The Washington PostThe Washington Post

How TikTok ate the internet

By Drew Harwell

14 Oct 2022 · 13 min read

Editor's Note

TikTok was once written off as a “silly dance-video fad.” Now, it has an unrivaled grasp on our culture and stokes conflict between superpowers. The Washington Post tracks the app’s spectacular rise.

On the night Shelby Renae first went viral on TikTok, she felt so giddy she could barely sleep. She'd spent the evening painting her nails, refreshing her phone between each finger - 20,000 views; 40,000 - and by the next morning, after her video crossed 3 million views, she decided it had changed her life.

She didn't really understand why it had done so well. The 16-second clip of her playing the video game "Fortnite" was funny, she thought - but not, like, millions-of-views funny. She wasn't a celebrity: She grew up in Idaho; her last job was at a pizza shop. But this was just how the world's most popular app worked. TikTok's algorithm had made her a star.

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