Theological Variations   /   Summer 2023   /    Notes & Comments

TikTok Extends the Wasteland

Television’s language and logic in everyday life.

Jeff Hewitt

THR illustration/Shutterstock.

In 1961, Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton N. Minow delivered a scathing assessment of the state of television to the National Association of Broadcasters, famously dubbing their collective output—from vapid and violent programing to the clamor of endless commercial breaks—a “vast wasteland.” Today, decades into the digital age, signs of this wasteland’s demise abound. Broadcast viewership has fallen by a third since 2015. Millions are pulling the plug on their cable subscriptions. Most adults under the age of thirty say they don’t watch TV. But is what Minow called “the television age” truly over? Or does the wasteland endure?

Consider reality TV. Thirty-one years ago, MTV introduced viewers to The Real World. While not the first reality-based entertainment—An American Family (1973) and Cops (1989) were prototypes—The Real World built modern reality television. Each line of its opening voiceover, which ran with minor variations for the show’s thirty-three seasons, was spoken by a different cast member: “This is the true story / of seven strangers / picked to live in a house / and have their lives taped / to find out what happens / when people stop being polite / and start getting real.” Ambitious, demographically diverse, and willing to endure twenty-four-hour surveillance in exchange for celebrity, these seven strangers represented a composite of the MTV audience.

Critics were fascinated by the dubious “reality” on offer. Daniel Cerone of the Los Angeles Times called The Real World “an experimental series that records its subjects like a documentary, looks like an extended Levi’s 501 commercial, sounds like a music-video playlist and plays like a steamy, saucy afternoon soap.” Another critic put it plainly: “There really isn’t much happening.” But that was the point; the show elevated the quotidian to spectacle.

The tropes of The Real World still dominate reality TV. From Love Island to The Real Housewives, the premise that “ordinary” people are a gold mine of melodramatic entertainment remains the genre’s primary draw. But if the show’s groundbreaking, cinéma vérité–inspired techniques are now commonplace, one of them had an outsized impact: the “confessional.” Confessionals have become so ubiquitous—and audiences so used to people breaking the fourth wall in staged, semicasual interviews—that they almost feel natural. By normalizing nonprofessional actors and their direct-to-camera addresses, The Real World prefigured influencer culture and the rituals of social media. Reality television’s contribution to modern culture isn’t just mindless programming; it’s the transposition of everyday existence into a source of mass entertainment, blurring the distinction between drama and life.

Back in 1992, one reviewer seemed to grasp this shift. Writing for the Boston Globe, Ed Siegel suggested that the show’s putative authenticity was beside the point. “If everyone is the star of his or her own… TV series, then these seven have indeed transformed fiction into reality.… Maybe The Real World is the final fruition of corporate culture’s merger of dreams and reality, conscious and unconscious.” But reality TV was just the beginning.

During the last twenty years, social media has altered the way we interact with popular culture. An explosion of user-generated content—attributable to cheaply produced electronics and platforms like Facebook and Twitter—widened the focus of popular discourse, shifting attention from our TVs to our proliferating mobile screens. But neither Facebook nor Twitter has kept pace with the sudden rise of the short-video app TikTok. With 1.5 billion active users, and 50 percent of its userbase under thirty, TikTok has quickly become one of the world’s most popular social media platforms.

But is TikTok really social media? Not according to Blake Chandlee, the company’s head of Global Business Solutions, who has called TikTok “an entertainment platform,” pointing to the “massive” difference between the company’s approach and that of Facebook.

By design, TikTok encourages different behaviors from those prompted by other social networks. Whereas 70 percent of Instagram users regularly post to the platform, barely a third of TikTokkers do. “They say they check Facebook, and they check Instagram and they check Twitter,” said Khartoon Weiss, another TikTok executive. “But they don’t check TikTok. They tell us they watch TikTok.” Like television, TikTok is something you watch. Its primary purpose is entertainment.

Yet half a billion is far from nothing. Millions post to the platform every day, and since the app offers no option to share selectively, posts are instantly available to everyone. Call it the commoditization of broadcasting. Where networks once sought captive audiences in the tens of millions, TikTokkers seek out hashtagged niches from a pool of billions. When a Vox reporter asked why some TikTok users chose the app over others, they cited the “astronomical views, comments, and likes” they could receive. The app’s “For You” page, which auto-plays content tailored to your preferences, is little more than algorithmically assisted channel surfing. In the Internet’s early years, the Web’s advocates believed that it would save us from mass media, of which television was the prime example. Instead, the Internet (and TikTok specifically) brought the language of television—its logic, its drama, its endless distraction—into our everyday lives.

