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TikTok as a Primary Source

by on November 29, 2021

In the last year of events, namely police protests and marches for Black Lives Matter, individuals were using TikTok to record newsworthy events. Watching these events unfold on this social platform site, then seeing them broadcast on news outlets across the country brought me to a conclusion. Social media is making a big impact on history and historical events, so why aren’t we thinking of using TikTok as a vehicle to document said historical events?

Social media platforms like Facebook have been accused of pushing controversial websites whereas others, such as Instagram, use images to advertise. A 2015 study by Kümpel, Karnowski and Keyling, stated that social media are being researched by scholars from different fields, as they affect and influence society in general, like interpersonal relations, civic engagement and news distribution and consumption”[1]. TikTok differs from what these other social media platforms set out to achieve because its main objective is not to influence, instead, its goal is to gain viewership. Since TikTok appeals to a varied demographic of people, it befits librarians and researchers to use it to document primary sources.

The Library of Congress states, “Primary sources are the raw materials of history — original documents and objects that were created at the time under study”[2]. TikTok has an advantage over other forms of primary sources like diaries and photographs because its main resource can be viewed instantly after documenting a current event. Although TikTok has a great advantage of documenting live action, its does come with caveats. Videos disappear because of individual accounts that violate community guidelines. Some of these reasons are inappropriate content, inciting violence, bullying, sexually explicit content, and hateful behavior.[3]

Its inherent simplicity is what makes the application universal as well. TikTok is a simple application that is focused around the device’s video capabilities. The app is configured using its camera as the focal point and purpose, therein making it the ideal tool for documenting current events. TikTok “is what Neil Postman would have called a metamedium: a medium that contains all other media—text, images, sounds, videos.”[4] Does this sound familiar? One would hope so. Marshall McLuhan’s theory of the medium is the message can also be applied where he writes in in his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, “This fact, characteristic of all media, means that the “content” of any medium is always another medium.” These different mediums also contribute to their suitability for documenting primary sources, whether it be similar to oral histories or finding aids, technology has its foundation in original documentation. 

Although TikTok is accessible and intuitive for the end user, it utilizes complex technological, and computational processes such as algorithms in its back-end design. Algorithms are a mathematical tool used in social media applications that guide the user to individual preferences based on their personal, viewing interests. Past publications have indicated we can utilize the idea of the algorithm to avoid hate speech and offensive behavior on social media platforms.[5] Moving forward, it can also behoove us to use the algorithm in a constructive, research-based approach to utilize TikTok as a primary source. This is possible because TikTok is formatted for searching video clips using natural language but in a controlled manner, much like a thesaurus. TikTok uses hashtags to index its video clips. Knowing our library theories, we understand this is born from the idea of the folksonomy in library sciences (also similar in the method where YouTube first utilized hash tagging as source of accessibility). The only difference is TikTok end users are using natural language in the way a thesaurus has predefined its controlled vocabulary; the end user is defining the controlled vocabulary during the creation of the primary resource.

Other library searching techniques are exploited in TikTok if we investigate further. Uploaded videos are searched using a controlled, formatted vocabulary, validating that searching techniques in TikTok are indexed in a comparable way to library management systems. This is also similar to using federated searches in databases and keyword and subject searching in OPACs (Online Public Access Catalogs).

Paper archives and institutional repositories have generally been the main avenue to accessing primary resources, but online genealogy websites have made research more accessible and less intimidating. With a younger generation that is digitally oriented (and some might say digitally handicapped), researching family histories is exciting again. Social media and phone applications are revolutionizing how people relate to their family histories. The MyHeritage application, Deep Nostalgia, animates photos using “D-ID, a company specializing in video reenactment using deep learning.”[6] (https://www.myheritage.com/deep-nostalgia, FAQs). Deep Nostalgia enables its users to make their family photographs more relatable by giving them creative autonomy. In an exceedingly disconnected, digital world, applications like Deep Nostalgia have found a way to connect the past with the present.

If we look deeper, we discover we are unknowingly using TikTok as a primary source of current events. This begs the question, what can we gain if we look at this social media site as an untapped resource for primary sources? This resource can be a conduit of information for archives in a similar sense of what digital humanities did for the scholarship of history and literature, and we librarians can be on the forefront of this information revolution.

Bibliography

Kumpel, Anna Sophie, Karnowskit, Veronika and Keyling, Till. “News Sharing in Social Media: A Review of Current Research on News Sharing Users, Content, and Networks.” Social Media + Society 1, no. 2 (October 2015): 1-14. DOI:10.1177/2056305115610141

Library of Congress, Getting Started with Primary Sources, https://www.loc.gov/programs/teachers/getting-started-with-primary-sources/.

MyHeritage.com, FAQs, https://www.myheritage.com/deep-nostalgia.

Onan, Aytug “On the Performance of Classifiers and Feature Sets for Identification of Offensive and Hateful Language on Social Media.” Proceedings of IAC 2021 in Vienna, 162-170.

TikTok Community Guidelines, Platform Security,

https://www.tiktok.com/community-guidelines?lang=en#40.

Vaidhyanathan, Siva. “Making Sense of the Facebook Menace.” New Republic, January/February 2021, 22-27.

References

[1] Anna Sophie Kumpel, Veronika Karnowskit, and Till Keyling, “News Sharing in Social Media: A Review of Current Research on News Sharing Users, Content, and Networks,” Social Media + Society 1, no. 2 (October 2015): 1-14. DOI:10.1177/2056305115610141

[2] Library of Congress, Getting Started with Primary Sources, https://www.loc.gov/programs/teachers/getting-started-with-primary-sources/.

[3] TikTok Community Guidelines, Platform Security, https://www.tiktok.com/community-guidelines?lang=en#40.

[4] Siva Vaidhyanathan, “Making Sense of the Facebook Menace,” New Republic, January/February 2021, 24.

[5] Aytug Onan, “On the Performance of Classifiers and Feature Sets for Identification of Offensive and Hateful Language on Social Media,” Proceedings of IAC 2021 in Vienna, 162.

[6] MyHeritage.com, FAQs, https://www.myheritage.com/deep-nostalgia.


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