We often report on “viral internet” moments, and someone recently asked me why we bother. After all, if something has “gone viral”, then there’s a pretty high chance most people will have already seen it, right?
Social media is so balkanised that a trend, idea, video format or meme that feels ubiquitous to one person may be utterly alien to even their closest friends and family.
Take TikTok, for example, which is algorithmic entertainment finessed to its logical extreme. Unlike Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, you don’t start by following multiple different accounts, and then consume their content. Instead, you simply start scrolling. One video after another. You can’t reject the ones you hate, but you can favourite the ones you like. Other than that, you’re pretty much hands-off, like one of the chair-bound entities in Wall-E zooming around with a screen perched directly in front of their faces.
The genius of the algorithm is that it’s very discreet. It’s tracking how long you watch each video, how rapidly you flick to the next video, whether you favourite it or send it to someone, and very quickly – without any mindful input from the user – you’ve got a customised feed of everything that fires off your brain’s dopamine cannons.
I was a TikTok holdout for a long time but my fiancée eventually persuaded me to join. Having joined, I’d try to discuss things I’d seen on the app – after all, this was an extra thing we had in common. But attempts to discuss any seemingly overwhelmingly popular trend have been met with a blank stare. Typically, she’s never seen it before. The song that reappears endlessly on my feed is utterly foreign to her; people who are genuine TikTok stars to me could walk past her in the street without a second glance.
Which leads us to the important reason as to why seemingly trivial viral stories are covered by the media. In an age where the person sitting next to you on the train is seeing an entirely different world through their social media apps, traditional media companies are one of the few places left on the web where people largely inhibit the same reality.
Whether you arrived at The Independent’s homepage due to your interest in the Middle East, or political interests, or our sports, lifestyle and culture coverage, you’re exposed to the same handpicked stories around which readers with entirely different interests congregate. You, temporarily, inhabit the same world as every other reader. You see stories that have been picked by editors, not algorithms.
A few of my news apps here in the US are now trying to provide “customised” homepages to readers. I hate it and think it’s a mistake. News sites and apps are one of the last bastions of shared culture.
Indy100 editor, US