to hide her political messages, particularly those critical of China, by embedding them in seemingly innocuous content, like eye lash curling tutorials. Aziz’s experience illustrates both the impressive savvy of this generation of young users, but also the hazards of vast social media networks operating with little to no oversight and employing undisclosed methods for sorting, censoring, blocking, and collecting data on its users.

Ultimately, Tiktok, Boom. functions as an edifying look at the experiences of digital natives, Generation Z and beyond, and how these young people try to make meaning in the world. A clearer through-line over the course of the documentary as a whole may have laid better groundwork for the film’s interrogation of the platform’s relationship to geopolitics, gendered abuse online, and censorship. On the whole, however, it’s an engaging and compelling film, one that will encourage conversations about digital freedom and the potential of new forms of creative and political expression.

Editor’s note: Throughout the month of February, Aviva Dove-Viebahn will review 12 films in total from Sundance—six feature films and six documentaries. Explore all the reviews together here.

  1. Framing Agnes
  2. Master
  3. Am I OK?
  4. Tiktok, Boom
  5. Leonor Will Never Die
  6. Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power
  7. Girl Picture
  8. Calendar Girls
  9. Nanny
  10. Sirens
  11. Call Jane
  12. The Janes

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About

Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.'s Scholar Writing Program.