A spectre is haunting America- the spectre of short form content. As of 2024, TikTok is scheduled to face off with the U.S. Justice Department in September, where opening oral arguments will commence in challenging a Joe Biden-signed bill, a youthful overture in his otherwise fairly geriatric presidential term. This bill nudges the ByteDance owned company into either selling to an American parent corporation or facing the full brunt of our very funny, very industrial brand of democracy. (Read: if they do not comply, they will be banned.) 

I am no expert on geopolitics, and I am certainly not versed in running a multi-billion dollar tech company. I am, however, a consumer, one that spends a significant time of my day either on my phone or staring into the deep abyss of a MacBook Air. 

I’m fairly indifferent to TikTok, to be honest with you. I have the app downloaded on my phone…sometimes. I say sometimes because I’ll open it up, thinking it'll quicken a long journey on bus or train, and nearly 10 minutes later my head begins throbbing. My mind hurts. The gears that usually turn when I’m having an emotional response to something feel clogged. I can’t imagine that the content is the problem- I have the same reaction when I’m fed a stream of ironic meme drivel as I do when I consume philosophical, artistic, or inventive content on the platform. I have to assume, then, that I’m getting seasick not from the boat, but from the ocean. And in many ways, that ocean is vaster than most can fathom. 

Recent estimates from Backlinko, a leading SEO consulting firm, suggest that the number of people around the world who have access to the internet and use it regularly are close to 5.3 billion. Those same estimates gauge that out of those 5.3 billion, 1.2 billion use TikTok. With over a billion monthly active users, ByteDance has overseen the creation of a global monolith, one that relentlessly churns out obscene amounts of content every minute. Here in the U.S., 1 in every 2 people use TikTok. This is the stat that breaks my brain a little. 

If you enter a gas station, a movie theater, a grocery store, the DMV, truly anywhere in America, you can safely assume that there’s at least a few(but probably a lot of) people there who use TikTok, an app originally designed for kids in China to film themselves dancing. Over 6,000 miles away, what began as emulation has turned into a full blown take-over, with Americans creating, watching, and getting lost in the algorithm. 

The app itself, as The New York Times explains, is fundamentally changing us, both culturally and tangibly. This can be assumed by design- TikTok is a discovery engine, an incredibly powerful generator of digital suggestion. It is where a billion people and counting land (and stay) when they’re looking for the next fashion trend, a new recipe, hidden gems on vacation, or a simple way to enact a low-level, on demand dopamine response from content they resonate with. (Or don’t.) 

Many imitators have sprang up, from Instagram Reels to YouTube shorts, all symptoms of big tech’s languid identity crisis in the current decade- prominent examples that come to mind are Instagram lifting the stories feature from Snapchat, and Twitter implementing a ‘Spaces’ feature modeled on Clubhouse. (Ironically enough, the Bytedance owned platform is no different, rolling out TikTok Now in 2022, an app that is a not so subtle attempt to steal some market share away from BeReal.) 

Even my favorite platform, the beautifully cursed LinkedIn, has begun experimenting with short form vertical content. 

Which is all to say…. What comes next? Even if TikTok wasn’t banned by the American government, the condition it has only exacerbated, that of our collective attention shrinking to the size of a house fly, still persists. Platforms come and go, but what’s more addictive, what’s more suited to our current moment than seeing extremely quick glimpses of reality beam directly into our brains? What’s a better representation of who we are in 2024 than watching a SHEIN haul, then swiping up to witness the burning rubble of Gaza?

If it sounds bleak… well, in many ways it is. That’s the trade-off we all signed up for, perhaps unknowingly, when we decided that the future of the internet would be hyper-globalized social media.  There was no fine print about the moments that social media would portray, - whether it’s manufactured, authentic, compelling, boring, intelligent, dull, amazing- it’s all in our pockets, and it is available all the time, every time.

So again, we must ask, what comes next? Well, the answer may surprise you. 

The preface that one must acknowledge is that we are reaching a point of technological fatigue. Most recently, and firmly, shown by the unwillingness to accept the latest offering from Apple, a company valued at a trillion dollars, which for me is an imaginary number because I can’t count that high. Their newest product, the Vision Pro, set out to integrate our current reality with a virtually augmented one, where screens neatly fit into the fabric of our everyday lives in an even more pervasive way than they do now. It cost thirty five hundred dollars, and looks as if a pair of snowboard goggles was designed by The Bauhaus School.(Not a bad thing, in the slightest.) 

While tech reviewers were friendly to the product, they all commented on its bulk, lack of truly unique use cases, and of course, the elephant in the room… the cost. For the price of a used Subaru Outback (as well as a tune-up, with money left over), you could have a device that immersed you in more productivity apps, streaming sites, news outlets, and social media platforms than ever before. Every inch of your consciousness would be a shrine to the virtual world. 

Nearly four months later, I have not seen a single Vision Pro in the wild, nor any in the homes or offices of friends, colleagues, family, or strangers. This thing seemed like a gamble on the future, which is always brave, but has failed to really catch on in a meaningful way. What’s the deal? 

Well, the thing that happened to Apple’s Vision Pro is, neatly, the same answer to the question of what comes after TikTok. Drumroll, please…. 

You can’t beat real life!

It is 2024, and our world has rapidly re-emerged from a global pandemic. But for all of our bursting at the seams to see and re-invigorate ourselves in the world, our brains are now only finally starting to catch up. A lot of young people around the world quickly realized that connection is actually the most important part of the human experience; the only thing that separates us from the monkeys. But it feels like only this year that we, the generation that grew up alongside the tech boom, have come to understand that we can reject its late-stage form. The illness of being chronically online, can be cured by bringing ourselves into the real world again. 

There’s a shift happening, and you can already feel the first waves hitting our shores- tech is changing, nudging us into an era when this industry wasn’t bringing our anxiety to a boiling point, but opening new doors to connect. Apps facilitating in-person meetups, celebration of niches, and curated, nearly gate-kept online spaces are the wave. There’s a widespread revival of the Y2K aesthetic in fashion, media, and design, but that same embrace is seeping into our current online lives, as well. People don’t want more note-taking apps, they want a cute cartoon avatar they can dress up and show off to their friends. 

Will TikTok ever truly go away? It’s hard to say, but that answer is a wistful maybe, one where I have to earnestly shrug my shoulders when asked. What can come after it, however, is becoming more and more clear- a desire to not reject tech, but to use it minimally, and in a way that reminds us of when we were excited, not fatigued.

There are radical acts to be found no matter where you are. As I was reviewing the sources for this piece, diving into dark corners of social media in general, I decided to take a break. I laced up my sneakers, threw on a pair of shorts, and decided to make a crosstown hike for my favorite banh mi. Of course, I wasn’t completely disconnected from any sort of grid, I had Spotify playlists coming through my airpods and my Chase Sapphire card embedded into my phone’s digital wallet. But I forgot about all that when I went down a forested path in the Presidio that I didn’t usually take, only to find myself with a brand new view of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was electrifying. 26 years in, my heart can still grow full from a new angle of my favorite city. 

 This ‘radical act’ of going for a long hike, through the woods, getting a bit lost is the simplest antidote to where we find ourselves. No amount of followers, venture capital, or content streams could take away the feeling of finding humanity through reconnecting with the natural world. 

 It is a simple pleasure to be taking in a sweet breath of fresh air somewhere new. Real life will still remain the undefeated champion, knocking algorithms out of the ring every time, no matter how sophisticated they become. In this way, an old cliche rings true- the best answers are sometimes the most simple.