As if it were able to bypass our natural cognitive pathways and send messages directly into our brains, TIKTOK’S ascent to being the most popular website on the internet has prompted countless theories regarding its stickiness. Critical assessments mostly attributed the platform’s success to its ostensibly all-powerful algorithm.

Eleanor Cummins and Rob Horning, two technology critics, for instance, broke down how people perceived the algorithm as a self-discovery tool—how it appeared to be “showing you who you’ve always been” and ensured a recommendation of the content it presented. Others have examined the algorithm’s cultural appeal, asserting that it fills a gap in modern spirituality by posing as a data-backed deity that interprets our swipes and likes in a manner similar to how ancient oracles did with our palms and stars. When considered collectively, these analyses identify mistaken faith in the algorithm as the main cause of our unique vulnerability to TikTok.

We have neglected a crucial aspect of TikTok’s operating logic because of our preoccupation with the algorithm—and the content it produces—which is the phone. A lack of thorough investigation of this device’s function in TikTok’s transmission capabilities has led to a restricted understanding of how the platform functions; after all, it’s not just content that influences how we receive information through a specific channel, but also the medium and context.

Consider the change from movies to television that took place in the middle of the 20th century and allowed moving images to enter our homes. This content, which was previously restricted to the theater, started to live alongside us. We watched it while we prepared for the day, ate supper, entertained guests, and spent time with family.

The fundamental mechanics of how we received, processed, and responded to moving pictures changed as a result of their removal from the gloomy, anonymous communes of the theater and placement in our homes, as noted by theorists like Marshall McLuhan. They took on a comfortable casualness as newly ingrained elements of our homes, which Heidegger acknowledges as being intricately linked to our experience of being in the world. According to Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl in the seminal work in which they coin the word, viewers are increasingly forming “parasocial” relationships with the people they see on these screens. Broadcasters now have the power to influence viewers on a more personal level since home audiences have come to regard these mass media characters as confidants and friends.

Our relationship with media has changed as it has invaded our homes and cellphones in the same way that it changed when media first entered our homes. TikTok has been able to establish itself as an extension of our minds thanks to these technologies, which are deeply ingrained into the ways that we think and process information. To free ourselves from the grip of the app, we must first comprehend how the mind functions in the era of the technological self.

Platforms used to aim to be universal, device-neutral distributors of material that would be available to everyone who might need it. Kyle Chayka points out that this gave businesses the opportunity to assure customers that they could “follow anyone or anyone” they choose on the website regardless of their nationality, identity, or class by using any device. In many ways, this reasoning is exemplified by Google’s purpose to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible.” Rarely have discussions centered on the intricacies of our interaction with these platforms—the tools utilized, the setting, or the materiality.

However, immanence is substituted for transcendence in the TikTok app. Google wants to open up the world to you, while TikTok claims to reveal your darkest secrets. While TikTok is a full-screen diary of your unmediated inner self, Youtube and Instagram’s user interfaces are hyper-mediated control panels (with screens within screens and links expanding outward) that enable you navigate the seas of content.

The “highly individualized” interactions we have with our cellphones, which Zane Burton describes as a major characteristic of these gadgets, are an important but frequently disregarded part of this effect. Contrary to Youtube, which can be viewed on a variety of devices (phones, TVs, laptops, and desktops), it is difficult to picture what it would be like to use TikTok on a different device. Although individual TikTok films can be shared on other platforms and viewed on laptops, the TikTok experience—interacting with its unique, never-ending, personalized montage—remains almost solely reliant on a mobile device. Our familiarity with the phone’s features is the foundation of this experience, which is based around everything from swiping to vertical video to full-screen display.

TikTok embeds itself within them, taking advantage of the fact that mobile technology restricts how users interact with material and leaning into these restrictions rather than seeing specificity and device limitations as an unpleasant barrier to omnipresence (e.g. the user only sees one video at a time and can only proceed linearly to the next video by swiping). Due to the audience’s complete attention being directed toward the current piece of content, a “flow state” might develop between the platform and the audience. This user-platform flow’s immediacy enables TikTok to skip the reflective processing involved in active watching.

The constant stream of curated short-form video and the compulsively mindless infinite scroll trample the space required for critical intervention and analysis. The video, a high-bandwidth medium that mixes text, images, music, and movement, is enhanced when it is presented in this constant succession, inundating the spectator with a barrage of data.

Since you go on to the next clip as soon as the previous one ends, you have little time to reflect on what you have just seen. Instead of having to engage with and analyze the media they are watching, the spectator is reduced to a consummate consumer on TikTok, where, according to Chayka, “you don’t have to think, only respond” because the site has already done the labor-intensive analysis and selection. The user feels entirely synchronized with the platform when everything is working as intended, as critics who wrote about algorithmic identity in the beginning first pointed out.

Furthermore, our close interactions with our cellphones create the foundation for the platform’s individualized experience. The success of media infrastructures, according to John Durham Peters, depends on what is kept “under the radar, below notice, or off stage.” TikTok hides its externality, the fact that it doesn’t actually know or think for us, by approaching us through these gadgets that we carry around and use to stay in touch with loved ones, remember birthdays, and preserve images and memories.

Using the anthropological technique of “breaching,” or purposefully deviating from a norm to make what is concealed visible, is one way to examine the effects of our phones. TikTok did this to itself when it sought to extend to TVs, leading one writer to wonder, “Is this still TikTok?” and come to the conclusion that when the app isn’t on our phones, “much of what makes the app unexpected and enjoyable is lost.”