TikTok, Tarot, and the Ripples of Destiny
Part 4 of this week's series on algorithms/analytics/prediction/divination . . . .
As readers of Exploration Project may have noticed, I’m not very cheerful about the Facebook/Instagram wing of social media, but I really love Twitter and YouTube. TikTok was never on my radar, one way or another—until I came across a story in Wired magazine.
This is yet another instance in which I feel woefully behind. “The Improbable Appeal of TikTok Tarot” was published well over a year ago, in October of 2020. But I’m just as glad I didn’t see it sooner, because I wouldn’t have had the right context in which to evaluate the story.
And after researching this week’s series, I’ve come back to TikTok Tarot with an expanded perspective.
First of all, here’s the subtitle or tagline of the article:
You’d think that having a reading delivered via machine algorithm would make it feel less useful or relevant. You’d think wrong.
To make it clear, the algorithms we’re talking about here are concerned with delivery, not predictions. So this is mostly different from the Berkeley experiment, in which participants knew their “Tarot reading” was being created by some algorithmic process.
It’s also different in the sense that TikTok readings are not personalized. TikTokers just watch videos of people doing Tarot readings “for the collective” or for whoever might be watching.
There is one common factor, though. The Berkeley participants didn’t know which algorithms were being used, and how they were being applied. You know, because I told you in yesterday’s story, but they only saw results of the process.
In the same fashion, the TikTok audience has no idea why they are being shown certain Tarot-related content—it just appears in their feed. And that’s where the magic comes in.
I’m not using the word “magic” loosely. And I’m not referencing the familiar Arthur Clarke aphorism: “any sufficiently advanced from of technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
No, I mean magic in what we might call (loosely) a supernatural sense.
Before I explain further, some notes on the popularity of TikTok Tarot. And that in itself is mind-boggling:
the hashtag “tarotreading” has 510.2 million views
the hashtag “tarot” has 1.8 billion views
the hashtag “WitchTok” has over 6 billion views, and
#WitchTok superstar Jenny Chang has 970,000 followers
I really am boggled—but I’m determined to make some sense of this. So determined that I read this interview in which Jenny Chang “talks about spirituality.” Here’s a quote:
People like me don’t put out content for anyone specific. We put out content because it’s our calling. We’re sending out messages and sending out what it is that’s going to help people get onto their path.
Clearly, TikTok Tarot is something completely different from anything I would think of as Tarot practice. But as much as I’m tempted to reject it—I’m also reminded that divination originally referred to ascertaining the will of the gods. So I don’t rule out that Jenny Chang and hundreds/thousands of other TikTok readers are tapping into messages from (let’s just say) other realms.
I see several problems with that hypothesis, which I won’t go into. But the more important thing is that many readers and viewers on TikTok do seem to believe that the algorithm itself brings specific messages to specific people who need to see them.
Here’s more from Wired:
Whenever Trevino [a TikTok reader] or his colleagues post a reading, it’s TikTok that delivers it to users’ feeds: The spirit in this spiritual practice is contained within an algorithm. That might seem to be a fatal flaw. What value or meaning could there be in having a reading done by some stranger at some arbitrary point in time, then passed into your personal feed according to the arcane logic of a social-media app?
Isn’t it central to the tarot experience that a person feels connected to the cards as they’re being read—that the reading is for them?
But the mysterious mechanics of the social platform have turned out to be a boon. We may not know exactly why a video shows up in our feed, but we know it isn’t strictly arbitrary. Each user’s For You page is distinct, as idiosyncratic as a fingerprint.
That algorithmic personalization serves to legitimize, in its way, the work and messaging of the spiritualists. “Nothing you see is by chance,” says Trevino, enunciating the belief on which his practice is based. “And even though a message may not resonate entirely, there's something in that message that you were meant to see.”
It’s certainly true that social media algorithms (including TikTok) are optimized to increase profits to the company. Period. But could they also be picking up on something the algorithm designers did not intend?
Is there some sort of dimensional intersection that connects human-made code with some other dimension of meaning? Are readers and seekers connected online by ripples of destiny?
I have no idea.
But TikTokers seem to believe something along those lines.
The [TikTok] algorithm ranks videos according to where you’re located, and how likely you might be to interact with it based on all the other videos that you’ve commented on, liked, favorited, or even just watched to the end.
That algorithmic personalization serves to legitimize, in its way, the work and messaging of the spiritualists. “Nothing you see is by chance,” says Trevino, enunciating the belief on which his practice is based.
Chance. Fortune. Destiny. Fate.
Personally, I’m fascinated by the idea that fortune will take advantage of any open system—and since I know how programs get designed and coded, it’s all the more interesting.
By the end of thinking about this, I’ve decided that the basic concept of Tarot on TikTok seems to be: “if you see something, you were meant to see it.” And once you think you were meant (destined) to see something, you will naturally tend to believe it’s relevant to your life.
That seems problematic to me—especially when the effect is being perpetuated on a very large scale. But it illuminates the continuing theme of this week’s series: what happens when computer algorithms affect, augment, obscure, or replace the practice of divination.
If you wondered why there’s no “Lighter Note” in today’s post, it’s because January 27 is this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day. As a small commemoration, I published an overview of Art Spiegelman’s brilliant graphic novel Maus.
As always, thanks for reading. C