The TikTok of Anthropology
By alex.clegg, on 17 March 2022
Author: Daniel Miller
I want to make a slightly surprising suggestion. That my current ambition in anthropology is to become more like TikTok (or its original Chinese form Douyin). Because TikTok captures something that is central to the ethos of anthropology as a discipline. Currently the ASSA project is developing an approach called Smart-From-Below. The premise of this stance is that smartphones are cresting a wave that consists of a historical shift of creativity back to ordinary people. Enabled by its extraordinary capacities anybody can come up with a significant and helpful use of their smartphones in, for example, helping develop heath care or organising information. The idea of smart-from-below is that the anthropologist learns from observing these and then re-packages them in order to make these creative ideas available to everyone else. The 150-page manual we have published by Marilia Duque on our website about how you can use WhatsApp for health is an example of this approach. You can download the manual here.
Eugene Wei has recently written three fascinating blogs about the algorithm behind TikTok of which the most relevant is available here. The two previous blogs demonstrate how the company ByteDance developed an extraordinarily successful algorithm that watches you as you watch TikTok. It quickly learns from this your preferences and feeds you more and more of what you evidently like to watch. I am particularly interested because I also have a PhD student Ken Zheng who has just competed nearly a year working as an intern in ByteDance for her PhD studies. The third blog is not about the algorithm but about how easy it is for anyone to make TikTok videos. In the tradition developed as sampling culture in music, much of this riffs off and comments on prior videos circulating on TikTok. There was a profound book The Signifying Monkey by Henry Lewis Gates Jnr that argued for the origins of this kind of cultural practice in jazz and before that in particular African cultural systems.
What this means is that ByteDance doesn’t really need to know anything about its users or their content. All that matters is that it developed the best current system for allowing peer to peer cultural sharing and trajectories of creative development. In other words, allowing people to observe and learn from each other, rather than trying to impose or develop content itself. At this point the analogy between TikTok and Smart-From-Below should be clear. Anthropology has never been that concerned with telling people what to do, or creating their `content’. Rather it stems from our appreciation of what people themselves creatively develop as cultural forms and practices, and then letting other people learn from that. It is not the only thing we do, but one of our primary contributions is in facilitating peer-to-peer cultural learning. I would like to do this more effectively in the future. In other words, at least for this purpose, I would like to become more like TikTok.
On re-reading my own post I decided it required a short caveat just to prevent any misunderstanding. I am only suggesting we might become more like TikTok in relation to peer-to-peer communication. I fully recognise that there are all sorts of other aspects of TikTok, whether its potential for superficiality or misinformation that of course, I have not the slightest desire to emulate.