Here, we see same dynamic The Real World kicked off in 1992: ordinary people presenting their lives as entertainment, hoping for exposure. And if they’re lucky, they can rack up followers, becoming more than just a viral fad. They might even become a “social media personality,” the tacked-on epithet now accompanying traditional entertainment occupations such as dancing or singing. It is no accident that many of TikTok’s most popular “genres” match up with those of reality TV: cooking (Master Chef), DIY (Flip or Flop), weddings and proposals (90 Day Fiancé), makeup and makeover (Glow Up, Queer Eye), and singing and music (The Voice, America’s Got Talent)—not to mention content that instigates controversy for its own sake (Jersey Shore, The Real Housewives). Indeed, the last of those genres—what the British journalist and political theorist Ash Sarkar has called “toxic parasociality”—is a predominant confessional style on TikTok, and perhaps the most obvious legacy of reality television. Table-flipping housewives and misogynistic beach bros paved the way for people like Andrew Tate.

Controversial individuality can thrive like this only when life is understood as part of the show. TikTok creates the performative context for any conceivable action to be shared as entertainment. It automates the role of reality television producer through the app’s interface: What once required a crew and a budget now only takes a phone and an Internet connection.

The techno-utopians who first championed the Internet-as-opposition failed to understand that television is not just the shape-shifting screen in our living rooms. Nor is it the newest programming on Netflix. Rather, television is a manifestation of what French philosopher Guy Debord called the “society of the spectacle.” Six years after Minow’s polemic, Debord argued that mass media had become the driving force in modern life: “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” Understood in this way, television is not legacy media, but entertainment as ideology—a way of understanding the world through televised means. If the first age of television was the TV set’s emergence in the 1950s, and the second and third were the explosion of cable in the 1980s and the arrival of big-budget, cinematic programming in the 2000s, ours is a fourth age of television, in which televised performance is no longer something to be watched but something to be lived. The confessional is now our primary mode of addressing the wider culture.

Nowhere is this more visible than in Gen Z’s newfound confidence online. A recent spate of articles on that cohort’s contempt for Millennial quirks shows just how ingrained the rules of television have become. Take the “Millennial Pause”: that moment some Millennials take to confirm that an app is recording before addressing their audience. Despite its origin as a meme, that split second illustrates a real generational difference. The Millennial Pause draws attention to the artifice of the confessional. But for Zoomers, most of whom can’t remember a time before smartphone cameras or social media, this is tantamount to breaking the rules. Because for the always online—as it was for the cast of The Real World—the cameras are always rolling. As TV critic David Marc noted in his 1984 Atlantic essay “Understanding Television,” production styles come and go at a breakneck pace. Shifting attitudes and the constant search for new gimmicks result in what Marc called “an intense comedy of obsolescence.” The youth of TikTok have internalized this process.

Understanding TikTok through the lens of ubiquitous reality TV allows us to see that oddly named phenomena like “Main Character Syndrome”—in which the overly online dramatize their lives—aren’t aberrations. If TikTokkers act like the stars of their own entertainment channels, that isn’t a psychological issue—it’s an accurate assessment of the media landscape that reality TV established. On TikTok, we really are encouraged to treat our online presence as the proscenium arch, a curated pass to our “real” lives, even when we’re producing content explicitly for entertainment.

In “Understanding Television,” David Marc claimed that “watching television is an act of citizenship.” Now, being television is an act of citizenship. Televised performance has become the most accessible way to participate in public discourse. And given that entertainment is predicated on drama, and the essence of drama is conflict, reliance on entertainment-as-participation raises serious questions for democracy.

In his seminal 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman observed that television makes entertainment “the natural format for the representation of all experience.” Even though Postman was writing before reality TV and social networks, his breakdown of television’s rhetorical rules—that “simple messages are preferable to… complex ones,” that “drama is to be preferred over exposition”—are more relevant than ever. Drama and simplicity dominate our new media landscapes, where attention is prized above all else. The term “attention economy” captures the extent of this domination: To be considered worthwhile, ideas must first entertain. And not just ideas. Young people now turn to TikTok for recommendations on what to do and where to eat, thereby relying on televised entertainment to inform their personal decisions.

Throughout his “wasteland” speech, Chairman Minow implored broadcasters to produce more “informative” programming. But television is more than the content on offer. It is a paradigm that frames all visual communication as entertainment. And as “entertainment platforms” envelop our lives, television’s mandates will continue to warp genuine expression and political debate into little more than amusing diversions. Time has lent Minow’s sign-off, meant to echo President Kennedy’s inaugural address, a strangely inverted meaning: “Ask not what broadcasting can do for you; ask what you can do for broadcasting.” With over a billion potential viewers waiting to be entertained, TikTokkers ask themselves the same thing every day.