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 founding in 2016, TikTok — owned by Chinese conglomerate ByteDance — has become a top entertainment destination for a new generation. The short-form video platform was the first non-Facebook app to hit 3 billion downloads globally. After becoming available in the U.S. in 2018, the app has sparked plenty of intrigue and criticism.
Via a cast of Gen-Z natives, journalists, and experts, Kantayya’s “TikTok, Boom” examines the future of social media and the increasing tension between democratic youth culture and authoritarian data surveillance. The doc also seeks to answer the question: Why is an app, best-known for people dancing, the target of so much controversy?
When did you start working on this doc?
In April 2021. We started principal photography in June so, it was a very quick production timeline for me.
Production houses Campfire, Forbes Entertainment and Olive Hill Media are all behind the film. Did they reach out to you, or did you approach them about making a film about TikTok?
I would say it was a perfect storm because I had actually thought about doing this film. It was a topic that I was fascinated by and then Campfire, Forbes and Olive Hill brought this project to me. When they brought it to me, it didn’t have any characters or any story, so it was really mine to make.
TikTok became a political issue in 2020 when Donald Trump issued executive orders that sought to ban the app over supposed national security concerns. Do you consider “TikTok, Boom” a political doc?
I’m of the belief that all art is political. All of the stories that we tell as artists have political implications. (The film) really forefronts the stories of Gen Z influencers and is an exploration of what it means to have the first generation of human beings growing up online. The first generation of digital natives and how that is reshaping humanity, and how every generation after will be transformed by this technology.
Do you think your film will appeal to people who don’t use TikTok?
The strength of the film is that you don’t have to be a TikTok user to understand the film. I hope that this documentary will bring new audiences to understanding this global phenomenon of TikTok and how a Chinese app eclipsed Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and almost every other social media app.
What impact are you hoping this film has?
We are living in an age where we are sort of sleepwalking through these technology companies that are growing extraordinarily powerful. Some might say too powerful for democracy, and we don’t even have basic literacy about the systems that we are interacting with every day. It’s my belief as an artist that awareness is change. When we understand the systems that we are interacting with every day, that is bound to lead to change because education is the first step.