Two years ago, Shalini Kantayya was at Sundance with “Coded Bias,” a documentary about racial bias in facial recognition software, algorithms and artificial intelligence. This year, the director returns with “TikTok, Boom”, another film about the impact of algorithms on humanity.
Since its inception in 2016, TikTok – owned by Chinese conglomerate ByteDance – has become a leading entertainment destination for a new generation. The short video platform was the first non-Facebook app to reach 3 billion downloads worldwide. After becoming available in the United States in 2018, the app has drawn a lot of intrigue and criticism.
Via a cast of Gen Z natives, journalists and pundits, Kantayya’s “TikTok, Boom” examines the future of social media and the growing tension between democratic youth culture and authoritarian data surveillance. The doc also seeks to answer the question: Why is an application, best known for people who dance, the target of so much controversy?
When did you start working on this doc?
In April 2021. We started principal photography in June, so that was a really fast production schedule for me.
Production houses Campfire, Forbes Entertainment and Olive Hill Media are all behind the film. Did they contact you or did you approach them to make a movie on TikTok?
I would say it was a perfect storm because I had really thought about making this movie. It was a subject that fascinated me, then Campfire, Forbes and Olive Hill offered me this project. When they brought it to me, there were no characters or story, so it was really up to me.
TikTok became a political issue in 2020 when Donald Trump issued executive orders to ban the app for supposed national security reasons. Do you consider “TikTok, Boom” a political doc?
I am convinced that all art is political. All the stories we tell as artists have political implications. (The film) really highlights the stories of Gen Z influencers and is an exploration of what it means for the first generation of human beings to grow up online. The first generation of digital natives and how this is reshaping humanity, and how each subsequent generation will be transformed by this technology.
Do you think your movie will appeal to people who don’t use TikTok?
The strength of the movie is that you don’t have to be a TikTok user to understand the movie. I hope this documentary will bring new audiences to understand this global phenomenon of TikTok and how a Chinese app has eclipsed Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and almost every other social media app.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
We live in a time where we kind of sleepwalk through these tech companies that are becoming extraordinarily powerful. Some might say too powerful for democracy, and we don’t even have basic knowledge of the systems we interact with every day. It is my belief as an artist that awareness is change. When we understand the systems we interact with every day, it inevitably leads to change, because education is the first step.