Engineered earworms on TikTok aren’t that far off from disinfo campaigns
Ever since I read this Bloomberg story about how songs are engineered to go viral on TikTok, I’ve had one thought in my head, if you can call it that — it’s more of a noise, or impression:
Yes, it’s the sound of internally screaming. Just when I thought I understood how deeply social media algorithms have hijacked our desires, tastes and preferences — WHAM! Another jab straight to the nose. I have to admit, I was blindsided by this one. It knocked me out.
Now, I understand that I work for a website called TechCrunch, emphasis on the tech, but if this story doesn’t make you feel at least a teensy bit like a Luddite, well, I don’t know what to tell you. You’re probably like that character in the Matrix, Cypher, who wants to be plugged in.
Is that harsh? I mean, companies are going to company, and partnerships with major record labels is a common sense move for a social media app all about honing the art of short, clever combinations of sound and video. And fair dues to the creators, many of them in college or high school, for jumping at the chance to make some money and get a little bit of fame.
But it’s probably not too harsh when you consider what else is possible when catchiness is weaponized. Here’s what we know: whether it’s internet memes or political slogans or Megan Thee Stallion’s Savage, what drives information dissemination is not the truthfulness of the content or the credibility of the speaker but 1) how easy it is to remember and 2) how quickly it sparks conversations.
And would you look at that! Those are exactly the variables music producers optimize for today. What the Bloomberg story highlights, inadvertently or not, is how a No. 1 pop hit and a piece of political disinformation are not all that different, aesthetically. Everyone’s an entertainer.
Now read to the end of the Bloomberg story. Get to the part where it’s revealed that ByteDance (the Chinese company that owns TikTok), in response to threats of a U.S. ban on the app, recruited creators to orchestrate a seemingly grassroots lawsuit against the proposed ban. And I think: damn. Attention really is the most precious commodity in the world. And we’re just…giving it away.
(Cue the internal screams.)